Sale of Church Upsets Congregants

Times Staff Writer

The pending $1.1-million sale of a historic Chinese church on Los Angeles’ Eastside has sparked an emotional dispute between a group of Cantonese-speaking Presbyterians and the denomination’s regional governing body.

The Presbytery of San Gabriel wants to sell the church on Griffin Avenue in Lincoln Heights to a 300-member Korean immigrant Presbyterian congregation currently in South Los Angeles.

But leaders of the Chinese congregation, which has roots going back 126 years, say the sale would destroy a religious mission that remains important for the area’s Chinese population.

In a clash of divergent world perspectives, both sides are, in effect, accusing the other of being out of touch.


“They have no compassion for what we are doing,” said Irvin Lai, a leader of the Lincoln Heights Neighborhood Ministry, which is made up mostly of low-income immigrants who worship at the old True Light Chinese Presbyterian Church building.

Lai, an elder and member of the church since 1958, said the presbytery’s decision puts financial considerations above “saving souls for the Lord.”

Those opposing the sale consider the Lincoln Heights site “holy ground” because in many cases their loved ones were baptized and married there and remembered at the church when they died.

Leaders of the presbytery, by contrast, say they intend to continue the mission, but at a more affordable location.

The current church is “too much building for what’s going on,” said the Rev. Thomas G. Rennard, top regional administrator for the body, which governs 45 congregations of the Presbyterian Church USA in northeastern Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley and surrounding areas. The presbytery, composed of 180 ministers and 180 elders, decided after a “rigorous debate” to sell the property, said Rennard.

The ministry is a gathering place for children who have nowhere to go after school, students needing help with their homework, Americanized Chinese teenagers alienated from their immigrant parents, men and women looking for jobs, families in need of a translator for a medical appointment, recent immigrants learning English as a second language, and seniors who do aerobics.

One day this week, for example, Christina Marfoe, the ministry’s full-time volunteer, made three trips to the County-USC Medical Center on behalf of a woman with glaucoma, helped a Cantonese-speaking man deal with the county bureaucracy over a jury summons, delivered medication to a family in Lincoln Heights, then counseled and prayed with a depressed teenager until after midnight.

“That’s how we show Jesus’ love,” Marfoe said. “We are his instruments.”


Steve Lee, the neighborhood ministry’s only paid staff member, spent the week tutoring students -- an average of 20 a day.

“If I can make a difference in one kid’s life and turn him on to learning, and if I can help him discover the joy of learning, then I’ve done what God has called me to do here,” said Lee, 25, who has undergraduate degrees in political science and philosophy from UC Berkeley and a master’s degree in philosophy from Talbot Theological Seminary.

He also coordinates the ministry’s classes in Chinese, English as a second language, and aerobics for seniors.

But Rennard and the Rev. Peter Lai (no relation to Elder Lai) said the Lincoln Heights group hasn’t been successful. Peter Lai is the pastor of Alhambra True Light Presbyterian Church, which was established in 1996 by the merger of True Light with another, predominately white, congregation in Alhambra.


“The ministry is not growing,” he said.

At least some outside observers agree that the mission work should be broadened to be successful in a neighborhood whose population is now far more Latino than Chinese. According to the 2000 Census, 6,760 Chinese and 26,435 Latinos live in the area where the church is located.

“There is certainly a need to work for the poor, those on the margins of society, but it would mean that the Cantonese congregation in Lincoln Heights would have to reach out to the Hispanics in that community,” said the Rev. Michael Mata, professor of urban ministries at Claremont School of Theology, who is familiar with the church and the controversy.

The situation is complicated because of the historic and emotional ties that the larger Cantonese community has to the Lincoln Heights building, Mata said. The Cantonese dominated Los Angeles’ Chinatown until the influx of ethnic Chinese immigrants from other parts of Asia since the 1980s diversified the population.


“Losing the facility conjures up all kinds of feelings,” Mata said.

Founded in 1876 as Chinese Presbyterian Church by the Rev. Ira M. Condit, a former missionary to China, True Light’s history is synonymous with the history of the Chinese in Los Angeles.

Condit began the ministry with children whose parents worked in Chinatown’s laundries, produce markets and restaurants. The parents were delighted to send their youngsters to Condit for free tutoring and baby-sitting.

“Little did they realize that God was at work to use those opportunities as a way to grow a Chinese Presbyterian Church,” Pastor Lai said. “When those children grew up and became Christians, they became the leaders of the church, and through their witness and influence, many of their parents were led to Christ,” he wrote in a booklet on the history of the church.


Ian Evison, project director at the Alban Institute, a nondenominational think tank in Bethesda, Md., said transfers of ethnic churches from older immigrant communities to newer arrivals from different ethnic groups are common.

“The trend of congregations moving between ethnic groups is particularly strong in the Presbyterian church,” he said.

Church mergers also are prevalent in the denomination, which numbered 2.5 million nationwide in 2001 and is losing an average of 30,000 members a year.

The rapid decline of membership among mainline Protestant denominations has forced churches to “rationalize” their properties and expenses, said Edmund Gibbs, professor of practical theology at Fuller Theological Seminary’s School of World Missions and an authority on church growth and renewal.


He said urban ministry is “particularly tough” for such mainline denominations as Presbyterian churches, because “they are bookish in their culture” and often fit better in suburban areas.

By contrast, “we are not a church where people drive Mercedes,” Elder Lai said. “We are operating a church fellowship group where people come with sandals on their feet.”

Well-prepared and well-delivered sermons, prized by middle-class Presbyterian congregations, don’t work in his ministry, he said.

“They don’t understand theology. We are missionaries. We make it simple: ‘Jesus loves you and he gives you salvation. I am your friend, just like Jesus Christ is.’ ”


In most churches, refreshments follow an 11 a.m. worship. But with Elder Lai’s group, a snack of Chinese noodles and Winchell’s doughnuts preceded a recent Sunday service. When Lai announced the sale, adults and youngsters alike cried.

The presbytery “didn’t have the perspective of what we think,” said a tearful Carmen Ng, 14, a ninth-grader at nearby Bravo High school. “This is my second home,” she said. “I’ve been coming here since I was in preschool.”

But Florence Shao, an elderly congregant who has been coming to the church for three years, was more resigned.

“I don’t think we have any say,” she said. “I’m sad about it, but I don’t think we have any choice.”