A Little Tokyo church finds the answer to its prayers

For decades, Union Church of Los Angeles attracted overflow Sunday crowds with its blend of Japanese culture and Christian faith.

In recent years, however, many who once filled the pews at the cinder block church in Little Tokyo have moved to the suburbs, leaving a core of aging congregants searching for a solution.

Now, the faithful may have found their answer in a partnership with one of Los Angeles' most prosperous congregations, Bel Air Presbyterian, which once counted former President Reagan among its members.

Bel Air's rescue plan is simple: Use high-energy worship services, complete with ear-thumping Christian rock music, to help Union Church attract the young professionals who populate downtown's lofts and condos.

If successful, the strategy, which also includes financial support from the Bel Air congregation, could be a model for other churches struggling to survive in the midst of demographic change. And it may finally resolve a concern that has weighed for years on 79-year-old Yemiko Endo: "What will happen when we're gone?" she asked.

"We have to join hands and reach out," said Endo, a member of the Little Tokyo church for more than half a century. "Otherwise, we're going to die a slow death."

Yet the fledgling alliance with Bel Air is bittersweet for some of Union Church's graying members. As the church adapts and changes, they worry that it may lose its identity as a longtime fixture for Los Angeles' Japanese American community.

"It's a struggle between the old and the new," said Jim Furuya, 80, who has been going to Union Church for 50 years. "There is tension there."

In five months of worshiping together, however, both sets of church members say they have been surprised and encouraged by their growing cultural fusion -- of old and young, urban and suburban, East and West. Many who might never have crossed paths in the anonymity of Los Angeles say they have found themselves bonding over faith, family and the future.

"While we don't worship God in the same languages all the time, it's still the same God," said Laura Rasmussen, 34, a Bel Air staffer who is taking part in the partnership with Union Church. "It makes it even richer coming from different perspectives."

Still, there are challenges.

"The music is a little loud," said Betty Akagi, 72, cupping one of her ears during a recent Sunday service as Bel Air's band cranked another tune and biblical verses from the books of Isaiah and Romans were projected onto a large screen at the front of the sanctuary. "I can overlook that. It's very Christ-centered."

Akagi is among those at Union Church who see divine intervention in the arrival of the Bel Air newcomers. "I believe God sent them here," she said.

There was a time when such intermingling might have been inconceivable.

For 91 years, Union Church has served as a religious and cultural home to its Japanese American patrons -- in good times and bad. In 1942, for example, community members had to gather at its original site a couple of blocks away to embark on their journeys to World War II internment camps.

At its height, in the late 1970s and '80s, Union was packed each Sunday with about 350 people, including many children and young adults.

But the forces of assimilation and gentrification have taken their toll, with only about 120 total attending separate English and Japanese services on a recent Sunday. Most of them came from communities outside Little Tokyo, including Monterey Park, Torrance and the San Fernando Valley.

It was this steady decline that drove Union's interim pastor, the Rev. Masaya Hibino, to seek the Bel Air partnership.

Hibino was attending a meeting of leaders at the Bel Air church in 2007 when he heard its senior pastor, the Rev. Mark Brewer, describe his vision of turning Los Angeles into "the greatest city for Christ" by, among other steps, connecting churches with one another.

Soon after, Hibino approached one of Bel Air's other pastors, the Rev. Enock De Assis, and broached the idea of an association.

"I could not see a bright future . . . if I didn't do something," said Hibino, 78. "I said, 'We need to change our church to reach out to the people who move into this area. We need to do something to come [up] with [a] new kind of worship.' "

Last October, the two congregations inaugurated joint monthly Sunday night services at Union that are known as "The Bridge."

Encouraged by the budding relationship, leaders from both churches are pressing ahead with plans to go weekly, starting after Easter.

Brewer and two other Bel Air pastors -- the Rev. Roger Dermody and De Assis -- believe they can woo downtown's thirtysomething crowd by arranging children's programs and low-cost child care at Union during the week and by inviting local residents to hear the church band play at an open-air plaza next door. They see an opportunity to bring together the area's young professionals and Japanese residents, as well as the homeless of nearby skid row.

Bel Air is picking up most of the $150,000 cost to upgrade the Union Church sanctuary with new lighting plus audio and video equipment; Union Church has agreed to kick in $15,000.

Bel Air is also recruiting its members to attend services at the downtown site, a step that will help alleviate overcrowding at Bel Air's sprawling Mulholland Drive compound, which attracts 3,000 congregants every Sunday.

Hoping to quell fears of a takeover, Brewer and his fellow pastors emphasize that they envision Union Church as its own unique entity and not as a downtown satellite for their church.

"We respect who they are," Brewer said. "We're not trying to change them. We're trying to add. We're very careful to make sure it's a partnership."

Brewer and others from his church point out that the two congregations, which seem different at first blush, share a focus on evangelism.

Union Church members say they hope the arrival of younger people from Bel Air will allow them to reach beyond their doors, something they have long wanted to do.

The two groups took another step toward that goal in February, coming together for the 6 p.m. Sunday service. The crowd was thin -- about 30 people from the Bel Air church and 20 from Union -- the result of competing with the Academy Awards ceremony, church leaders said.

But the atmosphere in the sanctuary was upbeat as the band played and young and old prayed next to one another.

Bel Air's Dermody, 46, led most of the service. Toward the end, he and Hibino ascended the stage together.

"This evening we come . . . to be reminded that we link arms with two churches," Dermody told the gathering. "God created us to be in relationship."

Hibino, nearly twice Dermody's age, stood quietly as the younger pastor spoke into a microphone.

Dermody finished speaking, then held the microphone for Hibino, as the gray-haired pastor offered his own blessing for their partnership.

"Father," Hibino prayed, "we thank you for this opportunity to gather together."

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duke.helfand@latimes.com

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