As downtown revives, so do congregations

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The congregation at New City Church of Los Angeles -- downtown's newest house of worship -- is a microcosm of the burgeoning downtown itself.

The parishioners, who gathered for a recent service improvised in an Italian restaurant near Walt Disney Concert Hall, included some local loft dwellers.

About two dozen adults -- some with squirming toddlers in tow -- spent half an hour visiting with one another over yogurt and fresh fruit before the Sunday morning worship. They were white and black, Asian and Latino, well-to-do and down and out.

"If I am not living with God being first in my life, I am going to end up pushing a cart," said Jason Johnson, a Union Rescue Mission resident who is enrolled in a program to get back on his feet. He is fortunate, he said, to have a welcoming church within walking distance.

"I want to be here," said Booyeon Lee Allen, a reporter for the Los Angeles Business Journal who is an active church member along with her husband, Aric, an online marketing manager at Transamerica Insurance Co. "It's so exciting," she said, to be part of a diverse group who "can get along, pray together and be involved in each other's lives."

New City is one of the more visible signs of downtown's resurgence as a spiritual center since the 2002 opening of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels.

Just in the last 24 months, four congregations have started -- three of them led by second-generation Korean American pastors. The emergence of new houses of worship reflects the general growth of downtown; city planners say the area's population has doubled over the last decade to 34,000 residents.

By summer, Rabbi Moshe Greenwald is expected to open the Jewish Community Center Chabad of Downtown Los Angeles in a loft currently under construction. "It will be the first permanent synagogue in downtown in more than 60 years," he said.

Estimating that thousands of Jews work downtown, Greenwald added: "If you can't bring the Jew to the synagogue, then you have to bring the synagogue to the Jew."

Pastors of old churches in the area, which experienced a steady decline in members since the 1970s, are seeing a reversal. "This is a very exciting time," said the Rev. Mark Nakagawa, senior pastor of Centenary United Methodist Church in Little Tokyo.

Once a week on average, he hears from pastors looking for rental space, he said.

The Rev. Sandie Richards, pastor of First United Methodist Church of Los Angeles -- one of the city's oldest Protestant congregations, founded in 1854 -- says she is very thankful that church leaders had the foresight to remain in downtown.

"Now downtown is on the rise; we are also, which is nice after many years of holding the fort," Richards said.

Once a 5,000-member congregation, the church dwindled to fewer than 50 Sunday worshipers. But it stuck to the motto "Downtown for good" and became a pioneer in developing affordable housing, she said. The church is negotiating to build a mixed-use facility, which would include a new sanctuary, at Olympic Boulevard and South Flower Street.

New City started holding public services Feb. 10 in the Italian restaurant. A nondenominational church with a contemporary worship style -- the Rev. Kevin Haah doubles as the church drummer -- New City just started renting space in another restaurant on 3rd Street in the Arts District. The church will mark its official opening Easter Sunday.

New City's goal is to be a community that "reflects Jesus' love and repeats his actions," said Leo Poveda, who teaches Sunday school.

"At New City, we judge no one, because . . . we're more flawed and broken than we know -- yet more loved and accepted by God through Jesus Christ than we ever thought possible," said Haah, a 42-year-old Ivy League-educated attorney who gave up his partnership in a prestigious law firm to go into ministry. "We are a community of sinners living in God's grace."

Before founding New City, Haah was a pastor at Youngnak Presbyterian Church of Los Angeles. He did English-language ministry for the second-generation Korean Americans and their non-Korean spouses and friends. Youngnak commissioned Haah to start New City, but it is independent.

Veterinarian David Forster and his wife, Janet, and their two young children followed Haah from Youngnak, as have several others.

New City's approach is innovative. At a recent service, members talked about "doing life together." After the pastor's sermon, they broke into small groups to discuss the talk.

"It's relational; you actually get to know people," said Jude Tiersma Watson, a seminary professor and urban missionary. She especially liked the small group discussion.

Farther to the south, St. John's Cathedral, an Episcopal congregation on West Adams Boulevard, also is enthusiastic about the resurgence of the central city.

With its traditional liturgy, combined with progressive politics and evangelism, the church has grown by more than 25% since 2006.

With the recent dedication of the church as the cathedral for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, St. John's has become a "house of prayer for all people."

"What we are trying to model is worship of the ancient church with a modern sensibility, where everybody who is here is not just consuming but are active participants," said the Rev. Daniel Ade, the church liturgist. "We live in a time when people are alienated. They want to make a relationship with people who are gathered around the sacred story."

The Rev. Mark Kowalewski, dean of St. John's, said the cathedral is well situated to engage the intellectual community of USC to the south of the cathedral and people moving into downtown to the north.

"I think it is very exciting for the church to be a conversation partner," he said.

"The next great jump for Christian congregations is not only multiculturalism, but multiclass relationship," Kowalewski said, noting that sometimes class distinctions can be bigger barriers than race or ethnicity.

"We believe Jesus Christ can transform lives," Kowalewski said. "Christianity is not about the role secularization has given it: 'You just take care of people's individual spiritual needs over there.' Christianity has to be a partner in all the various areas of the life of the city."


Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World