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As part of Black History month coverage, the Episcopal News offers a snapshot of six congregations in the diocese that for at least some portion of their lives have been regarded as predominantly African American.

In many ways, their histories often mirror shifting demographics and changing times and reflect a strong legacy of commitment to community involvement, social action and care for others.

This week we begin with the two oldest such congregations: St. John’s ProCathedral, Los Angeles, and Church of the Holy Faith, Inglewood.

St. John’s: ‘a crazy quilt’ of diversity

Over time the oldest of the six, St. John’s ProCathedral (organized as a mission in 1890) morphed from being the “premiere” church of the rich and famous like the Dohenys to a 1950s-1960s predominantly black congregation with primarily African Americans, Belizeans and whites, to what the Very Rev. Mark Kowalewski now calls “a crazy quilt, sort of a rainbow image of the Kingdom of God.”

He acknowledged “a time that, if black folks turned up at St. John’s they were often told they would be more comfortable to go to the church down the street,” meaning to the Church of the Advent or St. Philip’s. But, his goal is to be “an intentionally cross-cultural, multicultural place, which is really hard work.”

St. John’s locked the church doors to protest U.S. government involvement in overseas wars from the 1950s through the Iraq War, under then-rector, the Rev. Canon Warner Traynham. He also founded the Carter House, a 20-unit dwelling for the homeless mentally ill, in the tradition of the St. John’s Well Child Clinic (//www.wellchild.org), “long-term successes of our ministry here that have matured and gone off to be their own thing,” Kowalewski said.

Many other ministries have included: outreach to the LGBT community, especially during the AIDS crisis; a food bank that feeds 130-plus households twice monthly; anti-gun control activism; hosting a roving medical education and referral program, as well as a prospective partnership with the diocesan Seeds of Hope initiative.

Currently, St. John’s has an average Sunday attendance of about 210 and members who are African American, white, and from Belize, Panama, Guyana and other Latin American countries, as well as Latino, Asian, LGBT and from “USC undergrads all the way up to a 96-year-old … from the homeless guy who is a faithful attender to the director of communications from the Getty Center,” according to Kowalewski. He hopes that the congregation continues to “look more like the city of Los Angeles.

“We’re pretty diverse,” he says, “and we’re hoping that diversity continues to grow.”

Think Holy Faith, Inglewood; think activism

A challenge faced by the Rev. Altagracia Perez, rector of the Church of the Holy Faith in Inglewood, “is constructing an inclusive identity that can somehow both be affirming to the various cultures that are present and reflective of it in worship, practice and ministry.”

The church rapidly outgrew initial 1911 organizational meetings in an Inglewood home, moved to the local Masonic Hall and consecrated its first building three years later. By the 1950s membership had soared to some 1,200 families as the Centinela Valley area changed from a farming community to a center of the newly created aerospace industry.

By the late 1960s, the population had shifted and the congregation included African Americans and Latinos —  and activism, with efforts to integrate the Inglewood schools.

That activism continues today in a big way. The Inglewood parish is the birthplace of the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, the Jubilee Consortium, a network of service and outreach organizations, the Alternatives to Violence Project, and the Keep it Real youth program.

Perez, a well-known leader of the coalition to defeat Wal-Mart’s bid to open a Supercenter in Inglewood, said at least one-third of the congregation is actively involved in social justice campaigns including: the fight to reinstate Hollywood Park Casino workers; the Inglewood Car Wash Campaign; living wage and anti-violence campaigns. Other parishioners are tracking death penalty legislation and another third are involved in civic programs that provide youth scholarships and senior groups that are tracking senior rights issues. “It’s a pretty activist congregation,” says Perez.

Now, with average Sunday attendance of about 100 and parishioners who are white, Latino, African American, Caribbean and Central American, and African, the challenge is “how do we make church relevant for this century and the people that have no church experience, as opposed to just making it comfortable and good for the people that are already here or that come because they already like the things we like?” asks Perez.

“Because, the truth is, Jesus was very clear, that if you want to gain your life, you have to lose your life. If we were willing to take that risk, and take the way of the cross, lose who we think we are and what that looks like and what that’s about, we would gain our lives … people would begin to be part of our communities in a new and dynamic way.”