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.
The News continues this week with the Church of Christ the Good Shepherd and the Church of the Advent, both in Los Angeles.
Christ the Good Shepherd: ‘reaching out, opening doors, welcoming all’
For the Rev. Joseph Oloimooja, Christ the Good Shepherd’s mission is self-evident: “to shepherd the community around us.”
Christ the Good Shepherd was born of the union of three mission congregations: St. Andrew’s, founded in 1906; Good Shepherd Church (1912); and Christ Chapel, a mission of St. James’, Wilshire (Los Angeles), at 54th and Crenshaw. The cornerstone of their new church building at Eleventh Avenue and Vernon was dedicated Nov. 29, 1959.
Designated a Jubilee Ministry Center in 1986 by the Episcopal Church, Good Shepherd was one of the first central-city parishes to help develop housing for active seniors: the Good Shepherd Manor (1971); the Good Shepherd Center for Independent Living (1983), which offered a range of services for the disabled; the Good Shepherd Hospice (1983), the first parish-based hospice center in the country serving people of color; the Good Shepherd Homes (1985), the first apartment complex in the Los Angeles area specifically designed for the disabled; and New Venture Youth Enterprises (1982), offering resources to South Central Los Angeles youth. New Venture was a founding member of the South Central Organizing Committee, a grassroots organization dedicated to bringing about social change.
A 1988 Los Angeles Times article quoted parishioner Percia Hutcherson describing how a predominantly white Good Shepherd congregations gradually integrated, then became a predominantly black congregation with a penchant for activism.
In addition to African Americans, the congregation includes members from Jamaica, Belize, Panama, Kenya and Uganda. Oloimooja, who has been rector for three years, said that this diversity is celebrated with a big party each year.
The congregation also celebrated in December 2013 while “burning the mortgage” after it was paid off, he said.
Shepherding the community, at least for now, includes offering space for 12-step programs and a Congolese congregation that worships on Sunday, and feeding some 150 people each month via the food pantry.
“Christ the Good Shepherd prides itself in giving back to the community, always reaching out, opening its doors, as a welcoming place of worship,” he said.
Church of the Advent: Partner with the community
The 1994 Northridge earthquake destroyed the Church of the Advent’s stained glass windows, but the Rev. Vanessa Mackenzie, rector, realized that the disaster had a silver lining: an opportunity for the replacements to convey the congregation’s reality.
“We replaced them a few at a time,” Mackenzie said during a recent telephone interview with The Episcopal News. “We have the Black Madonna, Bishop Chet [Talton], Bishop Barbara [Harris] and Martin Luther King Jr. When we replaced them, we really wanted them to reflect who we are and also the historical reality of which we are a part.”
As with some other congregations, the rich and famous have been no strangers to Advent, which was founded in 1921. The church was built in 1925 and achieved parish status in 1946, the year actress Jennifer Jones, who was married to industrialist Norton Simon, sold them a two-story, 13-room house for a dollar; it became the rectory. Famous crooner Nat King Cole sang in the church choir, Mackenzie said.
By 1946 population shifts were evident, and “by the time [the Rev. Canon] Lou Bohler came in 1961, it (the church) became completely black,” she said.
A priority for the congregation has been to partner with the community “because we’ve got to think that we don’t exist on our own in that little corner,” Mackenzie said.
Today, with a focus on health and fitness issues, Advent’s educational classes target populations at risk for obesity, diabetes and high blood pressure and stroke. Financial education and outreach tends to focus on school supplies for children at Hillsides and to prisoners and their families through organizations like Angel Tree.
The church also partners with the South Central Health and Rehabilitation Program through food and clothing drives and yearly offers scholarships to graduating high school seniors as “an investment in the future of our children,” Mackenzie said.
Diversity is celebrated, she added. The African-American experience varies throughout the United States as well as among those from Jamaica, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, and Africa. “We may be mono-racial but we are multicultural; even within the United States there are diverse experiences,” said Mackenzie, who is a native of South Africa.
“Different doesn’t mean better, or worse. Sometimes, people don’t want to talk about the differences because they think the differences will separate us. If we’re different in human barriers, when it comes to Christ we are the same.”