Cover Story
GOOD NEWS: New City Church
Greg Schneider/Genesis
GOOD NEWS: New City Church

L.A. grace

Cities | A spiritual renaissance comes to downtown Los Angeles

Issue: "The new urban frontier," March 9, 2013

LOS ANGELES—On an early Sunday morning in downtown Los Angeles, young women in slinky dresses stumble out of nightclubs. Several hours later, other young women in sundresses walk to church, Bibles in hand.

For more than 70 years, a sign capitalizing “Jesus Saves” has been flashing its evangelical message. But for a good chunk of those decades, they were two silent words without a home. Churches have been trickling out of downtown since the mid-1950s, joining their congregants on an exodus out into the suburbs. 

The reverse has been happening over the last 10 years. Downtown, once a strictly 8-to-5-weekday ghost town, has been surging back to life. Ever since the city passed the adaptive reuse ordinance that allowed developers to revamp vacant buildings into luxury lofts and commercial buildings, downtown has become a destination not just for foodies and night revelers, but also for potential residents. Since 1999 the number of downtown residents—then 18,000—has tripled.

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Boutiques, restaurants and bars are filling up the once-empty buildings and streets, and churches such as New City Church on Spring Street are trying to fill a spiritual void. At least two-thirds of the about 400 or so New City members are downtown residents. Half of those are loft dwellers. The others come from skid row—a dense strip of poverty, social services, and the highest concentration of chronically homeless people in the nation. Whites, Latinos, blacks, and Asians each make up about one-fourth of the congregation. 

Kevin Haah’s idea for a downtown parish church grew in tandem with downtown’s residential boom. He had been leading Love LA, his former church’s outreach ministry to the skid row community. He became troubled by a survey of 300 skid row residents that revealed they considered the Sunday afternoon worship and food distribution to be a church: “We were taking these people to what looks like a church, but doesn’t have the depth of a church.”

One evening, Haah was voicing his concerns to the volunteers at Love LA over dinner and blurted, “What if we planted a multi-ethnic, multi-socioeconomic church that reaches out to both skid row residents and loft dwellers?” The room went silent. He found himself sharing that vision with anybody who would listen, and each time he talked about it, he started weeping. “Maybe God is telling us something,” his wife, Grace, told him. Two years later, New City held its first service at a nightclub. 

Haah wanted New City to crack the downtown liberal view of churches as “right-wing” and substitute the “understanding that we’re all messed up and we need Christ.” New City meets at the Los Angeles Theater Center and starts worship with contemporary praise songs led by a young band in skinny jeans and vintage boots. Dark- and light-skinned hands rise up, swaying as the crowd sings, “What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.” 

After the service, the parishioners gather over coffee and cold juice and stay long after the service to chat, while kids weave through the crowds, running and shouting. “You can see the glow in the faces of the people here when they walk out of the service,” said Dimson Velasco, a resident at Los Angeles Mission, a nonprofit service provider for the homeless. 

Velasco said he wasn’t a church-goer until he found New City. “I hurt myself in so many ways,” he said. “I was struggling with jobs, with drugs, isolation, suicide. But God had something else for me. He healed me.” Velasco now hopes to attend seminary and become a pastoral intern at New City.

About a year before New City held its initial service, Sovereign Grace Church had its in 2007 with a different focus: to be a church that affects the whole city, not just downtown. 

Alex Choi, lead pastor of Sovereign Grace, chose downtown because it’s the closest thing to a centralized heart in Los Angeles. Worshipping in the financial, political, and cultural hub of Los Angeles infuses the church with a powerful sense of responsibility for the city, Choi said, as residents drive past skid row each day to their luxury lofts just one block away: “The proximity of the rich and the poor is unavoidable in city life.”

Unlike New City, Sovereign Grace is not a neighborhood church. Its dominantly Asian-American, working professional congregation doesn’t reflect the socioeconomic or ethnic diversity of downtown: “Our church is very, very L.A. We have models, artists, doctors, lawyers, actors, fashion designers, everything.” Choi said church members want “to do music, to do art, to do law, to do business as Christians,” and they ask: With so many of these people going to church, why isn’t the world’s culture being transformed? 

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