L.A. grace

Cities A spiritual renaissance comes to downtown Los Angeles | Sophia Lee

L.A. grace

GOOD NEWS: New City Church
Greg Schneider/Genesis

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? 

Until Sovereign Grace relocated to its current venue at a ballroom in the LA Hotel, Sunday service convened in the middle of a downtown art gallery. Choi preached directly in front of a giant painting etched with vulgar words, and the congregants sat surrounded by nude paintings. Choi, who calls himself “very conservative,” purposely didn’t cover the lewd paintings, because “The city is dirty. The city is sexual. The city is godless. We wanted to be able to teach our people that your faith has to grow in the middle of sin—in the middle of the city.”

Jesse Ross, another pastor who “felt a calling” to build a church downtown, began in 2001 to follow the revitalization of downtown. That turned from hobby to burden and calling, especially when he saw the number of downtown residents doubling and tripling while the number of churches stayed stagnant. In 2009 Ross and his wife Shelley moved downtown and planted Live Church LA a few blocks away from their apartment: it meets at Club Nokia, a hip concert venue in L.A. LIVE, downtown’s newest and flashiest multibillion-dollar entertainment complex. 

On Sundays when the VIP room is filled for another event, the service takes place on the terrace that overlooks the I-10 freeway. All staff members, including Ross, are unpaid volunteers. Congregants are mostly in their 20s and 30s, downtown residents who found Live Church through Yelp or Google. Ross has encountered hostility: Comments on one downtown-based blog that reported Live Church LA’s launch ranged from “Lovely, more nutbag Christians,” to accusations about churches “preying on the poor and uneducated.” 

Ross sees “a huge wall to tear down” but says “people are craving spirituality”—and when he started attending City Hall meetings and asking for ways he and his church could volunteer, city workers responded with shock: “It was like it’s never been done before. …  Apparently it’s hard to find Christian churches that are vibrant in this area.”

Ross now gets his salary as associate director of People Assisting The Homeless/Home for Good (PATH), an organization that helps move chronically homeless veterans into permanent homes. One Saturday during a move, Live Church members showed up with bed sheets, toiletries, and clothes. One member hired a U-Haul van to tow belongings and donations into the beneficiaries’ new home.

Hopeless. Headed off a cliff. “Keep a real estate agent’s number on speed dial.” Conservative commentators didn’t mince words after Californians in November voted for two tax increases and handed Democrats a legislative supermajority, allowing them to raise taxes without opposition.

Proposition 30 was the largest tax increase in the history of the nation, raising taxes on top earners by as much as 29 percent and increasing the nation’s highest state sales tax. Prop 39 increased taxes on out-of-state companies by $1 billion.

California’s troubles go deeper than taxes: 

• A powerful teachers union that spends $200 million per year on politics to protect its interests, making it nearly impossible to reform one of the country’s worst school systems

• $500 billion of unfunded liabilities in California’s retirement system

• Unemployment rate at 10.2 percent, and $10 billion owed to the federal government to keep joblessness benefits coming

• State ranked most hostile to private enterprise because of overregulation, coastal zoning laws, inflated housing costs, high tax rates, and environmental laws

• Funding for a $68 billion bullet train that is often called the “bullet train to nowhere”

It’s no wonder that many people want out of the Golden State despite its miles of beaches and February sunshine. Financially, it seems foolish to stay in a state blind to its own problems. Politically, it’s not exciting to be in a state where 55 electoral votes go blue no matter how you vote, and local congressional races sometimes come down to two Democrats running on nearly identical platforms.

But spiritually, the calculus changes: Hope exists on the West Coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco in spite of the state’s irresponsible leaders and materialistic culture. And as Christians and gospel-centered churches multiply in influential Hollywood and Silicon Valley, the message of hope reaches far beyond city and state lines.

Reality LA, a church that meets in a high-school auditorium in Hollywood, attracts fashionable young people drawn to the city’s entertainment industry. They share stories of seeking satisfaction in cults, drugs, sex, worldly success, and peer approval—and coming up short. Through God’s working, they’ve come to know Christ: What started as a church plant seven years ago now has more than 3,000 members, and about 40 community groups spread all over the city. 

The Reality church network, which started in Santa Barbara in 2003 with pastor Britt Merrick (son of surfing legend Al Merrick) has since expanded to Stockton and San Francisco, where it meets in the rainbow-flagged Castro District and has grown quickly since opening its doors in 2010. 

In the government-subsidized residential hotels of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district—known for crime, prostitution, and homelessness—the Christian organization City Impact is active. With the help of pastor and bestselling author Francis Chan, volunteers knock on doors not just to hand out food but to disciple the residents, hoping to raise leaders to start a home church in each building. 

Christian rapper Lecrae sells out a show at the historic Hollywood Paladium, just blocks from the strip clubs, bars, and flashy lights of Hollywood Blvd. At the concert young African-American, Latino, Asian, and white hip-hop fans sing along to lyrics about how they’ll be persecuted for following Christ. (See “Hip-hop hope,” Oct. 6, 2012.)

And that’s just the tip of God’s work in California’s cities: Ministries to bikers and prostitutes, immigrants and surfers, entertainers and homeless people are growing. Many affluent Californians facing higher taxes will leave. But others will stay to work.

It’s an early, mild Saturday morning at Bottega Louie, but the 40-plus people aren’t filling up the backspace of this Euro-trendy restaurant for brunch. They’ve gathered to tour the surrounding downtown Los Angeles—not as tourists, but as potential residents. 

Tour leader Hal Bastian, 52, director of economic development for the Downtown Center Business Improvement District, has volunteered to do these housing tours for 10 years. His tour takes in a luxury loft, the organic produce section and sushi bar at a gleaming Ralph’s, and in front of that supermarket a man rattling a coffee cup and asking, “Spare some change?” 

Daina Solomon, another recent downtown resident, remembers her tour with Bastian three years ago. She and her mother moved from Santa Monica and now live with a border collie and a tabby cat in a freshly constructed apartment situated directly above two hip restaurants, and only one street away from skid row.  

New York transplant Roger Gendron, 49, cut his commute by moving downtown six years ago but particularly wanted to do it because he missed the urban environment of his home city. The lawyer remembers that, during the first few months after he bought an apartment on Spring Street, he was the lone person on stretches of sidewalk once sunset hit— but then the shops and activity started popping up all along the street.

Now, Gendron said, he can “spend weeks and months here without needing to leave downtown”—and he rarely does. He sold his car and does most of his errands on foot or by Metro. He now knows all the business owners and neighbors within a three-block radius by name. Every Sunday, he shops at the farmers market two blocks up from where he lives in Spring Street, filling his reusable bag with lettuce and lemons from every stand so that new vendors feel welcome. —S.L.

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