Blacks, Latinos worship in changing neighborhood

LOS ANGELES — The black choir clapped and swayed, propelled by the organ's groove and drums' beat as gospel music filled the tiny New Life in Christ Church on Compton Avenue.

The rhythm came naturally, but when it was time to sing, the choir had to turn to sheet music to keep from stumbling over the Spanish lyrics.

Two years after this African-American Pentecostal congregation of about 100 people welcomed their Latino neighbors, the two groups are still trying to stay in tune in a part of the city that has not always lived in harmony.

For Pastor Elwood Carson, reaching out to his Spanish-speaking neighbors and steering his small African-American congregation towards bilingualism is a Christian duty and a matter of survival as his small flock scatters to the suburbs and Mexican immigrants move in. For the Church of God in Christ, it's a return to the birth of Pentecostalism.

Carson moves seamlessly between two languages in his Sunday sermons as Gary Nava, the church's unofficial assistant pastor, translates beside his mentor, echoing the preacher's cadence and mirroring his body language.


"I was looking for a church where they speak English, because I was running away from everyone expecting me to speak Spanish all the time," said Nava, a tattooed ex-gang thug who was one of Carson's first converts.

Nava, 32, had just finished a prison sentence for a gun charge and was trying to stay straight. He said he was a member of Los Angeles' largest gang, Florencia 13, which vies for turf with the East Coast Crips, an African-American gang.

With his shaved head and neck tattoo, Nava still looks like a neighborhood tough, but his translation skills and his redemption story have earned him a leadership role and opened the door for Latinos.

The flock of new parishioners has fulfilled a lifelong dream for Carson, who taught Spanish at a public elementary school, spent vacations at language school in Costa Rica and took classes in Spanish while earning his master's degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.

Carson, 63, said most of the church's longtime African-American parishioners support his focus on Hispanic outreach because it's part of the church's evangelical mission. But some complained and left.

"They told me they have to deal with this at their jobs and they don't want to deal with it at church," Carson said. "Some people don't realize how prejudiced they are. So when they're confronted with people from other cultures, they're uncomfortable."

Mabel Gutierrez, an African-American church member who has attended the church for more than 20 years, said she misses friends who left, "but maybe God was just making room for those of us who want to do his work."

Many travel from suburbs more than 60 miles away to attend the church where they grew up. As families prospered, many left the historically black neighborhood, leaving room for new immigrants, most of whom were raised Roman Catholic.


Despite the history of racial violence between neighborhood gangs, Latinos are curious about how their black neighbors worship, and young people are attracted to the gospel and rhythm and blues music that has influenced popular culture, Nava said.

While Latino converts to Pentecostalism and churches reaching out to Hispanics are nothing new, experts say truly bilingual services are rare. Almost every word of the service is translated to Spanish or English.

The transformation of Carson's church is bringing the Church of God in Christ full circle to the diversity of its founding, said University of Pennsylvania religious studies professor Anthea Butler. The denomination, also known as COGIC, is based in Memphis, Tenn.

Soon after Charles Harrison Mason founded the denomination in 1897, he traveled to Los Angeles and was heavily influenced by the Azusa Street Revival, where different races worshipped side-by-side.

"There was a huge Latino presence there, and throughout L.A.'s Pentecostal history. All these people were together back then and they're together again now," she said.

When the faithful take turns praying out loud, Nava translates their petitions. Some Latino members are restrained, but others jump and holler "Amen" or "Hallelujah."

While black congregants wear their Sunday best — women in skirts and hats, men in suits — in keeping with Church of God in Christ traditions, Latino families are likely to show up in casual attire. Women wear tight tops and men dress in button-down shirts and jeans.

After services on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, they gathered under tents in the parking lot to eat fried chicken, collard greens and corn bread separated only by their native tongues. Smiles help bridge the language barrier.


Like many new members, Alondra Miramontes, 27, a mother of two who lives in the neighborhood, found the church after her husband lost his construction job and money was tight. She got a box of groceries through the church's charity food program and the pastor invited her to a service.

"While he's here, I'll come every Sunday," she said in Spanish. "The people here are incredible. You feel like you're being welcomed into their home."

Miramontes said she prefers the intimacy of a close-knit community church over larger Catholic parishes, where Spanish-speaking priests are in short supply.

At the same time, she'll never completely abandon her background, because she grew up in that tradition and her extended family is Catholic. Her husband still lights candles and prays to the Virgin of Guadalupe.

Pentecostalism rejects saints and teaches knowing God through the bible, but Nava and Carson don't want to force their flock to choose between family celebrations and practicing their newfound faith. Explaining their conversion is hard enough.

"Saints and stuff? It makes me feel uneasy. The bottom line is, 'Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus?'" Nava said.

A more pressing problem for Carson and Nava is the lack of Latinos in the choir.

Miramontes said she's too shy to sing in front of the entire congregation, but Spanish-speaking singers will come with time.


"My kids, when they're grown, they'll know how to sing," she said.

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