The area’s religiosity has new faces and speaks in multiple tongues. Yet Los Angeles is increasingly demonstrating how faith can be a common ground.
Los Angeles Times, Jan. 5, 2003
By Joel Kotkin and Karen Speicher
From the suburban fringes to South-Central and the heart of downtown, the Los Angeles area is undergoing a remarkable and exuberant expansion of churches, mosques, Buddhist temples and synagogues. The best known of the new religious institutions is the $189-million Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in downtown Los Angeles. But the building program is remarkably varied and includes mega-churches for evangelicals, the 1,600-seat Korean Valley Christian Presbyterian Church in Porter Ranch, the Faithful Central Bible Church at the former site of the 17,500-seat Forum in Inglewood and the Hindu Temple in Malibu.
The upsurge in religious building reflects an intensification of faith-based activities across the region. Church membership in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties, according to the American Religion Data Archive, grew 24% in the 1990s, a rate of growth about twice that of the area’s population. In contrast, membership growth nationally was flat.
This growth has numerous sources, most significantly the number of immigrants who have migrated to the Los Angeles area over the last few decades. Virtually all major denominations, from Catholicism and Judaism to Islam and evangelical Protestantism, credit much of their recent expansion to the spiritual demands of newcomers. Others note the rising need among L.A.’s dispersed middle-class population for a community connection in a city whose sprawl and high-pitched energy are obstacles to simple human contact.
The revival in religiosity represents a new stage in the evolution of Los Angeles as a city. It reflects both the city’s changing character and its continuing spiritual restlessness. From Mesopotamian times on through the Middle Ages to the great Protestant revivals in Britain and America in the early 20th century, the quest for spiritual meaning has been among the most notable characteristics of great cities. “The city,” observed French theologian Jacques Ellul, “is not just a collection of houses with ramparts, but also a spiritual power.”
A heightened sense of religiosity is nothing new in Los Angeles. Founded as an exclusively Catholic city under the Spanish, L.A.’s first great religious transformation came with the huge influx of Midwestern and Northeastern middle-class Americans at the turn of the century. By the 1920s, the city was a bastion of such traditional Protestant groups as the Methodists, Presbyterians and Anglicans.
The city’s new Protestant consciousness had many positive effects. Mainstream Protestantism preached the importance of hard work and clean government, values that played crucial roles in the city’s transition from a cow town to a major metropolis. But Protestant hegemony also fostered prejudice against other religions, effectively excluding their followers, most notably Catholics and Jews, from the city’s ruling elites.
Also in the 1920s and especially during the 1930s, Los Angeles became a national center of Christian fundamentalism. Impoverished refugees from the Dust Bowl, cut off from their Great Plains roots and adrift in a large, seemingly unknowable city, found solace in the “old-time religion” of such evangelists as Aimee Semple McPherson of the Foursquare Gospel Church.
In the ensuing decades, many marginal religious movements, from astrologers to faith healers, attracted followings. “Los Angeles leads the world in all the healing sciences,” commented the journalist Morrow Mayo, “except perhaps medicine and surgery.”
In the 1950s and 1960s, religion in Los Angeles fit a more normal American pattern. In a city of big businesses and global ambitions, L.A.’s religious communities were represented by “serious” ecclesiastical leaders such as the Catholic archbishop, the leader of the Episcopal church and the head of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
This staid corporate model no longer describes L.A.’s religiosity. Although established religious institutions still matter, the current revival of religious life is essentially entrepreneurial, which befits a city that is ethnically diverse and whose economy is dominated by small businesses. It is dispersed and fragmented, unfolding across an archipelago of faiths rather than in a single, sacred precinct.
In the shadows of the city’s new religious buildings grows a proliferation of smaller and more eclectic congregations. It’s not uncommon for four or more congregations, each speaking a different language and professing a different faith, to share the same facility. This is particularly true of the more evangelical churches, whose rapid growth has yet to bring them the economic power to find permanent spaces amid L.A.’s high-cost real estate. Still, according to the American Religion Data Archive, the number of places of worship in the L.A. area in 2000 rose by about 400 over the previous 10 years.
Established religious institutions, although more well heeled than storefront houses of worship, may be unprepared to adjust to the fast-changing diversification of religious life. The Jewish Federation, for example, the traditional bulwark of the city’s 600,000 Jews, is a diminishing force. Despite the growth of L.A.’s Jewish community in both numbers and wealth, says Rob Eshman, editor of the Los Angeles Jewish Journal, the federation annually raises about the same amount of money as it did a decade ago.
Instead, Eshman says, more Jewish money is flowing to specialized institutions like the Simon Wiesenthal Center, the Skirball Cultural Center and the Museum of Tolerance. Fund-raising also is increasingly connected to the region’s 30 Hebrew day schools that educate about 10,000 Jewish children, according to the Bureau of Jewish Education. “You have a kind of entrepreneurial spirit in the L.A. Jewish community that’s also very dynamic and fragmented,” Eshman says. “The overall organization of the community tends to be relatively weak, but the individual synagogues are very strong.”
Greater ethnic diversity also has changed the profile of the city’s Jewish community. First-generation immigrants and their offspring make up nearly 45% of the L.A. Jewish community. This has led to the establishment of numerous shuls, some of which attempt to maintain Jewish practices that originated in places like Iran and elsewhere in the Near East, where Jewish roots are deeper than in Christian Europe.
Similar patterns are evident in the growth of Christian churches. Largely because of the influx of Latino immigrants, the Catholic Church gained about 1.5 million adherents in the 1990s, a 34% increase over the previous decade. As a result, Catholicism is once again the region’s predominant faith.
Although the sexual-abuse scandal has tarnished the reputation of the L.A. archdiocese and threatens to strain church finances, grass-roots Catholic religious life in Los Angeles continues to expand, with virtually all parishes reporting increases in attendance and social activities, according to Kevin O’Connor, director of development for the archdiocese. In much of the city, the church has become increasingly Spanish-speaking, but Mass is also celebrated in at least 30 languages every weekend.
Mainline Protestantism and more traditional fundamentalist groups have not fared as well. Yet, many Protestant groups are expanding their social services and redirecting their ministries to accommodate the region’s changing population. The United Methodist Church, which shrank by nearly one-quarter during the 1990s, recently established 12 new ministries, 11 of which target Spanish, Chinese or other non-English-speaking constituencies.
But the most dramatic growth is in religions that historically have been outside the mainstream. The largest number of new building projects is being undertaken by evangelical Christian groups like the Assemblies of God. Pentecostal churches are the fastest-growing of all denominations in terms of membership. Many of these churches, such as the Vineyard in Santa Monica or the Oasis in Mid-Wilshire, are Southern Californian in their lack of traditional focus. Their strong emphasis on music and contemporary sermonizing appeals to a wide range of urbanites, among them singles, divorced parents and others alienated from more traditional churches.
These churches also have expanded their appeal beyond their traditional African American and Anglo congregants to recently arrived Latinos and Asians. For many newcomers, the evangelical message of close communion with God, discipline and self-help is a powerful magnet.
But not all newcomers to L.A., Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties are gathering under the tent of evangelism. Faiths once tiny in the area — Buddhism, Bahai, Islam and Hinduism — are gaining followers, including converts from other religious communities. The four-county area has more than 100 Bahai centers with more than 10,000 members, and 76 mosques serving about 153,000 Muslims. As many as 40% of the nation’s 1.4 million Buddhists live in Southern California.
The upsurge in religious activities may be a better harbinger of L.A.’s arrival as a world city than the newest high-rise office building, museum or sport stadium. Like its population and cultures, L.A.’s religiosity has many faces and speaks in many tongues. Yet, the city is increasingly demonstrating how faith can be a common ground. The greater cooperation among L.A.’s religious congregations serves not only the spiritual but also the physical, emotional and social needs of the city’s diverse communities.
These multifaceted religious efforts represent a critical element in the maturation and humanization of our urban society. Religious faith is often banished to the sidelines in our secularized culture; it’s expansion may prove the most irreducible asset in helping create a true city of angels.