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West Hollywood UCC celebrates its 100th Anniversary

West Hollywood LogoOn Sunday, November 3, West Hollywood UCC will celebrate our 100th Anniversary at our 11 am worship service.  A festive WeHo reception will follow after the service.  You are invited and will be extravagantly welcomed.

West Hollywood Church was founded Nov. 2, 1913 as a Presbyterian Church on the very lot on which it is located, 7350 Sunset Blvd.  For the first forty years of its ministry, it was a very “traditional” family oriented neighborhood church.   Sunset Blvd was two lanes wide and old Model T cars drove up and down.  The area was all single family homes which mostly housed white, middle class families, many of whom worked in the entertainment industry.

In the late 50’s and early 60’s, Hollywood became a center of global immigration, which changed the neighborhood dynamic significantly.  Hollywood very quickly became racially and culturally diverse.  As Hollywood began to grow and diversify, many of the “white” middle-class residents fled to the San Fernando Valley in what became known as “white flight.”  As racial tensions increased in the neighborhood and schools, West Hollywood Church’s ministry also changed quickly.  We began an after-school cultural awareness program for students at Hollywood & Fairfax high schools.  High school age youth from all across the globe (Asia, Africa, Latin & South America) met at the church to share the rich history of their native culture and traditions.  “English as a second language” classes were offered before they were even called that, and West Hollywood Church began racial dialogues and cross-cultural ministries with Black/African American Churches in “South Central” Los Angeles.

In the 1960’s, as the racial justice movement was flourishing, Sunset Blvd. became the center of the countercultural movement.  It was the “Haight-Ashbury” of Southern California.  The church was at the forefront of the Anti-War movement actively opposing the War in Vietnam.  The church offered sanctuary (safe living space) for those seeking Conscious Objector status, the “make love not war” peace community, hippies, drug addicts and the homeless.  A make-shift shower was created by running a hose through a bathroom window.  After showering, folks put on old black choir robes and tossed their (filthy) street clothes in a washer and dryer.  To provide medical care, the church gathered a group of doctors and nurses who volunteered their time.  That group went on to form the Los Angeles Free clinic.  Halfway houses for ex-offenders, run-a-ways, those in rehab from drug use, and many other groups were formed. Sunday worship was more of a “happening” than an ordered service.

In the midst of this ministry with non-traditional communities, a group of gay men began to meet at the church in 1965 – four years before Stonewall.  At the time this was one of the very few places where gay men could meet “with the lights on” and without the fear of police entrapment.  As this gay rap group grew, there was a desire for a separate worship service where gay men and lesbians could come and worship without the fear of public disclosure.  A gay worship service was formed on Sunday afternoons.  Within ten years, the gay service was larger than the Sunday morning “straight” service.

In 1976 a young out gay seminarian in the Presbyterian Church named Chris Glaser was hired as the founding director of the “Lazarus Project.”  The Lazarus Project was a ministry of calling out gay and lesbian people, unbinding them and setting them free to live life fully.  For 30 years that ministry educated and advocated on behalf of LGBT people of faith both in Christian Churches and in society.  Our own Rev. Bill Johnson, (historically the first openly gay person ordained in Christianity by the Golden Gate Association of the UCC) participated in the Lazarus Project in his early years in Hollywood.

In the 1970’s the Sunset Strip was also a center of female prostitution in Los Angeles and the retaining wall around the gardens of the church was one of the most famous pick-up places in the city.  After ministering with the women who were emotionally, sexually and physically abused by both their pimps and the men who “bought” them, the church began a ministry called “The Mary Magdalene Project.”  Now, we all know Mary Magdalene was NOT a prostitute, but the name was chosen, quite honestly, for funding purposes.  The ministry ran a halfway house and later a transitional living apartment building in undisclosed locations in the San Fernando Valley.  It was undisclosed so the women would be safe, as the pimps would hunt down the women who dared to leave them, often beating them nearly to death.  The Rev. Ann Hayman was the founding Director and served in that ministry for almost 30 years.

By 1984 West Hollywood Church’s membership was primarily gay men and lesbians.  West Hollywood Church, located in the heart of LA’s gay community, was one of the few churches at the time that openly welcomed LGBT persons.  The Church needed and wanted a gay pastor, but at the time the Presbyterian Church forbade ordaining openly gay persons.  Rev. Dan Smith, a gay man who was already ordained, was unanimously elected by the congregation and called to be the pastor.  As it turned out, that was to be the only unanimous vote regarding Dan Smith and the Presbyterian Church!  After much politicking and strategizing, Dan’s Call was authorized by the Presbytery and Dan’s ministry began October 1, 1984.  Dan became the first out gay pastor in the Presbyterian Church who retained his Call.  The Church was still celebrating the joy and excitement of being the first LGBT ministry in the Presbyterian Church when in January of 1985 (three months after Dan began) the first gay male member of the church died of a mysterious illness which was affecting the gay male community in major metropolitan areas.  The honeymoon ended quickly and West Hollywood Church became “ground zero” in the AIDS pandemic in Los Angeles.

The church began an HIV/AIDS Spiritual Support Group and provided pastoral care, hospital care, hospice care and funerals for over 200 members and friends who died in “the death cycle” of the AIDS pandemic.  The Church was inundated with pastoral care needs with both those who were ill and those who were the worried-well.  With the help of a denominational grant, The Rev. Lisa Bove was hired as an Associate Pastor for HIV-AIDS ministry.  From 1985 until May, 1996 AIDS ravished the gay male community.  It wasn’t until May of 1996 when the so-called  AIDS “cocktail” of drugs (protease inhibitors) was discovered that the “death spiral” finally stopped.

During the HIV/AIDS pandemic, gay men experienced horrific oppression and dehumanization by most “Christian” Churches.  This oppression created an entire generation of young people (both gay and straight) who not only wanted nothing to do with Christianity, but intensely hated Christianity.   After a season of renewal, West Hollywood Church began reaching out to the next generation of young adults with its diverse, multicultural, progressive, justice-focused ministry, trying to rebuild credibility with the post-Christian/secular/post-modern young adult community.

In 2011 after 37 years of incessant in-fighting over the inclusion of LGBT persons in the Church, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church asked each Presbytery to adopt a “Gracious Dismissal” policy which would allow churches who felt they could no longer stay in the Presbyterian Church to transfer to another denomination in the Reformed family of faith.  Though the policy was intended to allow conservative churches to leave the Presbyterian Church, West Hollywood Church advocated for the passage of the policy and publicly proclaimed that we would be one of the first churches to leave.  And we were!  On May 12, 2012 West Hollywood Presbyterian Church became West Hollywood United Church of Christ and Rev. Dan Smith was received as an authorized minister of the UCC thanks to the wisdom and graciousness of the Central Association of the Southern California/Nevada Conference!

After years of fighting for our place at the table, we have found the place we call “home.”  The UCC is where our heart is, where our values are, where our theology is and perhaps most wonderfully, the place where we are wanted, valued and loved.  Thank you!

So, on Sunday, November 3, at our 11 am worship service, we will celebrate our 100th Anniversary with joy and high spiritual energy!  One thing has remained constant here at West Hollywood Church and that is an openness to God’s Still Speaking, Still Leading voice.  We have no idea what our next 100 years will be like, but we know the Holy Spirit will keep leading us and calling us to change, so that we might meet the spiritual needs of our community which we are called to serve in Christ’s spirt.

As we approach our 100th anniversary celebration, we will also celebrate our ministry with the following special worship services.  You would be most welcome to attend any of these:

100th Anniversary Celebration Sundays

11 am

 October 13 – Rev. Chris Glaser, guest speaker

Founding Director of the Lazarus Project – The First Gay and Lesbian Ministry in an          Mainline American Church.

 

October 20 – Rev. Ann Hayman, guest speaker

Founding Director of the Mary Magdalene Project – Our ministry with prostituted            women.

 

October 27 – Rev. Lisa Bove, Associate Pastor for HIV-AIDS Ministry

Our Church Responds to the HIV-AIDS pandemic.

 

November 3 – All Saints Sunday 

100th Anniversary Celebration Sunday & Festive Reception following worship.

Blessings and Thanks for the Extravagant Welcome that we have received from all of you!

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