The Pentecost Moment: Los Angeles as global Christian space in the late twentieth century

Sean Dempsey


Historian David Hollinger has referred to the ecumenical Protestant embrace of diversity with an image drawn from the New Testament story' of Pentecost, in which “cloven tongues of fire” came down from heaven, allowing the early Christians to speak in foreign languages to all whom they encountered (Hollinger 2013, 18). In Los Angeles, this “Pentecost moment” unfolded in the rapidly changing neighborhoods and congregations of the late twentieth century, especially' by the late 1960s (Barringer 1992). Moreover, the historical moment was not limited to ecumenical Protestants, but encompassed Roman Catholics, certain evangelical churches, and numerous other Christian groups in the city. Although not all Christians in Los Angeles would follow the lead of their clergy and theologians in adapting to the reality of an immigrant church embedded in a pluralistic society, immigrants themselves did, and in doing so helped transform the churches of Los Angeles into a truly global communion.

In certain respects, this kind of interfaith outreach in Los Angeles was nothing new for a city' that had long celebrated (and found politically' expedient) its diversity', religious, and otherwise. In 1944, to take just one of many examples, Los Angeles mayor Fletcher Bowron formed a committee for home front unity, comprised leaders of different racial, political, and religious groups. The committee, which was chaired by' Roman Catholic auxiliary' bishop Joseph McGucken and included local NAACP chair Thomas Griffith and the pastor of the African American Second Baptist Church, J. Raymond Henderson, was to work for unity among the city’s already diverse populations for the sake of the wartime industrial production. The committee’s opening statement argued that despite efforts by “subversive” elements to disrupt the war effort, in Los Angeles “unity' is our weapon, waiting at hand, to deal with the forces which would prevent the Los

Angeles community from carrying out the nation’s largest production assignment ... This is the responsibility of all our people - all races, all colors, all creeds” (“Mayor names interracial body in Los Angeles” 1944).

Later that same year, the Los Angeles Times reported on the sharing of pulpits and worship space among the city’s Jewish, Protestant, and Catholic communities, and a spirit of cooperation among the city’s religious adherents that went beyond “mere religious tolerance.” That cooperation also included combined efforts to provide charitable services and even an annual “Race-relations Sunday” in which churches exchanged preachers and choirs across denominational and racial divides once a year to promote greater civic unity. Times reporter James Warnack made clear that these practices were deeply rooted in the culture of Los Angeles, where “even if denominationalists were disposed to quarrel, they probably would not do so because they realize the danger and folly of manifestations of inharmony [sic] in a city in which there are so many faiths represented” (Warnack 1944).

Historical examples such as these support the arguments made by sociologist Wade Clark Roof concerning the distinctive religious climate of Los Angeles and Southern California more broadly that has fostered a keen sense of the value of pluralism (Roof 2007). In particular. Roof highlights the lack of any religious establishment in the region, California’s “advanced modernity,” and Los Angeles’ receptiveness, given its geographical location, to religious influences from Latin America and Asia.

However, by the late-1960s, Los Angeles had also come to embody what historian Bret Carroll has called a “world in space” within which religious ideas and practices were contested within geographic space, on global and local scales (Caroll 2012). Specifically, Los Angeles was on its way toward becoming a global city, in terms of its crucial role in trans-Pacific trade, the movement of capital, and the migration of people. In religious terms, Los Angeles was also becoming a site for the transmission of ideas and practices associated with global Christianity, especially in contests over diversity and pluralism. Envisioning Los Angeles as a zone of global religious contest and exchange challenges the traditional binaries between pulpit and pew, or institution and adherent. Rather, the historical experience of Christian churches in Los Angeles reveals a new religious world that was forged in both the changing neighborhoods of the city and in its distinctive expression of global theological trends.

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