L.A.’s Faith Community Marks A Changing of the Guard

By Lisa Collins

Last October, in a series of festivities billed as the “Honor & Celebration Weekend”, one of L.A.’s most renowned pastors, Bishop Charles E. Blake was saluted as he stepped down as spiritual leader of one of the city’s largest congregations, turning over the mantle of leadership to his son, Charles E. Blake II who was installed as pastor of the 10,000-plus member strong, West Angeles Church of God in Christ.

      Then just two months ago, it was Bishop Kenneth Ulmer’s turn and in a monthlong series of celebrations and services, he retired as senior pastor of Faithful Central Bible Church, turning over leadership of his Inglewood-based mega fellowship to John Paul (J.P.) Foster.

      Faithful Central and West Angeles COGIC aren’t the only churches in Los Angeles dealing with a shift in leadership. With Pastor J. Edgar Boyd set to retire this year as pastor of First AME, the city’s oldest Black church—now celebrating its 150th anniversary— will also be in a state of leadership transition with a new pastor (not yet announced) taking over this fall.

      Last year, Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church installed Joshua Daniels as senior pastor, the result of a two-year search precipitated by the untimely death of Pastor E.V. Hill II in 2019. Hill’s death was preceded by the passing of A.D. Iverson, who pastored one of the city’s most storied churches (Paradise Baptist Church) and was followed in short order by the passings of Dr. Earl Pleasant Jr. (Greater New Bethel Baptist Church) and Pastor Jerome Fisher, (Greater Zion Church Family). And on February 12, 2021, the faith community marked the passing of Apostle Frederick K.C. Price (Crenshaw Christian Center).

      To be sure, the L.A. faith community is in a season of transition and as a collective, the pastors who’ve transitioned out of leadership have left some pretty big shoes to fill, particularly as many of them not only changed the landscape of the faith community locally but like Price, Blake and Ulmer have been recognized nationally as trailblazers.

      Price— credited with revolutionizing the way Black ministries have evolved over the last five decades—blazed a trail for the likes of T.D. Jakes with his televangelism model, Ever Increasing Faith at one point reaching an estimated 15 million households weekly. His keen business savvy as evidenced in the purchase of 32-acre, former Pepperdine University complex, which now houses the Faithdome in the heart of South L.A.—also inspired churches to a new level of community development. Prior to his death, he’d also blazed a trail for his son, Fred Price Jr., who he groomed to take the reins as senior pastor.

      Blake—who led the nation’s largest Black denomination for more than a decade and mastered the church community development model with corporate partnerships and housing—has been dubbed as one of the nation’s most gifted and anointed preachers of all times. Ulmer—whose church became the largest ever with its purchase of the Inglewood Forum—underscored how churches could become drivers of local economy.

      “At one time, L.A. was considered as one of the preaching capitals of the nation for its tremendously influential pastors—E.V. Hill, Tim Chambers, Cecil Murray, Melvin Wade, Bishop H.H. Brookins, of course, you had Blake, Fred Price, Noel Jones and Kenneth Ulmer,” recalled Welton Pleasant, who serves as senior pastor of Christ Second Baptist Church in Long Beach and president of the California State Baptist Convention. “Those names were nationally known names across the country. It’s probably not considered a church town anymore, but at one time it was popping in LA.”

      Over the last two decades, the city has lost its luster as a church town and a transition amplified by a pandemic has led to major shift in the Black church everywhere, impacting everything from attendance to finance and leaving many to wonder about L.A.’s next generation of faith leaders. And the bigger the church, it seems the more challenging the transition.

      There are no specific statistics on what percentage of church members leave during a transition of leadership, as it can vary greatly depending on the circumstances and dynamics of each individual church and transitioning leader. However, studies have shown that it’s not uncommon for some members to leave during this process.

      It is a point that was not lost on devoted West Angeles COGIC member, Magic Johnson, who addressed the church membership during last fall’s installation festivities.

      “Pastor Charles Blake II, we’re going to get on board,” declared the NBA Hall of Famer. “I followed your Dad. I’m going to follow you. I don’t want to hear no more talk…[or] social media. This wasn’t just Bishop’s decision. This was God’s decision. This man has brought us this far and his son’s going to take us to the next level.”

      “Many of these larger churches are personality driven,” noted Pleasant.  “That’s one of the problems because some of these men are larger than life and after being in a church so long, those members are their disciples in a lot of ways, so if a new pastor comes into a church and wants to make changes, it’s likeWorld War III.”

      To that end, church insiders believe that it’s important for churches to have a well thought out plan in place to minimize the impact on the congregation. But as one church insider observed, “No matter who the faith leader is, there is always going to be fallout with change. It’s unavoidable and in a city like Los Angeles where there have been so many dynamic church personalities coupled with a steady rotation of worshippers moving from church to church, fallout is a given.”

      All of the transition has made Bishop Noel Jones (City of Refuge) the lone elder statesman among L.A.’s largest Black churches.

      “Succession is inevitable because nobody is indispensable,” Jones said. “The problem I see with the preachers coming up now is that they are looking at the achievements of the previous generation in terms of mega—meaning financial wealth, private jets, monster houses—that lifestyle. What they don’t realize is that the previous generation was not working towards that.

      “They’ve gotten caught up with the glamor and the trappings that go with preaching. I have always been as low-key as I could, even with all the controversy I’ve stirred up, because I’ve lived by the motto that I’m too flawed to be flashy and I think that they’re too flawed to be flashy. Let’s get in the word, let’s focus on building people’s lives and not focus on being all of that in our own eyes.”

      It’s a point Pleasant agrees with.

      “Some in the generation of pastors I see as emerging just want a megachurch for their own glorification and the competition that’s emerged is scary to me when we all should be on the same team.”

      “My hope,” adds Jones, “is predicated only on the fact that they would humble themselves to the point where they realize I did not achieve this, I just received this, and I should be grateful for having received it; and because I received it from a great man, I should now become the best I can be and buckle down and get in the word of God with the right disposition.

      “That’s my word to all the young men who will listen. I’m not making any judgements of who you are, where you are, what you are. I’m simply saying that if you are going to continue the great works that have been established in this city, you have to humble yourself, self-check, see whether or not you are biblically accurate, and go forward from that platform.”

      Complicating matters is COVID which has changed the playing field altogether, particularly as it relates to the mega church mentality that has permeated the church landscape.

      “I recently read an article defining the new mega church as 200 members in attendance,” Pleasant reports. “And keep in mind, that’s written from a white protestant perspective, so the number is probably lower in the African American tradition and that’s not exclusive to Los Angeles. That’s all of the nation.

      “Another culture shift,” Pleasant continues, “is that the era of George Floyd has put the church in a lot of ways back to our position of speaking truth to power, which I think was hijacked by the prosperity movement.”

      For Bishop Kenneth Ulmer, the changing of the guard is significant and timely because of a shift in culture.

      “The impact of things like the hip hop generation and pioneers like Kirk Franklin that have now woven this new style and this new flow into the church has been positive,” Ulmer explains. “But I also think it is connected to a culture that may be the most ungodly culture in the history of the church in terms of morality, priorities and values. It’s just different. The way and the word that we had five-ten years ago, the culture’s not hearing that, but that doesn’t mean the church is not the church. So, you’ve got to have guys like Albert Tate, Michael Fisher and J.P. Foster who can come in and recognize that we’re about to cross the Jordan into a whole other land now while not denying the journey that brought the church here.

      “I recognize that this new generation is not mine to serve, but rather to share my 40-plus years of Kingdom experience with those who have been called to serve this new generation,” says Ulmer of his repositioning as pastor to the new pastor. “I want to try to stabilize things while he [J.P. Foster] has the opportunity and the time to bring in people who will come because of him, not because of me.”

      For Foster, it’s a matter of adjusting to people’s changing rhythms.

      “The body of Christ has gone through a lot the last two or three years just as far as politically, racially, and I think a lot of these things have impacted how this generation and the younger generation even views the church,” said Foster. “The theology has to match what people are experiencing existentially.”

      Foster is one of those being viewed as a new guard of pastors on the rise in the city’s faith community that includes Pastors Geremy Dixon (Center of Hope), Charles Blake II (West Angeles COGIC), Frederick Price, Jr. (Crenshaw Christian Center), Michael J.T. Fisher (Greater Zion Church Family), Warryn Campbell (California Worship Center), Toure´ Roberts (One LA), Joshua Daniels (Mt. Zion Missionary Baptist Church), Johnteris Tate (Mt. Moriah Missionary Baptist Church) and K.W. Tulloss (Weller Baptist Church).

      “We’re leading in unprecedented times,” states Tulloss, president of the Baptist Minister’s Conference. “Our city is facing new challenges and struggles, and as we celebrate the leadership of those that paved the way, we will take what we learned from them and apply the strategies to push forth our communities in this new day and time.

      “I believe that God is calling leaders with new and fresh ideas to carry on the kingdom in such a time as this. I’ve had the opportunity to grow up watching E.V. Hill, Cecil Murray, Fred Price, Kenneth Ulmer…. They’ve set a standard and it’s a challenge to carry the torch they lit.”

      Geremy Dixon, however, is one of the pastors coming up who wouldn’t have it any other way. His Inglewood-based, Center of Hope is thriving, and the church—which ceded leadership to him on the passing of his Dad, Bishop Gregory Dixon, now has two additional locations—one in South L.A. and the other in the San Fernando Valley.

      “This generation of leaders —the way we are called to lead is going to be really unique,” Dixon said. “We are pastoring in a post-pandemic society so while there are some things that won’t ever change, the modalities that are going to be necessary in this era will demand of my generation a level of innovation and creativity that we probably haven’t seen in the last hundred years.

      “People are not engaged in the ways in which our forebearers experienced their engagement. We can see that right now with many of the places that used to be filled with several services. It’s just a different era so we’re having to pick up a multitude of ways to engage and it’s hard but it’s exciting. It’s funny that back in the day pastors had to really pray to find out what was really going on with their member. Now, you’re able to know by virtue of what they put on social media.

      “It would do us well to really study—not necessarily all of the manifestations of a previous movement relative to political engagement, but some of the underpinnings probably are still very viable,” Dixon continued. “They just need to be updated relative to how they would work with some of the newer technologies or cultural norms.”

      “I also feel like now there’s much more of an emphasis on preaching a strong gospel in church on Sunday and then mobilizing on Monday to make sure the quality of life of our constituencies is being raised in every shape, form and fashion—social, economically, relative to health disparities, relative to the justice system.”

      Dixon is not only excited by the work, but also by the dynamic group of leaders he believes will transform the L.A. church scene, perhaps even restoring it to its glory days as a church city.

      Says Dixon, “What I see happening—and I don’t want to call any names—but there are tons of leaders who I consider to be colleagues and contemporaries that have been in the woodshed getting ready. They’ve been like laying the foundation and I think that in the next ten years, we’re going to see these leaders — who have been emerging all this time—really come to the forefront and do some incredible things in the culture. What I believe has been in like a proof of concept stage on a smaller level is going to be amplified in short order.”

      For Charles Blake II, that time is now.

      “Some have said that I have some very big shoes to fill, but I’m not supposed to fill my father’s

shoes,” Blake stressed. “God gave Bishop Blake the shoes that he needed to walk in his time on his terrain, but now we are on different ground in a different age. God has given me the shoes that I need to walk the path through the terrain for this time. We’re facing a world and a culture that we have never seen before—a culture where up seems to be down, in seems to be, right seems to be wrong and wrong seems to be right.

      “We can be sure that God is not through with West Angeles yet. We’re going to keep fighting the good fight, serving God’s people and touching the world. God has given us the power to change the world, so let’s get to work.”

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