Saluting the Legacy of Bishop Charles E. Blake & How He Changed L.A.’s Religious Landscape

Lisa Collins

Last month, the community, civic and elected officials paused to honor the man many have characterized as the most consequential religious leader of our times, Bishop Charles E. Blake in a three-day long celebration marking not only his retirement but the elevation of his son, Charles Blake II to senior pastor.

For the last 53 years, the elder Blake has shepherded one of the largest African American congregations in the nation dubbed “West A” and has transformed not only the church and the Crenshaw corridor it has called home, but also the South L.A. community with the development of more than 400 units of housing, and commercial property, including West Angeles Plaza, while initiating and implementing scores of civic, social, financial and educational programs that have assisted thousands of congregants and L.A. County residents; and is currently in the midst of a new development initiative that will provide modern housing for senior citizens in the Los Angeles Com- munity, along with the near complete construction of the $25 million West Angeles Family Life Center which will provide educational, medical, financial, social and recreational resources to its congregants and the community-at- large.

Creating a blueprint for the role urban ministry can play in transforming South Los Angeles, Blake has said, “The primary benefit of a mega church is that is has resources to initiate programs that are conceived for the work for the advancement of the community.”

“We know of the tremendous value our property holds, not just financially, but its importance to our community. We count it a blessing to have our properties developed in a manner that will beautify the Crenshaw Corridor and provide resources and opportunities to the community.”

“With the development of the Family Life Center, our goal is to leave a stable, future ministry legacy for the community, strengthen the fiber of the church’s out- reach to men, women, children, and families in the com- munity, and to further impact the nation and world for Jesus Christ,” stated Blake.

To be sure Blake’s impact far exceeds Los Angeles. For over 12 years he stood at the helm of the Church of God in Christ, the nation’s largest predominantly African American Pentecostal denomination.

“Bishop Blake’s global mindset caused the Church of God in Christ to grow exponentially around the world,” said Mother Barbara McCoo Lewis, General Supervisor of the COGIC’s International Department of Women, who has also described him as “one of the greatest leaders in the history of Christendom”.

“He has been a leader of impeccable integrity which is reflected in a posture of financial accountability.”

Under Blake’s leadership the denomination completed the first comprehensive financial audit of its records in more than 100 years as well as massive ren- ovations to its headquarters campus in Memphis along with major restorations to downtown Memphis proper- ties and the acquisition of additional properties around the group’s headquarters, including the development of housing near the COGIC’s Mason campus.

“Bishop Charles E. Blake was to the Church of God in Christ what the Apostle Paul was to the first century church,” said Bishop Kenneth Ulmer of Faithful Central Bible Church. “Likewise, I suggest the Lord used the man, the ministry and the message of His Grace Bishop Charles Blake to take the largest Pentecostal denomination of color in the world into the dimension where eyes had not seen, ears had not heard, of the growth, progress and global imprint that characterizes the 13 year tenure of this great Man of God.

“God used the grace and anointing on his life and transitioned the African American Pentecostal/Charismatic family of the Body of Christ out of the margins where many so fervently attempted to relegate us, on to the front line of spiritual transformation, social

In 2001, Blake accelerated West A’s missions work to the next level with the establishment of Save Africa’s Children, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping the alarming number of AIDS orphans by channeling financial resources to build orphanages and empower the existent orphanage systems in South Africa, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana and Swaziland, and Kenya.

In so many ways, says church insider, Quaford Coleman, Blake has always forged new ground.

“He was one of the first African American Pastors to preach in Dr. Robert Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral in Orange County in the 1980’s,” Coleman reported. “Over the years, his dynamic messages, unique style of ministry and effective methods developed a “Crystal Cathedral” on the Crenshaw corridor. Bishop Blake is to be applauded for changing our view of church forever and the endless possibilities of God’s power.”

Recognized as one of the greatest preachers in America and one of the nation’s most influential African Americans, Blake was born in Little Rock, Arkansas to the late Bishop Junious Augustus (J. A.) Blake, Sr. and the late Evangelist Lula M. Blake and was raised in a strict Christian household. As a young man, he moved with his family to Los Angeles when his father was appointed as bishop of the First Jurisdiction of Southern California.

The 82-year old father of three adult children (all of whom work in the ministry) met and married his wife, Mae Lawrence Blake, –often referred to as his “secret weapon” –and in 1969 was appointed by Bishop Sam- uel Crouch to take over as pastor of West Angeles COGIC, then a storefront of little more than 50 people, 15 of whom left when he was announced as the new pastor.

The church thrived and in 1984 following the death of his father, Blake was ordained and consecrated as a jurisdictional bishop of the First Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction of Southern California for the COGIC denomination, overseeing over 250 churches. In 2007, in what was a landslide election, Blake was voted in as the COGIC’s new presiding bishop, making him arguably America’s most powerful Black religious leader.

In fact, Blake has been and remains a quintessential power broker, particularly in Los Angeles where the weight of his mega church and deeds have made him a community leader and key political ally.

“I don’t know if a powerful position affects me,” Blake once told L.A. Focus. “All I know is I intend to do my very best to utilize all of the entities that exist in the church and enable it to operate properly.

“The key is to wisely use the influence and the power and not lay it at the feet of politicians, but at the feet of our God.”

Early on, he fully understood the importance of civic outreach and the Black church’s influence on politics, remarking, “The Black Church should not be taken for granted, and (yet) many political leaders on the local, state and national level do so. They come to the church to get votes, get support–but then they walk away and behave as if they’ve never been around us.”

In 2009, he was appointed as a member of President Barack Obama’s Inaugural Advisory Council of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships.

“Bishop Blake has demonstrated what focused leadership can do on the continent of Africa all the way to Crenshaw corridor– the results speak for themselves,” said Councilmember Mark Rid- ley-Thomas, who worked closely with West Angeles in all of his elected offices, most notably as the former supervisor of the Second District.

“He’s served his city as a Fire Commissioner and his church as its Presiding Prelate. In each instance he distinguished him- self and blessed the institutions he served. L.A. is a better place in which to live, and pray because of Charles Blake, Sr.”

Blake’s efforts have earned him the Salvation Army’s William Booth Award, the Greenlining Institute’s Big Heart Award, and the L.A. Urban League’s prestigious Whitney M. Young Award. Last year, he was named as one of the eight inaugural honorees–including Bishop T.D. Jakes, Dr. Tony Evans, Shirley Caesar, Dr. A.R. Bernard and Bishop Vashti McKenzie for the Museum of the Bible’s “Blessing of the Elders” honors, paying tribute to the faith-filled legacy of the Black Church and those whose contributions have been foundational to America’s faith, culture and history.

Last November, Blake announced the elevation of his son, Elder Charles Blake II, as co-pastor of the mega-ministry and in April, he announced that for the past ten years he had been battling Parkinson’s Disease.

“As the Senior Pastor of West Angeles Church, I have led and served this great church daily for more than 53 years.,” he said. “However, most recently I am acutely aware that my Parkinson’s diagnosis is impacting my physical stature, and vocal strength.

“Please understand the depth of my gratitude for every opportunity that God has afforded me in serving you,” Blake said. “I pray that I have pleased Him in all I have attempted for the advancement of the Church of God in Christ and ultimately, for His Kingdom. I remain committed to the success of our church and have pledged my support and assistance in a smooth transition so that the work of the Lord will seamlessly continue.”

In September, it was announced that the Bishop and Lady Mae would be stepping down as spiritual leaders and passing the mantle to their son, current Co-pastor Charles Blake II, and his wife, Lady DeAndra Blake.

Last month, in the classic humble and gracious style that has come to define his humanity, Blake thanked all who came out for the official installment ceremony, stating “My heart is so blessed.

“Thank you for what you have done for me, for the love you have shown. I am so pleased you have participated with West Angeles in these moments. They’ve been a tremendous joy to me.

Turning to his son, Charles Blake II, the elder Blake said, “We are overjoyed to pass you the baton. We know you’re not going to drop it.”

Bishop Blake is one of a rare breed of men who have done so much that their greatest impact is hard to pin down, and while his lofty accom- plishments speak for themselves, here’s what others had to about him:

Bishop Joe Ealy, COGIC Jurisdictional Prelate

Bishop Charles Blake Sr. is one of the nation’s most gifted and anointed preachers of all times.
He and his charming wife Lady Mae have done so much for this city and especially for the Crenshaw corridor. Under their leadership West Angeles has poured millions upon millions of dollars in lighting a fire in the city of Los Angeles and investing millions of dollars to enhance and make South Los Angeles a better place to live, to work and certainly to visit.

Pastor Geremy Dixon, Center of Hope

Bishop Charles Blake represents the best the kingdom has to offer. His courageous vision, strategic leadership, pastoral empathy and capacity for sustainable community development is the model being replicated around the world. Los Angeles is privileged to have claimed him as one of our own. As awe- inspiring as the beautiful Cathedral is, its vastness is still a small representation of the magnitude of the community development work he’s led around the city. At the close of this chapter of his ministry, Bishop Blake will be remembered as a builder, not only of communities but also the people who live within those neighborhoods.

Baptist Minister’s Conference President K.W. Tulloss, Senior pastor of Weller Street Baptist Church

Humble, approachable, and a great preacher, Bishop Charles E. Blake is the epitome of the Black pastor throughout the world and what he’s done for the church community in L.A. and this world is to have developed the blueprint for what loving God’s community is all about. His legacy is cemented not just in the COGIC church but all of Christendom. From politics to civil service and missions out- reach, he is what most preachers look to as the model. When he calls, people come, and they listen. He is one of a kind. I try and replicate what he does every day and I’m just at 5%.

Superintendent Jeffrey M. Lewis, Pastor, New Antioch Church of God in Christ

For most of my life, I’ve had the privilege of following, observing and learning from one I consider God’s very best. In Bishop Blake’s 53 years of service to West Angeles Church, he pioneered what I call “True Excellence in ministry”. While being led by God, he built one of the largest churches in America and did it by showing many of us that the same gospel that changes the lives of the down and out will also change the lives of the up and in. Bishop Blake is a true legend, a man of great class and dignity who always set the bar high and then challenged everyone around him to come up.

Pastor Michael J.T. Fisher, Greater Zion Church Family

The legacy of Bishop Charles Blake is that he introduced the concept of merging spirituality and the marketplace. He was one of the first churches that showed us that you can use your platform to do community development and impact the economy. That is the legacy of West Angeles.
From the partnership he had with Burger King to the theater to the housing units they have built, the job resource center and their partnership with Metro, he gave us the blueprint for community development as well as how to sustain the church through more than tithes and offering.

Chicago-based pastor/Grammy-winning gospel artist Smokie Norful

Thank you for allowing me the privilege of being in your presence. My life is better because you and Lady Mae have been a part of my life,” said Norful, who once accompanied Blake to Africa for a Save Africa’s Children effort. “I learned so much from you. I watched everything. I studied everything. I learned what ministry looked like. I learned what humility looked like. I learned what it was to really walk with God.”

Actor Courtney Vance

Bishop and Lady Mae have been there for Angela and I since we joined the church some 23 years ago. West Angeles is a sanctuary for us. Bishop and Lady Mae’s goals were to strengthen the fiber of our outreach to men, women, children and families in the community and further impact the nation and the world for Jesus Christ. They continued to challenge us to do good for the benefit of all.

NBA Hall of Famer/Entrepreneur Magic Johnson

This great leader…how you changed this city. They said, no way a black man can build and pay off a church like this, but we own it now. I don’t idolize a lot of people, but I idolize you. You’ve changed my life. I became a Christian and I wasn’t afraid to pray in front of people anymore because of you. You’ve made me a better man, a better CEO, better father and husband to my wife. [At] your first message every January, I was hanging on every word…because then I was going to tell my employees what we were going to live by for a whole year [based] on your message. There will never be a Bishop or pastor like you.