For more than a century, African American churches have played a major role in black economic life, often filling the gaps left by government agencies and businesses wary of operating in inner-city areas.
But the West Angeles Church of God in Christ is taking that tradition of economic activism to new heights.
In the largest South Central L.A. construction project in recent memory, the 15,000-member church is building a new 5,000-seat cathedral on the long vacant site of a former plastics factory at the corner of Crenshaw and Exposition boulevards.
The development is budgeted to cost $50 million the same as the Roman Catholic cathedral planned for downtown L.A. and will have an economic impact on the surrounding neighborhood of at least $100 million, according to church officials.
Meanwhile, the West Angeles Community Development Corp., a non-profit organization formed by the church to stimulate local employment growth, has taken the unusual step of entering into a biomedicine development project.
If the project is deemed viable, the church will help line up funding for the venture, which could bring high-tech, high-wage jobs to an area populated almost exclusively by small retailers.
Eventually, the church hopes to establish a high-technology business incubator in the neighborhood an effort to encourage a new generation of inner-city entrepreneurs.
While the link between bibles and biomedicine may seem unlikely, the congregation’s economic agenda is consistent with its spiritual mission, according to the church’s leader, Bishop Charles E. Blake.
“We create an atmosphere in which businesses can thrive,” Blake said. “We teach people to be the kind of people with whom businesses can deal and around whom businesses can survive. The church, as its mission, seeks to share honesty and respect for property and for life. And those kinds of things are essential to an orderly society.”
Ever since the post-Civil War reconstruction era, black churches have operated credit unions, insurance firms and restaurants usually in an effort to serve a community excluded by mainstream institutions.
More recently, a growing number of congregations have ventured into the music business, releasing compact disc recordings by their gospel choirs.
But West Angeles may be the first African American church with high-tech aspirations, said Fred Harris, a University of Rochester professor who writes about black religious life.
“It’s certainly the way the economy is going,” Harris said. “It could set an example for other black churches to venture into non-traditional economic development strategies that will have more of a long-term impact on the surrounding community.”
Of course, the West Angeles Church of God in Christ is no ordinary congregation.
With more than 120 employees and some $18 million in local real estate holdings, the church is one of South Central L.A.’s economic leaders.
When Blake became pastor in 1969, the church had just 50 members. Now, the congregation of 15,000 members is the largest in the 3 million member Church of God in Christ, one of fastest-growing Protestant denominations in America.
Each Sunday, thousands of worshippers stream into the Crenshaw district to attend one of the church’s four Sabbath services. Congregants include some of L.A.’s highest-profile African Americans, including Magic Johnson, Denzel Washington and Stevie Wonder. Soul-singer Gladys Knight has been known to sit in with the choir on occasion.
The new cathedral is likely to boost the church’s profile even more.
Funded by bank loans and private donations including $5 million from Johnson and $2.5 million from Washington the sanctuary, a glimmering edifice of glass, steel and marble, is scheduled to open in the spring of 1999.
When it does, Blake predicts, a host of small businesses will follow suit.
“Thousands of people will come into the neighborhood to shop and eat and spend money and bring new economic life,” he said. “I believe that many businesses will make a decision to come into the community.”
In the meantime, the church has awarded several million dollars in contracts to a number of local minority-owned firms including the Mid-Wilshire architecture firm Envirotechture; an Inglewood model-building company, Multigraphics; and B.T. Turner Trucking and Demolition, a South Central construction company.
“It’s going to put a lot of people to work,” said B.T. Turner, whose construction company received a $200,000 contract and has hired a dozen employees to prepare the seven-acre site.
Site preparation is scheduled to be done in about five months, with actual construction set to begin by the end of the year.
Even more ambitious are the congregation’s plans to encourage high-tech entrepreneurship in the inner city.
The church’s community development corporation has begun working with a local inventor on developing a solar-powered autoclave a compressed heat chamber which would be used to sterilize medical equipment in remote areas without easy access to electricity.
Church officials hope to market the device to physicians and development organizations working in such countries as Haiti and South Africa.
West Angeles CDC has received a $75,000 grant from the Department of Energy to investigate the project’s feasibility. The study is expected to be completed by the fall, at which time the church will decide whether or not to move forward, said Lula Ballton, the group’s executive director.
That’s only the beginning, said Philip Hart, the cathedral’s project manager who headed a similar high-tech development project in a low-income neighborhood of Boston in the 1980s.
According to Hart, the economic activity and enthusiasm generated by the cathedral could become a catalyst for a number of development projects in the area including an incubator for high-tech start-up firms.
“Given the appropriate opportunities and set of circumstances,” Hart said, “the next Bill Gates can come from a community like this.”