So here is what is shocking. Being erased. That is what feels horrible about a recent mailing sent to 2nd District Constituents in Long Beach, CA regarding the new Immanuel Senior Housing Project. The letter from the Council offices would have the reader think that the almost 100 year history of this place is about a building, and was largely characterized by years of decline and eventual emptiness. This could not be further from the truth.
I was the Pastor of the Immanuel Community Church for the eleven years preceding the sale of the property two and a half years ago, and to ignore the years of life there, even in just those eleven years, but surely in the eighty before I arrived, is to not fully appreciate the gift and miracle of this new use of the property as a true community resource. Before I arrived, in October of 2000, the name of the church had legally been changed from ‘Baptist” to “Community”, in the interest of being more accessible to a diverse world.
I used the attempt to revive the church as a living community as the focus of both my Masters and Doctoral Projects at Claremont School of Theology. I scoured the findings from the 2000 census and tried to make sense of the rapid demographic shift in Long Beach from 1950 to 2000. At the insistence of my academic advisors, Professors Jack Coogan and Michael Mata, we contacted friends and foes, and community members across the city to gain some insight into how we might understand the role of a spiritual center like this in a changed and changing city.
For years my congregation- along with holding weekly Sunday worship services and Wednesday Spiritual Growth Groups, offered counseling, bereavement support, visitation of sick and shut in members, classes of many kinds, and dynamic services to the Bluff Heights and Long Beach community. Councilman Frank Colonna worked with us and enlisted the Electrician’s Union to re-wire an entire large room so we could collaborate with Frank and Fay Clarke of Educate the Children to install a computer lab for the students at Horace Mann Elementary. Rene Castro, Anitra Dempsy and members of the LB Human Relations Commission helped our community to host three neighborhood sessions to respond to some of the fears, agitations and antipathies of Bluff Heights Association members about the ethnic and economic make up of the Title One school, and increasingly the community. These sessions were in equal part shocking and explosive and eventually both revealing and healing and re-set a standard for a larger Long Beach conversation about diversity. Greg Pickens taught conservatory level Art Classes at Immanuel for Mann students as part of our h’ARTworks arts outreach…We hosted the 5th grade promotion/graduation ceremonies for Mann for seven years, along with their symphony and choral concerts. We also hosted the organist’s guild twice as the spot for their yearly gathering and concert. We built and took floats to Long Beach LGBT Pride March yearly, and served as a site for community gatherings in association with CCEJ , The CENTER and the Anti -Defamation League, highlighting Gay Bashing Awareness- attended by then Councilmember Garcia and Superintendent Chris Steinhauser. We hosted forums on myriad health issues and offered senior “chair yoga”, adult yoga, youth acting classes, Urban Rhythm…in cooperation with the Catalyst Community…we transformed six areas into professional artist’s studios and hosted art openings for numerous sensational Long Beach Artists Joan Mueller, Melanie Gottlieb and Paula Burns and others… all the while struggling to repair a building that had been allowed to fall into neglect and worse; replacing the roof, ceilings, plumbing etc and PLEADING with elected officials, neighborhood association and and the school district to help us to find some parking solutions so we could operate and fill up the 500 seat sanctuary. We received almost continual resistance from community members and the neighborhood association, who had become used to this historic building standing empty…so that ANY life or activity as a church that served humans was seen as an invasion. We discovered historic photos of plays performed in black face in the 1920’s in Immanuel’s Cassidy Hall, along with the remnants of an earlier era in a basement wood shop and wooden signs giving times for both Sunday School and Woman’s Temperance Union meetings held at the church during Prohibition. The history of the neighborhood is both troubling and fascinating…and includes at least ten years in the 1980’s when the now “historic district” was populated with crack houses AND lovely residents who were trying to sustain a quality of life. Understand, acknowledging and affirming how things progress to a place,-so the new may emerge- means understanding the work of communities such as ours. Richard Florida, Roberta Gratz and Jane Jacobs, in their books on how cities change, teach about urban evolution and describe many of the moves that took place in Bluff Heights…including the early rehabbing of older homes by LGBT persons and artists, followed by gentrification and the arrival of developers.
We worked with both MHA and The Village to host informational and community fellowship gatherings to raise understanding of mental illness and the potential of community based models of support.
All of these strands of Bluff Heights history were looked at by Immanuel, and transformed into dialogue in the eleven transitional years from 2000 to 2011…even as the market crashed in 2008 and the loans we had taken out to finance both an early protracted lawsuit with the American Baptists, and major structural repairs, became crippling for us. Not everybody appreciated this work by any means, but for those who worked tirelessly to bring new life to this place, these years were creative, exhausting, heartbreaking and worth acknowledgement.
This is a fabric of human life…and to erase it is to lose an important understanding about the good, the bad, the ugly and the possible.
I showed a young, stylish Latina ‘tween girl in the Starbucks line yesterday, the photo of the commemoration of the Selma march on the cover of the Sunday NY Times. I asked her if she had heard of Selma and she said no. I asked her if she knew the word civil rights and she said nope. She did like Sasha Obama’s boots though. I did too…But I know what came before so that I grasp the miracle of this encounter. Buildings can support “adaptive re-use”, but people and relationships change hearts and minds. I want to personally thank every person who worked with us at Immanuel, h’ARTworks, Mandala Center For Conscious Living. I continue to see you, to know your contributions and to understand your impact on one child or many children, on the life of an older person or in the opening of a door of perception or welcome to someone in need of inspiration or community. You made a difference. You existed.
We ALL matter. Tell someone today that you see them.
You will never know how you may have changed their life,