In ‘Post-Gang Era’, Boyle Heights Christian Center of LA Keeps Evolving, Making a Difference in the Community

Pastor Joey Oquendo helps renovate the worship center on March 31, 2014, at the Boyle Heights Christian Center in Los Angeles. (Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times/MCT)
Pastor Joey Oquendo helps renovate the worship center on March 31, 2014, at the Boyle Heights Christian Center in Los Angeles. (Barbara Davidson/Los Angeles Times/MCT)

Pastor Pete Bradford, a reformed “dope fiend” from San Diego, went out into the streets of Boyle Heights looking for gang members to pray over. Finding them wasn’t hard. 

It was the early 1990s, the era of “Boyz n the Hood” and “Colors” and gangsta rap. Everything about gang life in Los Angeles was loud: the jagged slashes of graffiti, the thrum of police helicopters, the percussion of gun blasts.

Bradford, who said God had called him to L.A.’s East Side, opened the Boyle Heights Christian Center in a low-slung building on First Street. The Pentecostal church became known as a house of worship for gang members, drug addicts and lost souls.

“It was not unusual to hear gunshots every day,” recalled Bradford, 66, who retired last spring when Parkinson’s disease made it difficult to control his body. “We had windows shot out. They weren’t shooting at us. They were shooting at each other.”

Now, the loudest sound is the insistent, clattering roar of the Gold Line train that sometimes fuzzes out the sermons of Bradford’s young successor, Joey Oquendo.

The streets where gang members once prowled are dotted with cafes, wine bars, community theaters, art galleries and bookstores.

A different church

On a recent morning, Oquendo hoisted drywall sheets into the church. Mounds of chipped wall lay beneath exposed brick. Black plastic bags covered ceiling vents. The pulpit was bounded by the two-by-four skeletons of walls laid bare.

The gang members who once made up the bulk of the parish are mostly gone, leaving a congregation that can number fewer than 20. Some of the old-timers thought the 29-year-old Oquendo — who was born in New York to Puerto Rican parents but grew up in San Bernardino — too young, too inexperienced, not battle-hardened enough.

Oquendo said if they want to come back, he’ll welcome them. But the church will be different, because the neighborhood is different.

“There’s members who have been here forever, but in essence, a new church is starting,” Oquendo said. “Gang members want better things too. But because of who I am, and because of who my members are, we’re going to get more of the post-gang era.”

When the reconstruction of the church is finished, Oquendo said, even the name won’t be the same. He’s chosen a new name — Cityscape: Church of Los Angeles — that he hopes will help “redefine how people see our city.”

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Source: The Pueblo Chieftain | Hector Becerra // McClatchy-tribune

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