Emeritus Professor Lorn Foster Takes Us—and PBS—to Church

Emeritus Professor of Politics Lorn S. Foster is an expert on the Black church in L.A. Second Baptist Church (pictured) is among the first.

Emeritus Professor of Politics Lorn S. Foster’s interest in the Black church in Los Angeles was piqued 16 years ago during a sabbatical. He read Doug Flamming's Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America and Josh Sides’ L.A. City Limits: African American Los Angeles from the Great Depression to the Present. Then he read them a second time. And he noticed something was wrong, he said. After the third read, Foster looked at the index. He realized the authors hadn't talked about the role of the African American church. So, for over a decade, Foster has been working on this topic and is close to publishing a volume.

Foster notes that it’s important to remember that in 1781, half of the people in the Los Angeles region were either Indigenous or of African descent. The exact year of the organizing of the first African American church in L.A. is uncertain —somewhere between 1868 and 1872. But it was named St. Stephen's African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and was founded by Bridget “Biddy” Mason, a former slave. Following that, the Second Baptist Church was founded in 1885, and then three years later, the Methodists founded Wesley Chapel. Other early Black churches in the region included Westminster Presbyterian, St. Philip the Evangelist Episcopal, New Hope Baptist Church, The People’s Independent Church of Christ and Lincoln Memorial. While these may be the first, Foster says these “do not include the wide variety and depth of the African American religious experience in Los Angeles.”

Foster says that the appeal of the church is a kind of anomaly. The question that arises is why African Americans would be drawn to Christianity when Christianity enslaved them. And the answer?

“Religious experiences. Beginning as early as the 17th century Africans would gather in hush harbors or safe spaces; they had freedom. And I'm not talking about political freedom initially, I'm talking about just the freedom to be themselves, to express themselves in ways that were not permissible to their white masters. And so, whether it be loud exhortation, or wailing and whining, singing, altering one’s dress, how one greeted a person, that was a form of freedom. Also, the church itself becomes a form of freedom.”

As the church took on a political dimension, the freedom was not just personal, Foster says.

“You have to realize that probably the most important clubhouse for African American politics is the church. And so, the church is where politics are discussed. The church is where entrepreneurship is incubated, the church is where social relationships are formed.”

One significant aspect of the African American church in Los Angeles is its level of civic engagement, which is Foster’s focus. After organizing by W.E.B. Du Bois in 1913, the NAACP was founded in Los Angeles in 1914. Three of the board members were pastors. Civic auditoriums and church buildings were sometimes one and the same.

“And in 1965, when L.A. went up in insurrection, there was an African American pastor, F. Douglas Ferrell, who represented Watts, who was in the California General Assembly…and that was the first notion of a pastor also being an elected public official,” says Foster.

The church’s impact on the secular sphere continued in entrepreneurship, communications and entertainment. The Golden State Mutual Life Insurance Company was germinated in the church and they would use the church to hire agents. With the emergence of radio came Los Angeles native Clayton D. Russell, who was the pastor of the People's Independent Church and started a radio broadcast in 1938. Sermons, songs and social justice activism were part of the programming. Other pastors used the radio for their choirs and singers like Roberta Martin.

Those ministers that weren’t prominent on the public square nonetheless exerted strong influence. Another pastor, H. Hartford Brookins, was a key influence for one of his parishioners, Tom Bradley, in encouraging him to run for mayor of Los Angeles, where he served for 20 years. After the Los Angeles police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King in 1992, there was another insurrection, and the calls for peace came from the First AME Church and Pastor Chip Murray, Bradley’s home church and pastor.

“Today we're also seeing the African American church involved in Black Lives Matter, economic development, and a broad array of things.,” Foster says. “And the church is inclusive, but it's also exclusive, and it's a plural organization. Some churches are accessible to LBGTQ communities, to multiracial congregations. There are other churches that would shy away from these things. And so, when you think of the African American church, don't think of churches as a steeple, and a building, but think of it as a kind of a collection of institutions.”

This collection of institutions—the Black church—differed (and continues to differ) in its impact as compared and contrasted with the white church.

“At the turn of the century, if you are white and middle class, you have multiple opportunities to participate in the public space. I'm talking about men, unfortunately. And even women, you have your work. If you're an entrepreneur, if you're a shopkeeper, you have the Chamber of Commerce, you have lodges. And so, you can be a part of multiple constituencies. Whereas if you're African American, the church is the centerpiece of your social world,” says Foster.

And the centerpiece of the church itself is found in some key scripture passages, Foster says. The exodus story is the essential story in the African American Christian community. The prophet Micah asks, ‘What does God seek of you, but justice and mercy and to walk humbly with your God?’ In the 25th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, verses 31 through 46, Jesus talks about separating sheep and goats based on whether his followers fed the hungry, satisfied the thirsty, and took care of “the least of these.” Finally, Christ was an outsider. Christ was not part of the in-crowd, Foster says.

Whether in the City of Angels or outside it, Foster distills what the African American church writ large stands for in one word: “liberation.”

Foster is on Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s PBS series “The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song.” At 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 24, Foster will host a virtual panel and screening of “The Black Church.”