As Los Angeles Fire Department arson investigators searched the charred and smoldering remains of Victory Baptist Church on Sunday, the spiritual community in South Los Angeles slowly came to terms with the loss of this historic landmark.
“The building is destroyed, but the church still lives,” said Pastor W. Edward Jenkins, as heavy equipment began tearing down the fire-damaged walls. “The church is not dead. The church is doing well. The building is in ruins, but we will rebuild.
The church, founded in the 1940s and located west of famed Central Avenue – the heart of Black Los Angeles nearly 75 years ago – was a destination for gospel singers, civil rights activists and worshipers looking for a familiar home in the midst of a rapidly changing and gentrifying city.
“It’s a terrible loss,” said historian Tyree Boyd-Pates, who helped organize an exhibit at the California African American Museum on gospel music in Los Angeles that included Victory Baptist Church. “It’s hard to process, given the church’s role in Los Angeles, especially for African Americans who moved here during the Great Migration of the 1940s.”
The fire started at 2:22 a.m. Sunday, said Nicholas Prange, a fire department spokesman, and quickly became a major emergency, requiring the response of at least 16 businesses.
Two firefighters were injured in a fight that lasted two hours, Prange said. They were inside the church when one of them became trapped by a collapsing ceiling and walls. A distress call was made and the firefighter was rescued and taken to hospital with moderate injuries. The other firefighter sought treatment for minor injuries after the incident ended.
After the fire was extinguished, arson investigators and members of the House of Worship Task Force – a multi-agency effort that seeks to identify and capture individuals who target churches in Los Angeles, began their investigating the possibility that the fire was started intentionally.
In front of the ruins of the church, Donald Hambrick was in tears. The 76-year-old lawyer described how after arriving in Los Angeles with his family from Louisiana in 1958, Victory Baptist Church was an inspiration.
“I learned to be Black, to be proud, to know the importance of education here,” he said. “I learned to dream.”
“A piece of history burned down today,” said Pat Smith, a worshiper who arrived at the scene shortly after the fire started. “It was part of our lives.”
Jenkins’ son Jahi said a few items were recovered: pulpit chairs, portraits of former pastors, church documents and the church sign in front.
Over the decades, Victory Baptist Church has provided a valuable stage for the spiritual and political developments of South Los Angeles. With two choirs and the Wrecking Crew Male Chorus, music has always been at the heart of its message.
Sounds of elevation and salvation filled the church, whether on Sunday mornings or during choir rehearsals on Wednesdays and Saturdays. As with many black congregations in the city, services at Victory Baptist Church were occasions for celebration. Women often arrived with elegant hats and matching gloves and men in suits.
Last Sunday, before Jenkins took the pulpit for the weekly Victory Hour, a video posted on the church’s website showed the Reverend Randy Allison at the piano and Jahi on drums, set a beat for the opening hymn sung by William Yancey.
Now let’s talk a bit with Jesus,
Let’s tell Him all of our sorrows
He will hear our every cry
He will respond as time goes on….
Founded by Arthur Atlas Peters in a local storefront on Easter Sunday in 1943 by 14 community members, the church moved into its current building a year later. In the 1950s, his Sunday evening services were broadcast on Channel 11 during prime time. The congregation quickly grew to 3,000 people.
The church, along with St. Paul Baptist, Mount Moriah Missionary Baptist, Opportunity Baptist, and Grace Memorial Church of God in Christ, has long provided community through music in the city’s black neighborhoods.
Several musicians have made Victory Baptist Church their destination, including soprano Dorothy Maynor, gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, and singer and actress Ethel Waters. Renowned trumpeter Louis Burke, whose 18-piece orchestra played throughout the city, was honored at Victory Baptist Church upon his death.
“Victory is a humble giant in our own backyard,” Boyd-Pates said. “He pioneered not only gospel music, but also social activism in Los Angeles.”
Victory Baptist Church played an important role in voter registration drives and civil rights fundraisers, and was a destination for members of Congress, state legislators, council members, and activists. community.
Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. preached at the church in 1959 and again in 1964. He returned a year later after the assassination of Malcolm X, months before the Watts Riots.
Former city mayor Tom Bradley stood before the church congregation in 1991 to honor the life of Gilbert Lindsay, Los Angeles’ first black alderman.
A forum of mayoral candidates, sponsored by the South-Central Political Action Committee, was held at the church in 1993. In 2001, mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa ascended the pulpit at the church to speak to the congregation.
Los Angeles City Councilman Curren Price was at the scene on Sunday and Holly Mitchell, who is campaigning for the 2nd District on the LA County Board of Supervisors, called Jenkins with her support.
The church has faced adversity before. In 1975, Pastor Peters, who was known in Los Angeles as “The Good Shepherd” and who opened the state’s first black church-owned nursery and preschool, was murdered in his home by intruders. .
But Victory Baptist Church endured, growing under the leadership of its new pastors even as the neighborhood’s demographics shifted from predominantly black to Hispanic.
“The victory was a beacon for the community,” Jenkins said, describing the church’s outreach ministries for food and clothing. “The community depends on us.”
“This church has held up a lot,” Boyd-Pates said. “This is an institution that wholeheartedly believes in witty themes. She remained prepared for the changes and winds of life, and their faith carried them through those storms.
“Whatever happens next,” he said, “I imagine the church will survive and persist for decades to come.”