Historic LA Church Seeks New Life

By Yoshiko, Caitlin | The Christian Century, January 2, 2019 | Go to article overview

Historic LA Church Seeks New Life


Yoshiko, Caitlin, The Christian Century


Carlos Munoz Jr. spent much of his youth at Church of the Epiphany, an Episcopal parish in the East Los Angeles neighborhood of Lincoln Heights.

But he's not--and has never been--Episcopalian.

An organizer with the Chicano civil rights movement of the 1960s, Munoz and other student leaders held meetings at the church. It was there that Munoz planned the 1968 student walkouts, the first major mobilization of Mexican Americans in Southern California, in which tens of thousands of high school students left their classrooms to protest racism and unequal conditions in their schools.

Mexican American activists also met at the church to plan protests of the Vietnam War, start a bilingual newspaper about movement activities, and form the Brown Berets, a group modeled after the Black Panthers. The building served as the East Los Angeles campaign headquarters for Robert E Kennedy's presidential campaign and the Los Angeles base for labor leader Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

"No matter what time of the day, what time of the night it was, we'd say, 'Father Luce, can we come?'" Munoz said of John Luce, one of the church's pastors at the time. "And he'd say, 'Sure, the door's always open.' The church was very important to us."

Now, 50 years later, Church of the Epiphany is embarking on a nearly $1 million effort to restore the 130-year-old building so that its history can be preserved for future generations and so that it can once again be a meeting place for activist youth. In October the church--the oldest sustained Episcopal congregation in the city and a designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument--won $150,000 from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Partners in Preservation campaign to put toward the project.

"The church should be remembered for the role it played in the development of the civil rights movement for Mexican Americans in this country and the struggles we waged to make better schools for Mexican American children," said Munoz, professor emeritus of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

Church of the Epiphany was built in 1887 in what was then a white, middleclass suburb of Los Angeles, said Tom Carey, the current pastor of the church.

"It was basically a run-of-the-mill Episcopal Church until the 1950s," he said.

After World War II, Mexican Americans began moving into the neighborhood, and by the 1960s Church of the Epiphany had become Spanish-speaking, with no English worship services. The church then brought in three white priests, John Luce, Roger Wood, and Oliver Garver, who had backgrounds in community organizing--and a desire to show solidarity with the Mexican Americans in their parish and the surrounding neighborhood.

At the time, Mexican Americans faced rampant discrimination, particularly in schools, Munoz said. Students were not allowed to speak Spanish and were often barred from taking the science and math classes necessary to apply for college. Instead, they were diverted into trade schools, which also meant they were eligible for the military draft.

Inspired by the civil rights leaders in the South, Mexican American youth in Los Angeles started organizing mass protests and demonstrations. But one difference between the two movements was that African Americans had the backing of the black church, Munoz said.

"We had no support to speak of from the Catholic Church at that time," he said.

Church of the Epiphany filled this gap, providing not only the space but also the support Mexican American youth needed to plan the Chicano civil rights movement. …

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