During World War II, sailors disembarking ships followed a beacon emanating from the spire of the San Pedro United Methodist Church. Upon arrival they could shower, eat a meal prepared in our kitchen and maybe write a letter home.
History is never far away when the church you lead and worship in was built in 1923. It is a grand three storey building with beautiful stained glass windows and a sanctuary with a vaulted open beam ceiling that seats 350. It is a large church and over time we have grown into a small congregation.
Decades ago, when we were the only Protestant church in town, the sanctuary filled for both weekly services. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, we averaged about 52 people on Sunday mornings. Today, about 25 parishioners are gathering in person, and another 100 from across the country are joining us online.
Since the pandemic, it has become vital for us to find ways to reinvent our service and think outside the box.
Our decline in church membership reflects a national trend. For decades, about 70% of the US population belonged to a religious order, but around the beginning of the 21st century a steady decline began. Last year US membership in houses of worship dropped below 50% for the first time since Gallup began measuring it in 1937.
And for the first time in decades, the large red double doors in front of our church did not open for worship. We realized that our church life as we knew it was about to change. We could become stagnant and possibly slowly disappear or change over time.
while more than 4,000 churches in America 2020 closed their doors, we had to redefine what it means to have “open doors”. We have had to step out of our silos and work with other religious organizations and interested parties who share a common goal of supporting our community.
For inspiration, I looked back to my roots. I thought of growing up in Palmdale watching my father, a Methodist minister, take care of a needy family in the middle of the night. It reminded me of the role that religious organizations play in society, even all these years later.
We were looking for another way to be a beacon in the community, a solution that would pay the bills and feed the San Pedro community. As church attendance has declined, donations to churches have also declined. Thirty years ago, about 50% of all donations go to charity went to places of worship. had this number shrunk to about 30% until the pandemic hit.
One of the greatest assets that many churches have is their buildings and surrounding property. San Pedro UMC is no exception. We have plenty of space inside and outside the church. More than 20 years ago we were given a vacant piece of land next to the church. It sat vacant until we began dreaming about how it might best serve our community today.
To take advantage of the land, we partnered with 1010 Development Corp. joined forces, a nonprofit organization that is a leader in affordable housing development in Los Angeles. Our goal is to build 54 affordable housing units and support the people who live there. We expect to break ground by the end of this year.
During the pandemic, it wasn’t easy to imagine how people could use our campus in new ways when everyone had to stay at home. Still, we tried to imagine what it would be like to fill the courtyard with voices and families. Because there are many homeless people in San Pedro, we decided to expand our partnership with Family Promise of the South Bay, a nonprofit organization that provides services to the homeless.
The organization rented half of our building, space that includes toilets, showers, a kitchen and gym, as well as classrooms. They are used as a recovery center to provide resources and support to help families get back on their feet. In February, the first residents moved in, four families who will be staying with us temporarily while they work on finding accommodation.
By renovating the same kitchen that produced these robust seaman meals during WWII, we will be able to develop programs that help address food insecurity in our community. During the pandemic, many people were visiting food banks for the first time. Our teaching kitchen helps families prepare healthy meals from staples obtained from a food bank and supplemented with produce from the farmers market. The kitchen will also be a place where people can learn a trade.
Yes, church membership is declining, but people who identify as spiritual – especially millennials – say they still crave something more. Communities have a unique opportunity to go beyond the walls of their buildings and help change the world for the better.
Pastor Lisa Williams has led San Pedro United Methodist for seven years.
https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2022-03-13/churches-shrinking-congregation-pandemic-reinvent Op-Ed: The church I lead was struggling — then the pandemic struck. How we try to survive