A Los Angeles church known as a home to transformed gang members and drug addicts in the early 1990's is set for a facelift. While a majority of its original members have left, a new pastor has been named, and a building renovation is in the works.
The new look includes a name change, from Boyle Heights Christian Center to Cityscape: Church of Los Angeles, once their run-down building is renovated. Pastor Joey Oquendo hopes the move marks the beginning of a new community church for its gang-ridden neighborhood.
"There are members who have been here forever, but in essence, a new church is starting," Oquendo said, according to the Los Angeles Times. "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."
Oquendo replaced the church's founder, Pete Bradford, last year and is making changes based on the gentrification of the neighborhood, that has changed drastically over the last two decades. What was once a hotbed for gangsters, constant police sirens, and crime has now become home to newly developed restaurants, theaters and art galleries.
Bradford, a former gangster, began the church at a time when violence was considered the norm and homicide rates in the Los Angeles area had reached over 2,000 each year from 1990 to 1993.
"It was not unusual to hear gunshots every day," Bradford said. "We had windows shot out. They weren't shooting at us. They were shooting at each other."
Although 34 gangs remain in the Boyle Heights and surrounding area, homicide rates have decreased significantly. When Oquendo took over the church after Bradford retired because of Parkinson's disease, Los Angeles County had reported 592 homicides.
"The reputation of Boyle Heights to me was pretty much 'American Me,' you know, 'Blood In, Blood Out,'" Oquendo said, referring to movies about East Los Angeles gangs. "But gang activity has died down a lot, not just in L.A, and Boyle Heights, but across the nation."
Ever since the church, that once counted 200 reformed gangsters as members in 1999, began to decline in membership and finances, Bradford continued to keep the congregation alive. Much of the church's appeal came from Bradford himself, who was a "dope fiend" with a criminal past. He used to recruit members by going out into the streets just to pray for gangsters.
"I had been a bit of a criminal myself. I believe they knew I was for real," Bradford said. "I believe that was the big difference ... If you don't love those people, then you're wasting your time and theirs."
Now, the majority of the 20-member congregation has no affiliation to gangs with the exception of a few and although Oquendo welcomes community members looking to escape their gang and crime-ridden lifestyle, he also hopes his church will now attract a diverse group of people as well.
"They lost Pastor Pete. They lost a father figure, a guy they trusted forever. Then they bring me, someone young who's tearing down walls... literally," Oquendo said.