LOS ANGELES (AP) — The black choir clapped and swayed, propelled by the organ's groove and drums' beat as gospel music filled the tiny New Life in Christ Church on Compton Avenue.
The rhythm came naturally, but when it was time to sing, the choir had to turn to sheet music to keep from stumbling over the Spanish lyrics.
Two years after this African-American Pentecostal congregation of about 100 people welcomed their Latino neighbors, the two groups are still trying to stay in tune in a part of the city that has not always lived in harmony.
For Pastor Elwood Carson, reaching out to his Spanish-speaking neighbors and steering his small African-American congregation toward bilingualism is a Christian duty and a matter of survival as his small flock scatters to the suburbs and Mexican immigrants move in. For the church – which is affiliated with the Church of God in Christ denomination – it's a return to the birth of Pentecostalism.
Carson moves seamlessly between two languages in his Sunday sermons as Gary Nava, the church's unofficial assistant pastor, translates beside his mentor, echoing the preacher's cadence and mirroring his body language.
“I was looking for a church where they speak English, because I was running away from everyone expecting me to speak Spanish all the time,'' said Nava, a tattooed ex-gang thug who was one of Carson's first converts.
Nava, 32, had just finished a prison sentence for a gun charge and was trying to stay straight. He said he was a member of Los Angeles' largest gang, Florencia 13, which vies for turf with the East Coast Crips, an African-American gang.
With his shaved head and neck tattoo, Nava still looks like a neighborhood tough, but his translation skills and his redemption story have earned him a leadership role and opened the door for Latinos.
The flock of new parishioners has fulfilled a lifelong dream for Carson, who taught Spanish at a public elementary school, spent vacations at language school in Costa Rica and took classes in Spanish while earning his master's degree from Fuller Theological Seminary.
Carson, 63, said most of the church's longtime African-American parishioners support his focus on Hispanic outreach because it's part of the church's evangelical mission. But some complained and left.
“They told me they have to deal with this at their jobs and they don't want to deal with it at church,'' Carson said. “Some people don't realize how prejudiced they are. So when they're confronted with people from other cultures, they're uncomfortable.''
Mabel Gutierrez, an African-American church member who has attended the church for more than 20 years, said she misses friends who left, “but maybe God was just making room for those of us who want to do His work.”
ON THE NET
New Life in Christ Church in L.A.: www.newlife-intl.org/home
Church of God in Christ Inc.: http://cogic.net/cogiccms/default/