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Exodus

June 21, 2007 |  8:24 am

 

1957_0621_methodists

1957_0621_churchJune 21, 1957
Los Angeles

If there was ever a headline that said: "Do Not Read Me," it would be "Chain-Reaction Tithing Adopted by Methodists."

The real news, buried down in the story, is that the Southern California-Arizona Conference of Methodists was going to appoint an African American minister to head a white congregation. The minister was not identified, but church officials said he would be assigned to Normandie Avenue Methodist, 3792 S. Normandie, a once-thriving church established in 1908 that was struggling to survive.

The Rev. L.L. White of the church's Urban Life Committee, said: "We share with our Latin American brothers that this conference has been called of God to set a pattern of integration for the rest of the church. To do this we must move beyond the superficial aspects of integration. We must see our relationship to each other not as a problem but as an opportunity to discover some new dimensions for our souls."

A little further digging shows that this was the second local white Methodist congregation to be headed by a black minister, the first being Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church of Pasadena.

In the true spirit of Christian fellowship, most of the white congregation abandoned Normandie Avenue upon learning of the appointment of the Rev. Nelson Burlin Higgins Jr., an ordained Baptist minister.  Not content with merely leaving, the white Methodists removed most of the furniture on the pulpit, which had been donated as memorials to various members of the congregation.

Apparently this was no surprise, except to us living in the modern era. The neighborhood around Normandie Avenue Methodist was 27.5% to 84% black, but the church refused to accept African American members, although black children were allowed to attend Sunday school, The Times says.

No, I'm not kidding.

Fortunately, the furniture for the pulpit was replaced with items salvaged from Bethany Methodist Church, 1025 W. Olympic, which was demolished for the Santa Monica Freeway.

"I am confident we can reverse the trend of the past 20 years and climb back up to a peak membership much more swiftly than the course down," Higgins said. At Higgins' first service, 1,000 people crowded into the sanctuary, the social hall, the basketball court and milled around outside. In 1959, baseball player Duke Snider spoke at the church about integration in sports.

But by 1961, The Times says, Normandie Avenue Methodist was all-black and had a new minister, the Rev. Alexander C. Austin, who replaced  the Rev. Wilbur Johnson, Higgins' successor.

There were still some whites listed as members, but they never attended, Austin said. Although he hoped Normandie Avenue would become integrated, Austin said, "It's one of those things that will have to work itself out. The more you force it, the worse it gets. It will have to work itself out."

Nelson Burlin Higgins died in Los Angeles in 1984 at the age of 67.

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