By Jon Wolff
The following is from a recent conversation with Venice Activist, Naomi Nightingale about the fight to preserve the historic First Baptist Church on Westminster Avenue and 7th Avenue in the Oakwood Community in Venice.
Naomi Nightingale: The church has always been a part of Venice. It’s been here ever since I was a part of Venice. The church, which was across the street, was a smaller church of Reverend Holmes. I visited that church on a number of occasions. The church and its members were people who lived in Venice, residents. The congregation outgrew the church and moved across the street and it’s been there ever since.
Jon Wolff: The location of the present building.
NN: Right. So, it was just like stepping from one side of the house to the other side of the house.
JW: The church has been there for over a century now. The Foundation of the church has been there for that long.
NN: Right. 1912, I believe.
JW: What is going on right now?
NN: I know Reverend Horace Allen. I know him from when he started working at the church because he was involved in a lot of the community meetings that I was involved in. We worked on the Police Community Relations Committee, so I know him from there.
JW: He’s the pastor of the congregation that met in the church building?
NN: Right. Now he’s called a bishop. I don’t know how that name change occurred but I knew him as Reverend Horace Allen. He came out of Los Angeles. I think the Compton/Watts area. And he was initially requested to be the pastor of the church. There were many pastors at the church after Reverend Holmes passed away. Mrs. Holmes was the CEO of the church and she’s the one who made the decisions about who the pastor would be, along with the Board of Directors of the church.
JW: And the current situation with the church is that it was sold to new owners?
NN: As I understand it, the church has been sold. Fraudulently sold, because Horace Allen did not have ownership or legal authority to sell the church.
JW: The legal authority… That would be with the Trustees?
NN: With the Trustees. With having the deed. With having the legal authority that was granted, not only by the Trustees, but by Mrs. Holmes.
JW: And in the bylaws of the church itself.
NN: Right. And when did the transaction occur? How did it occur? Was it legal? I understood, that because they were feeding homeless people there, that Horace Allen had some of the individuals sign as if they were on the Board, that they were members of the church. And that was one way that he was able to move through some of the legal processing. But I don’t know that they ever did any title changes or looked into the titles to find out who the legal owners were. I understand that this is something that the court is looking into now. My position about the church is from its historical, social, and legacy standing in the Community. I don’t know who they want to say owns the church. The fact to me is that the church should not be torn down, demolished, or… what’s the other word?
JW: “Re-purposed” is the word they use.
NN: “Re-purposed” for residential use or a use other than that which serves the Community, which is why it’s there in the first place.
JW: Absolutely. How it got there in the first place.
NN: And so, any movement on the part of anyone to make this into a residential building or a commercial operation or to remove it and put anything else there is what I am fighting against. That’s my ultimate position: that the church needs to still be there for the purpose for which it was built in the first place. I see too much of Structure, Culture, and Legacy of the Black Community, and other people who built this Community, simply removed as if it never existed, and substituted by a two-story or three-story concrete glass-fronted building and, most of the time, sold. There’s the footprint, the imprint, the Legacy of those people, like my grandparents and other people’s grandparents, that worked hard to build this Community. They made a Legacy here to give us stories to tell about how we grew up here and the things that we went through, the schools that we went to, the events that we had. The annual activities became a part of where we are, and many of them occurred right here in this church.
JW: Do you think that some individuals would like to erase all that right now?
NN: I think they don’t care. I think they don’t have a clue. It doesn’t matter to them. And that’s the real crime. Another real crime is from Horace Allen because he knows all of that. He was here in this Community for a number of years. He served on committees. He interacted with people. He knows those things. So, for him to set them aside, and for him to sell out the Community in the way that, apparently, he has, is disgraceful.
JW: And, most likely, fraudulent.
NN: Fraudulent. That’s the reason why it’s in court right now.
JW: It looks like the people on the side of preserving the church, the good guys, have a good chance of having the sale declared fraudulent.
NN: Oh, I believe they do. My understanding is that there is no document that legally says that Horace Allen had a right to sell the building.
JW: In the meantime, there have been gatherings in front of the church every week, every Sunday, plus the big one that happened on Saturday a couple of weeks ago.
NN: December 9, yes.
JW: We had a number of speakers that day.
NN: We did. We had some great speakers that day.
JW: You spoke yourself.
NN: I did speak that day. But I speak just about every Sunday. That day, Dennis Moore spoke.
JW: And Pastor Rhone.
NN: Yes. Pastor Rhone was our keynote speaker that day. Pastor Rhone grew up in this Community, and so he had a lot to say. I remember the key part of his address was that: if the Foundation be destroyed, then what can the righteous people do? That resonated with me deeply because I think that those of us who continue to come out every Sunday are representing the righteous people. Because our effort is to ensure that the Foundation of that church still remains, that the church still stands.
JW: And, in turn, the Foundation of the Community.
JW: Do you think that this is part of a larger picture? Is this happening because it’s part of a larger effort to upset the History of this Community?
NN: Oh yeah, definitely. I think it goes back many years and it’s part of the City’s long reach plan. Part of the City’s 30-year plan was to get to exactly where they are, in terms of Venice being a greater tax base for the City. It stood to reason that this Community, as it was, with low and middle income people living here, a diverse Community, shouldn’t stay as it was for very long, with Santa Monica to our north and Marina del Rey to the south. Here sits this little beachfront Community. That’s a prize.
JW: But the efforts on Sunday and the efforts in the Community are gaining strength right now. What outcome do you see for this in the long run? Does it look like we have Hope to turn this around at this point?
NN: I never give up Hope. Because I’m a person of the 60s, and you just keep fighting. Even when the days look dark, that is not something that deters you, because you know that you can continue to fight and move through the darkness. I think that there’s Hope. And we’ve already started talking about what we would like to see happen in that church as a result of it remaining there, and what kinds of services would the church provide to the Community. There really isn’t a nice place to have Community events. You could have family events, family reunions, Christmas events, things like that. We don’t have a really nice place. Perhaps the church could be used for events like that.
JW: The projected use for this building is for a single family dwelling. And it’s something like 13,000 square feet. Is that right?
NN: That’s what I’ve heard. And that they would be using all four lots, which is prohibited by City Planning. How would they do that unless they got a waiver? We know that the City’s not beyond giving waivers. Neither is the Coastal Commission. Neither is the Venice Neighborhood Council. After all, the Venice Neighborhood Council voted to approve the sale of the church. So, how are they in support of the Community? I think it’s incredible, reprehensible, and absolutely… I can’t even really find the words.
JW: Anti-social maybe?
NN: I think it’s deeper than being anti-social. It’s like taking a piece of the Community that’s been a vital organ to the Community and throwing it away on the surgeon’s table. They can’t continue to just drive through the Community with their bulldozers and their million dollars and say, “You don’t matter. Your voices are put aside and the Legacy that you want to leave here in the Community is meaningless.” This is best demonstrated by the City agencies that should be looking out for us. They see the new sources and say that they need the tax base and that this is going to be a better look and an upgrade and, besides, you people don’t really need to live here, you can’t afford to live in this Community anymore. What I hear over and over again is that it’s “Supply and Demand” that’s driving it. Well, whose supply and whose demand?
JW: We’re gathering support in the Community. More and more, there are people walking by on Sunday and finding out what’s going on and picking up literature.
NN: Right. And contacting us on Facebook. The more we can get people to come and hear what’s going on and to spread the word and tell the stories, and the more we can contact people who are no longer living here in the Community but who are part of the church and who grew up here and are concerned about what’s going to happen to the church, the greater is our strength. Then, of course, with our endurance, we’ll continue to fight.
JW: What sort of leverage do you think we have with local government? Like say, Councilmember Bonin? Is he going to take notice at some point? I know he was confronted a few months ago about this. If people call his office, will he be inclined to take a position?
NN: I think he’s a political person, so he is swayed by voters and pressure. We have to keep the pressure on. We have to give him good cause and reason as to why he should be supporting us. I believe that we’ll continue to provide him with information and put pressure on him. And we’re also going to include talking to Sheila Kuehl.
JW: Get the County involved in this.
JW: There’s a good chance we’ll get what we want with this then.
NN: I have to believe that we’re going to get what we want. I can not believe anything else at this point. I know that we’re making some headway because we’re getting all kinds of accusations levied against us by those who support the sale and purchase of the church. So, we must be getting on someone’s nerves.
JW: They’re starting to kick because we’re making a difference.
NN: We’re making a difference and they’re getting a little nervous about what kind of inroads we might be making.
JW: I get the feeling that they, and the VNC, think that they were going to do what they wanted to do more quickly than they have and, because the Community’s fought back on so many issues, they’re starting to realize that they may have bit off more than they can chew.
NN: I think that the absence of voices at the Venice Neighborhood Council, for a term, has falsely encouraged them to think that no one cared, or that they weren’t going to have the kind of pushback or power, influence of action, that they are now experiencing. I served on the Venice Neighborhood Council for two terms, and that Board, that Council, has made a 180 degree turn. To me, they’re all focused on self. It’s about the money for them. And that the Venice Neighborhood Council was just an avenue for them to embellish their own private practices and network opportunities with the City and other entities, to help them gain what they needed to gain profit-wise. I don’t see anyone on that Neighborhood Council right now, that I could say, was absolutely for the People.
JW: And there are currently zero African-American members of the VNC.
NN: Absolutely true.
JW: Less than zero.
NN: And we’re looking to see if we can change that.
JW: So, the future is in our hands perhaps.
NN: Yeah. As far as the Venice Neighborhood Council is concerned.
JW: As far as Venice.
NN: As far as Venice is, absolutely. We’re here. We’re part of the current. We’ve been part of the past. And we will definitely be part of the future.
JW: Amen to that.
NN: Amen to that.
For more info on this: www.savevenice.me
By Jon Wolff