By Jon Wolff
The following is from a recent conversation with the Reverend Oscar Rhone, of Mt. Hebron Baptist Church, on the upcoming appeal to the L.A. Planning Commission to oppose the proposed change of the historic First Baptist Church in Venice into a mansion for a rich couple.
Jon Wolff: You’ve been a part of this fight from the beginning. I remember you speaking very early in this struggle.
Reverend Rhone: My reason for being a part of this is not just because I want to be a part of it but because I was brought up in that church. However, I have another goal: I want to see the right thing be done. We know who all the players are, and what he said and what she said. But I want to see the right thing be done. Pastor [Horace] Allen had his part, the Penskes have their part. I have my part. At the time that Pastor Allen came along, the church was going through a transition. They couldn’t agree on who the pastor would be. The gentleman that Pastor Holmes had brought up and had in his tutelage wasn’t received well. Now, he should have stayed. Because, any time you enter into a calling, you’re going to have opposition. But this young man didn’t stay. He was prepared to be the pastor and he stepped up into it. But he left. They tried to get him to come back but, ever since that point, they fought about who was going to be the next pastor. So, what did they do? They did what the children of Israel did; they went out and made one. They made the golden calf. Remember that? Moses was up getting the Ten Commandments and they weren’t satisfied with Moses being away from them and they wanted a god. They came up with a golden calf. Pastor Allen is the golden calf they came up with. He had ulterior motives when he came to pastor the church. It wasn’t about him pastoring. It was about him being powerful and pacified. Everything is about money. So they go out and they find this guy. They show him the plans, they show him the budget. And they show him the people. He realizes that this congregation is not going to give him the opportunity to work out the goal that he has in the back of his mind. He’s one of those guys that wants to be up front. He wants to have the Cadillac, the rolls Royce, and all of the nice things that come along with being pastor. The nice suits, all those things that draw you away from God rather than draw you to God. I just want to see the right thing be done with the property.
JW: Do you suppose that the Penskes saw this vulnerability and took advantage of it?
RR: Well, it was said that the church had been for sale and nobody knew it was for sale. Nobody was privy to the information but Pastor Allen and the Penskes. However, I came to find out that pastor Allen had people that were working on his side in advance too, which was wrong. The way the church is set up, if you can get enough people to vote with you, being the pastor… If you have something that you want to do, and you can get enough members of the congregation to give you an “Amen” on it, you can go ahead with it. And this is what he did with the homeless people. He went and gathered people from anywhere and everywhere and brought them right there, made them comfortable, started feeding them. Then, at the same time as he was feeding them, he was also brainwashing them.
JW: In order to vote in his favor.
RR: Right. He found out that the congregation wasn’t big but that the facility was a nice size and something could be done with that. But you have to grow a congregation. You can’t just come and expect the congregation to be there. You have to get out into the community. This was something that he wasn’t willing to do because that wasn’t in his plans. He wanted a ready-made church where he could come in and start ordering things around and getting things his way and it just didn’t work like that. When this Penske situation came about, it surprised everybody. Because it was done in a shady way. And I just didn’t agree with it.
JW: You have a personal history in this church.
RR: Yes. I was ministering there when Pastor Allen was there off and on, because most of the community didn’t even know who he was. A lot of times, there were funeral services and other services that people wanted. But Pastor Allen was so busy doing what he had planned, he didn’t really want to communicate with the people. It just turned out to be a bad thing.
JW: The situation, as it is right now, has brought much of the community together from all different places in Venice. We look forward to being able to restore this church to the community itself. But we’re fighting a billionaire couple who can afford lawyers and lobbyists. What do you suggest that we hope for?
RR: We’re fighting the good fight of faith. We’re showing up. If we can get more people to show up and have more of what we already have, if we can get more people to come and be a part of it…
JW: To be present at the Planning Commission hearing.
RR: And to really see what’s going on. Most of what people know outside of the media is second hand. I just think that if they could get down there and be a part of it, they could see the serious side of it.
JW: They would see that this is more than just a property question. It has to do with the history and the spirituality of the community.
RR: Most of them know that. But it’s the money.
JW: What would you say to the Penskes at this point?
RR: I would ask them to reconsider what they’re doing, because of the spiritual nature of it. Of course, I know that they probably don’t care, but I’d still ask them to reconsider what they’re doing. And how many lives that they’re affecting. Whether they realize it or not, it has affected a lot of people, young and old. What would be the drawback to the Penskes getting their money back?
JW: Well, they’re billionaires. I don’t think it could hurt them in any way. Whatever they do, they’re not going to go hungry. And the value of this goes beyond just a piece of property. Anybody with a sound mind can see that. Now, I can’t imagine them being able to carry through with a conversion into a single-family dwelling in this atmosphere. I can’t imagine them continuing, with all of the outpouring of community support we’ve received. I have to assume that they’re reconsidering somewhat because… how can they go forward? How can they possibly go forward in this world, in this community, the way it is right now?
RR: That’s why we need to get more people involved. There’s been growth but we need to get more. That’s what I’m trying to do; get more people involved to show up at the [Planning Commission] meeting. I’m even willing to drive people there.
JW: We have hope for the future for this. We’ve fought hard for this and we’re on the right side.
RR: That’s why I’m here with you because I believe that what we’re doing is right. And I really want to see the church restored to its original use. People will come and support it once the church is put back in its original use. I’ve already had people say, “Whatever you guys need us to do, as far as construction, we’ll come and we’ll donate the time and materials,” and so forth and so on. So, there are people that are willing to get involved. They just have to get past the meeting. That’s the core right there. If we can get them to the meeting…
JW: To convince the Planning Commission that this is a right and just cause.
RR: The way the community is, you have young and old. You have the old-school community, which I am. Then you have the new-school community, which are the ones you saw on Community Day. They care.
JW: They signed the petition.
RR: We can’t read anybody’s mind but we can say, because of their actions, that they care. If people show up at the meeting, that will show that they care.
JW: Much of this is in the hands of the people in the community and the supporters of the fight.
RR: It looks like a David and Goliath thing. The Penskes being the Goliaths. But David had that one little stone and he hit him in the right place and he fell. This is where we’re at. We have to look at it in a spiritual sense ‘cause it’s a spiritual fight. You’ve got these attorneys and these well-schooled people. They’re going to continue with their lives and go to the next project. But then you’ve got a whole community in Venice, of people that are going to be affected for the rest of their lives. I think that the Penskes thought that they were going to just go ahead and go about their business. But it’s deeper than that. It’s much deeper than that.
Come to the Planning Commission meeting on Wednesday, August 15, 2018 at 4:30 PM at 11214 Exposition Blvd. in West L.A. to show your support for this historic Black church in Venice. For more details, go to www.savevenice.me .
By Jon Wolff