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First Chinese Baptist Church stays committed inside L.A.’s Chinatown

LOS ANGELES (BP)–Moving never really was an option.

Even though about 80 percent of the members of First Chinese Baptist Church live in Los Angeles suburbs 20 miles to the east, when they came to the point at which additional space was a necessity, they voted for their church to stay in Chinatown.

“We felt obligated to stay because we’re needed here,” pastor Benny Wong said.

“Many Buddhist temples are here; there’s a palm-reading place down the street; six months ago a guy was granted permission to open a gambling school in our neighborhood; nearby there’s the site of a proposed ‘adult entertainment center.’ When you look at all these things happen, you see the evil power.”

First Chinese, where about 2,000 people participate each Sunday in one of four services — English, Cantonese, bilingual and youth — broke ground last September for a 1,000-seat worship center, adjoining multipurpose building and an underground 80-vehicle parking garage.

One of 28 Chinese-speaking churches in California that affiliate with the California Baptist Convention, First Chinese is the largest Asian church west of Chicago.

Tucked into the southwest edge of Chinatown, the three-level, 40,000-square-foot new construction will feature swooping roof lines with an Asian flair that will help raise First Chinese’s profile in its community, the pastor said. The construction is across a narrow street from the church’s present sprawling complex of aging American-style buildings.

But First Chinese isn’t waiting for the anticipated November dedication service of the new building to make itself known. A concerted effort has been made over the last two years to minister to children who live in the area.

Now, about 100 neighborhood youngsters participate in one of five Sunday afternoon options led by church members: computers, crafts, Chinese, art and tutoring.

And that’s not all.

The Chinese New Year parade is a major event for the community. Under Julia Wong’s direction — the volunteer title of the pastor’s wife is evangelism director — First Chinese members passed out tracts and balloons the last two years. This year for the first time, the youth and children’s choirs were invited to participate in the community celebration.

“The momentum is building,” Pastor Wong said. “At first I was skeptical because a significant number of our members are professionals and this is a blue-collar community. But this is what God commands us to do, to love our neighbor as ourselves. Thank the Lord we’re improving.”

Love your neighbor as yourself is the main theme for First Chinese this year. Every member is encouraged to participate in at least one project for the Chinatown community; do a deed of kindness weekly for a non-Christian; make a weekly contact with another Christian who is not a close friend; and pray regularly with a prayer partner.

Wong credits his wife with being the catalyst for change that moved First Chinese from its comfort zone to a place where it could be even more effective for God.

The church, he said, had been fervent for years in its “doing” of “church” — in its Wednesday evening prayer time, in its sacrificial financial giving, in its consistent 2,000 attendance on Sundays and its perhaps 80 baptisms annually — but it wasn’t being the church God had in mind when he birthed it in 1952.

Julia Wong passes the credit on to God.

“Two years ago at our missions conference God specifically spoke to me about the need [of people] in Chinatown,” she said. “Before that I felt kind of numb about them. But he tells me that I should love those God loves.”

And while First Chinese has grown closer to its community, members have grown closer to each other and to God.

In addition to midweek prayer services that have been well-attended for years, two years ago the church developed a Prayer Ministry Department to focus even more attention on connecting to God and his power.

Home Bible study “cell” groups began springing up early last fall. And monthly fellowship groups are increasing in numbers and interest. One such group meets for lunch after the bilingual service because that’s the only time the majority of that multinational group can coordinate their schedules.

First Chinese provides direct support to 26 missionary families, in addition to support for the Southern Baptist Cooperative Program and Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for international missions. And by the end of its recently completed, month-long World Missions Conference, more than 50 people had signed up to be involved this year in one of eight international missions projects.

“This is exciting,” Wilberta Chinn, the church’s missions minister, said. “In the past we’ve had only one or two teams. All of a sudden, people are catching on.”

First Chinese also has started four Chinese-language congregations in California: Walnut, Sacramento, Fountain Valley and the border town Calexico, where it also has a radio ministry to Chinese who live in Mexico.

“It is by the grace of God that we are able to serve him in these ways,” Pastor Wong said. “It is also through prayer that we can bear fruit that lasts.”