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Meet Rev. Mandy McDow of Los Angeles First United Methodist Church

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rev. Mandy McDow.

So, before we jump into specific questions about the business, why don’t you give us some details about you and your story.
I moved to Los Angeles in July 2017; this was in response to a major move from Atlanta to Orange County in 2014, which resulted in my life falling apart. My marriage failed, and I felt totally lost and alone in a new state, 2000 miles away from the home I loved.

My expression of my faith has always been rooted in social justice and advocacy for and with the LGBTQIA+, and the work I knew best was nearly impossible in Orange County. As I began to get a grip on my emotional response to losing my spouse, I turned to God with some fist-shaking urgency. I could not figure out why God would have brought me here, just to watch my family dissolve. It wasn’t enough that I got to watch breathtaking sunsets into the Pacific Ocean each night. I was homesick, lonely, scared and depressed.

As I started doing more wondering and exploring, I realized that in the newly-found onslaught of alone time, I was starting to be drawn back to the things I loved most: music, theater, museums. I spent time visiting Los Angeles because I love the city. I craved an attachment to an urban area and loved the vibrancy and diversity of life here. During one of my drives back from LA, I intentionally turned off my GPS and roamed.

I accidentally found myself in West Hollywood, and my first thought was, “I’ve found my people!” I looked around and saw familiar sights, familiar people, familiar circumstances. I realized that this was the place to which God was calling me. I know how to serve in a place like this. I know how to reach people who haven’t been reached. I know how to share God’s love with people who have been hurt.

I know how to reach out to people who are hungry – spiritually and physically.  Not only do I know how to do these things, but I feel *called* to do them. I felt the overwhelming assurance that Frederick Buechner writes about when defining vocation: The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. Driving through West Hollywood, I found that place for me.

I felt a sense of deep gladness, to feel home and comfortable in my setting. Not just comfortable to settle into contentment, but clear on the work that could be done. I saw the world’s deep hunger, manifested in many different ways. As I continued to explore the city, I noticed something else important: the churches that were growing like wildfire were all conservative, evangelical churches. This is not news, nor is it a phenomenon exclusive to the west coast.

But, I had long been thinking about the nature of the church, the future of my beloved denomination, and the ways in which the culture of Southern California is very different than that of the South. My affection for the Beer and Hymns movement had already shown up in at least one sermon, and I believed that if the church, as we know it, is going to survive, then it is in desperate need of adaptation. I simply can’t believe that the only reason conservative evangelical churches grow into mini-cities is due to their theology.

It might be compelling to some, but it’s certainly a turn-off to others. The question that had been plaguing me for months was, “Why doesn’t someone get their act together and form a progressive evangelical church?!” And then, in a comically predictable lightening-bolt moment, I realized: that, someone, was me. Falling in the long line of people who felt called by God to do something unexpected, my first answer was, “Really?! Me? You can’t be serious.

I have no gifts in this area, no experience in church-planting, no previous interest in such work.” The apostolic lineage of doubters in their own ability is really very humbling. It’s an honor to share in their succession. But, the more I prayed about it, the more I realized that my entire course of my life and work had been preparing me to do such a thing. I couldn’t have imagined that the circumstances of the last few years would bring me to a new place of wonder and opportunity.

Truly, it is pruning which yields the ripest fruit. Everything certain in my life had been stripped away: my home, my community, my family, my traditions, my expectations. To think about forming a new faith community in the heart of a city I knew little about was daunting, to say the least. But, I couldn’t have considered this possibility is coming from a place of comfort or contentment. I literally have nothing else to lose. It seems as if this is the best time to take a risk, to try something new, to plant seeds in soil that has been left fallow (and covered in a fair amount of manure, to boot).

So, I started formulating a concrete plan about what seemed clear and certain. I started reading books and attending  conferences to glean all the wisdom that I could. I stopped feeling so persnickety about the success of conservative churches, as I realized that the world is filled with people, and there are certainly folks who will not be reached by their interpretation of the Gospel. There are plenty of people – billions, in fact – who have not yet had an invitation to engage their faith in a way that’s invitational, non-judgmental and open to wonder and question.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
About a year after relocating to California from Atlanta, I was handed papers in the church parking lot by a stranger. A process server. They were the papers telling me that my marriage was over, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Reeling from this sort of loss was challenging, but it set the stage for so many positive things to happen. Even then, once I arrived at Los Angeles First UMC, I was given a blank slate and high expectations. The creative freedom is incredible, but it’s also daunting. When *anything* is possible, it feels like nothing can get done. It took several months for the vision of what we could do to take shape. Now that I have a clearer sense of what we need to do with the time and resources we have, things are moving along quite well.

Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about Los Angeles First United Methodist Church – what should we know?

In 1853, Rev. Adam Bland was sent from Missouri to “evangelize the rowdy and incorrigible southland.” He arrived and began holding worship services at the El Dorado Saloon, which was likely located near the current El Dorado building on Spring Street. Over time, Los Angeles First Methodist Episcopal Church (Formerly Fort Street Methodist) became a leader in the abolitionist movement during the Civil War, partnering with the courageous emancipated slave woman, Biddy Mason, in the struggle for integration.

LA First UMC is also a Reconciling Congregation, which means this community is committed to actively welcoming all people into the whole life of the church, from membership to leadership, especially those of different gender and sexual orientations. This radical welcome of the LGBTQIA community is an important quality of this congregation, which distinguishes us from many of the other churches in the city.

But, as a part of our rich history, the church has gone through a lot of changes and adaptations. This includes the sale of the church building the corner of Hope and 8th Street in 1981, the purchase of a new property – an office building – on Flower and Olympic, and the decision tear that building down to build affordable housing for seniors and for families on said property in conjunction with 1010 Development Corporation, which was created by the church. The congregation, mercifully, never successfully raised the money to build a new church. This is our greatest asset, as we own our land, but don’t have the burden of facility maintenance. Church buildings are a noose around the necks of the owners; they sit empty most of the time, and drain the resources of the faithful people who give diligently.

When I arrived in July 2017, the congregation had dwindled to around 8-12 people per Sunday. They had been slated to close when I asked to be appointed, and the future was very bleak. It seemed impossible to grow a congregation out of the place they had been meeting – the multipurpose room of Villa Flores, which is the senior housing facility. A mentor had encouraged me to think about leading worship outdoors, and during my first service with the congregation, I asked everyone to pick something up and take it outside. We finished our worship service in the parking lot, and have been leading services outdoors ever since. We now average between 40-50 on a Sunday morning, with hundreds viewing our services online.

We meet under tents in our parking lot for worship at 10:30 every Sunday, so that we can literally remove all barriers for people to experience the wide-open love and grace of God. We are clear that our land – which is currently a revenue-generating parking lot – is of tremendous value to the South Park community. I believe that the highest and best use of our property is meant to offer a partial solution to the crisis of homelessness that Los Angeles is experiencing. Many of our first-time visitors are our houseless neighbors, who are grateful for a place to come and eat, drink excellent coffee (provided by Skid Row Coffee), and receive some time and peace.

Until we can create a building that will provide supportive housing, workforce housing, and market-rate housing in shared co-housing community, we will remain houseless as a church. In the coming months, we will be creating an outdoor chapel that will be dedicated to our houseless neighbors, to demonstrate our solidarity and our dedication to helping create a solution to the crisis of homelessness.

In this way, we will sacrifice what is most valuable to us so as to live out our faith, which asks us simply to love God and love our neighbors. Ideally, we will work to create a sacred and meaningful spiritual home for people in the wealthiest part of Downtown LA (South Park) and work to make an equal impact on the poorest part of Downtown LA (Skid Row), which we are doing in conjunction with our Skid Row Community Partners: the Urban Voices Project, Skid Row Coffee, LA Poverty Department, and LAMP Arts.

Our core values are Creativity, Courage, and Compassion. These things set us apart from the rest of the churches in our area.

We are a church that is Creative: We believe that God created the world, and invited us to share our gifts as creative people. We recognize the movement of the Holy Spirit as we express our faith in a variety of creative ways – visual, musical, and theatrical. This is true in our worship, our work, and our mission. We have devoted resources to expressing our theology publicly through artwork. Last year, Now Art helped us to install the only public Nativity scene in Downtown LA, which depicted Mary as a homeless, pregnant, unmarried, non-caucasian woman. This year, our Nativity scene will be centered on the Migrant Caravan, and how Jesus, Mary, and Joseph also sought refuge during a time of political unrest.

We are a church that is Courageous: We courageously claim our belief in Jesus Christ as the Son of God, and Christ’s commandment to courageously love God and love one another. We are courageous in our activism, our outreach, and our empowerment of others. This value leads us to be radically inclusive, social-justice oriented, LGBTQIA affirming, and open to all questions and doubts.

We are a church that is Compassionate: We believe that the Holy Spirit remains with us as a comforting, advocating force in the world. Because of this, we are a church who values service to our neighbors, outreach to the lost, and care for the world. We listen with love because we are called to be a voice to the voiceless. We work with dignity because we are called to fight for the marginalized.

 If you had to start over, what would you have done differently?
When starting anything new, with a totally blank slate, the early months are full of more questions than answers. Even though I felt very clear about what I needed to be doing, the details took a long time to develop. I would have given myself more grace in the period of the unknown, to try and be more patient as the work began to reveal itself over time.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Jackson Flemming, Michael Timmons, and Oliver Ponce

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