"Faith in Alhambra" is a snapshot of the diverse range of churches in the city.
First Baptist Church, entering its 129th year, is one of Alhambra’s oldest churches. Throughout its history is has reflected the shifting currents of the city's demographics. According to Pastor Leland Hamby, in the past decade his congregation went from being "a maintenance church" of aging Caucasian congregants to a thriving congregation with services in three languages and members from 37 countries. Hamby retired in May 2014.
What was First Baptist like when you arrived in 2001?
Back in the sixties, attendance peaked at 2,500 for an Easter service. But by the time I got here in 2001, church attendance was only at about 140, our average age was 78 and majority Caucasian.
How did you convince this “dying church” to changed and grow?
I told the church cabinet that if we wanted to grow, we basically needed to reach out to young families.
Now our overall average attendance on a Sunday is a bit more than 450, and it reflects a wide diversity of groups: Asian, Hispanic — people from 37 countries speaking over 27 languages. Sunday Service is simultaneously translated (using our 120 headsets) into Spanish, Mandarin, the hearing impaired, and channel four is “on demand:” Korean, Tagalog, etc. While there is a still large contingent from Atherton Baptist Homes across the street, the average age has been reduced to the 40s. We regularly watch our demographics both in our congregation and in our community so we know who we are, who we are serving, and who lives in our community.
How did you and your congregation handle so much change and diversity, which can often lead to tension, misunderstanding, and conflict?
The wide diversity in our congregation can mean very different viewpoints. This requires us to talk a lot more, and find more creative solutions. Fortunately, I haven’t had to really do anything that was too far out for me. Having a diverse, multiethnic staff has definitely helped — with bilingual Chinese and Spanish staff. I imagine when I leave First Baptist, one of them will take over.
But the many viewpoints has required a lot of listening and learning. You have to be willing to do things that are different from your own customs, and to be willing to be a part of their culture and customs.