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From streetcar revivals to multi-ethnic mix: Alhambra's Bethany Church

Bethany Church of Alhambra is tucked behind a car dealership just north of Main Street on Olive Avenue. A member of the fastest growing stream of Christianity in the developing world, the church is part of the Assemblies of God denomination in the Pentecostal tradition. Pastor Phil Hilliard, the senior pastor of Bethany for 19 years, shared with the Source the journey his church has taken from its early days of street meetings to its current multi-ethnic ministry.

Pastor Phil Hilliard at a recent service.What’s your congregation’s connection to the start of the Pentecostal movement?

Aimee Semple McPherson, who was the founder of a Pentecostal denomination called the Foursquare Gospel Church, was the catalyst for evangelizing the Los Angeles area. Angelus Temple in Echo Park was the large church she helped build to attract people, and from there in the 1920s she sent out groups to evangelize and hold street meeting revivals all around LA County using the network of streetcars common at the time.

When did the Pentecostal movement come to Alhambra?

In Alhambra, the first meetings were held on Front Street. Back then Pentecostalism was not looked favorably upon — not even by established Christian denominations.  Street meeting organizers were often arrested but groups would come to replace them. In February of 1924, Dr. Ana Britton founded Bethany Church. She was a dedicated worker who helped start the first meetings here. Her son, Dr. Clare Britton, was trained to be a medical doctor but felt God’s calling for him to be in ministry, and he became the first pastor of Bethany, a position he held for 41 years! 

What’s the difference in expression between your denomination (Assemblies of God) and others?

In 1965, the congregation voted to change to the Assemblies of God, a similar denomination to Foursquare but allowing the local congregation to own property and call its own pastor. Nowadays, many of the previous lines between Evangelicals and Pentecostals are largely erased. I see this post denominationalism as a good trend. We may sing more livelier and exuberantly than other groups and we may have the occasional person speak a word of prophecy and others may speak in tongues. But we don’t let these expressions become a distraction or an end to itself in our worship service. Order and structure is still important.

What has been some of the most significant changes you’ve seen during your time at Bethany?

First there’s been a great transition in our demographics. When I first came to be interviewed by the Board, Bethany was an upper middle class Anglo commuter church. I told our board that I was passionate about reaching the community here in Alhambra and the Board fully agreed. We started making changes in staff, the board, and the worship music teams to better reflect the diversity of our city. We made these changes because we felt that people in the community won’t come to a church if they didn’t see their “face” on staff, on the stage up front. And it was great because there was no resistance to any of these changes from the established members.

Now every weekend we have a Vietnamese, Indonesian, Burmese, Chinese, and Spanish congregation, and two independent churches (African-American & a Baptist church) meeting on campus, running around 400 – 450 people. We did a survey 10 years ago and we calculated 35 different ethnicities under one roof.

Jesse Chang writes Faith in Alhambra, a series on the city's religious community, from Serbian Orthodox to Chinese Baptists to our Eastern religions. He works amongst the local Christian denominations in the city helping them to work together for the good of the city. If you'd like your congregation to be featured write him at jessec@kingdomcauses.org.

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