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Mandarin Baptist Church: Evolving from an immigrant church to a community church

Mandarin Baptist Church of Los Angeles is the largest Protestant congregation in Alhambra, bringing 1,700 faithful each Sunday morning on two campuses along Woodward and Garfield. But it started as a prayer meeting in a Hollywood home in 1961 with only seven people: the Pastor Alan Chan, Mandarin Baptist Churchfounding pastor, Rev. Dr. Y. K Chang, his wife, Dr. Cherry Chang, their son and four others. Pastor Alan Chan, the Pastor of Church Ministry Coordination, has been with the church for 17 years. He spoke with Alhambra Source about Mandarin Baptist's roots in North Hollywood, the city's diverse Chinese communities and reaching out to the Alhambra population at large.

What was the reason for specifically having the word “Mandarin” in the church's name?

Many Chinese churches at the time were Cantonese speaking, so the founders felt a great need to reach out to the Mandarin-speaking population, most of who had roots in mainland China and came to the United States via Taiwan and Hong Kong. We were one of the first churches to focus primarily on the Mandarin-speaking population and we continue to do so. We also added a Cantonese Sunday service in 1983. English Sunday service and fellowship were started the next year after the church was founded to minister to the younger generation.

How did the church end up in Alhambra?

The first meeting place was at First Southern Baptist North Hollywood. The founders remember having to clean up the worship space every Sunday morning before service because the church hosted AA meetings the night before, so there were a lot of cigarette butts and ashes to clean up. Later they moved to Glendale Blvd in the Silver Lake area because at the time there were many Chinese immigrants in those neighborhoods just west of Chinatown.

When the congregation outgrew that space in the early 80s, it was the perfect time for the church to move out of the Silver Lake district to follow the shifting immigration pattern of Chinese to the San Gabriel Valley.  They purchased and remodeled a former Elks Lodge on Woodward and First Street in 1984. In 2008 we expanded to include a new space called the Garfield Worship Center, the former PacBell office building at the corner of Garfield and Woodward.

What changes have you seen in the evolving Chinese immigrant landscape over the years?

While those coming directly from mainland China have been the driving force of growth of the Chinese congregations in the last three to four years, our English-dominant young adults have increased quite a bit and many come back after college (unlike many immigrant churches). But we also get some from Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam. The majority of our congregation is ethnically Chinese who live in the San Gabriel Valley. We’ve always been a multigenerational church.

However, despite all the differences between Chinese-speaking groups and between recent immigrants and the second generation, there has always been great harmony among our people. There’s a real effort at our church to be a big loving family where we strive to be united and harmonious in our relationships together.  Under one roof, we serve God and our community in one accord through many different programs.

How did you become involved at Mandarin Baptist?

I was called to serve as the youth pastor in 1991, having previously served in a Baptist church in Hong Kong. Unlike other youth pastors, I was called to serve the youth of all three language congregations. The church was averaging 1,000 worshippers on Sundays at that time.

I had a particularly difficult time from the get go serving the “parachute kids” (students who were sent often alone by wealthy parents to the US for education). Parents with means would send their kid from Taiwan to escape the two-year compulsory military service that awaits all high school male graduates. Hong Kong was unstable at the time after news that the UK would return Hong Kong in 1997, so families would send their kids off to the US.

The lucky ones would live with their mothers. But most would end up with a host family or legal guardian. Without direct parental support and supervision, many of these kids would get into gangs and in trouble with law enforcement. The adults would bring these kids to the church as a last resort for them, often with court-ordered community service attached to their time at the church.However, I recently met up with about 10 to 12 former parachute students I served when they were young who have turned their lives around, gotten married and are having kids. It was gratifying to see that there were some who changed for the better.

Where does a successful church of 1,700 go from here?

We still have a vision to reach out to in the Chinese community, adapting to all the different subgroups out there. At the same time, since the mid-90s, after building up both buildings and our congregation, we realized as one of the larger Chinese churches we needed to get outside our four walls into the local community more. The past few years we have been experimenting with ways we can serve Alhambra and the community better. We have done a carnival for Chinese New Year, an alternative Halloween night and Community health fairs. Last September, we teamed up with the Salvation Army chapter in San Gabriel to launch a “Back2School” program to provide school bags, uniforms and other school supplies for kids from families with financial needs.  Recently our senior pastor since 1976, Peter Chung, has reminded our congregation that just as in the beginning of Mandarin Baptist when a Caucasian church showed hospitality to a Chinese-speaking group, so we too with our space and resources need to welcome the non-Chinese. As a matter of fact, beginning in October we partnered with a Spanish-speaking church by providing them the free usage of our facilities to plant a new Hispanic congregation in the San Gabriel Valley. And further down the road we hope to have a community center on our campus as well.

Interview has been edited and condensed.

Website: http://mymbcla.org/default.aspxAddress: 110 W. Woodward Ave. Alhambra, 91801

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1 thought on “Mandarin Baptist Church: Evolving from an immigrant church to a community church”

  1. Great feature, Jesse!