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Phillips Chapel: The Church Around The Corner:

Driving down Fourth Street in the Ocean Park section of Santa Monica, one might easily miss the small chapel on the corner of Fourth and Bay Streets. Beige-pink in color, with a dark sloped roof and small turret, the building looks like a toy church that might stand by the side of a model train set.  Its old-fashioned simplicity seems anachronistic amidst the newer apartment houses and condos in the neighborhood. In fact, Phillips Chapel CME Church is a venerable house of worship in Santa Monica. This fall, the church is beginning a year-long celebration leading up to its 100th anniversary. The building housing the church may have an even longer history. Originally a schoolhouse, it was acquired by the church and moved to its present site in 1908.  Last month, the church  building  was nominated for landmark designation by the Santa Monica Landmarks Commission. The request for landmark consideration was  made  by Alison R. Jefferson, a USC historic preservation student. While studying the area around Phillips Chapel last spring for a term paper, Jefferson met Reverend James C. Raymond, Jr, the church’s pastor, who recalls he was outside the chapel, watering the lawn when Jefferson came by. The two fell to talking and Jefferson learned about the church’s history and became convinced the building deserved landmark status. A previous attempt had been made to submit the chapel for landmark designation in the early ‘90s. That attempt fell through, recalls Reverend Raymond, because some area residents felt the changes made to modernize the church’s interior lighting would render the building ineligible. But at the August Landmarks Commission meeting, Jefferson presented copies of her term paper, along with a verbal presentation chronicling  the history of the chapel. Reverend Raymond also spoke briefly before the Commission, asking that it they consider designation for one of Santa Monica’s first African-American churches. The nomination was made and designation will be voted upon at  October Landmarks Commission meeting next week. HISTORY Reverend Raymond has been pastor at Phillips Chapel for two years. Sitting in his cramped office, he shared the history of the church: “The CME Church is an old church. We celebrate our 136th-137th year in December. It’s a church of former slaves. They worked together under the Christian Methodist Episcopal  church, which is now the United Methodist Church. “Initially we were part of that church. But because of the segregation, because of the things that were going on, the leadership of our church went to [the CME leadership] and asked if they could start their own church. I believe that was in the 1840s. It took 30 years  [before] they ordained our first bishops in 1870 and gave us our first church.” A photograph from the book Santa Monica: The History On The Edge by Paula Scott shows the congregation of the Colored Methodist Episcopal Church, as it was then called, in 1910, standing before Phillips Chapel. There appear to be at least 50 people in the photograph. Asked if he knows how many people attended the church at that time, Reverend Raymond said: “I have no records of how many there were at that point but I imagine it was a fairly large number.” At the time the first CME church was started in Santa Monica, the area around Fourth and Bay Streets – the Civic Center area and the area that is now Santa Monica High School – was a mixed neighborhood with a large African-American population. Its residents were working people, although their jobs were limited to domestic and service jobs — such as ditch digging, janitorial work, washing  dishes,  and  serving as chauffeurs to those who had cars.  Reverend Raymond notes that these people would not have been able to afford such amenities as prayer books for their church. But from the church’s inception in 1906 to 1908, the church met in people’s homes as it did not yet have a building. “Our religious background has always been in the home,” explained  Reverend Raymond. “The Methodist Church started with home ministries – it started with John Wesley when he came to this country.” In 1908, the CME Church purchased a school building from the Santa Monica School Board, using money from funds raised by various CME congregations. The building had been damaged by fire at its original location on Washington Street but was repaired. It was a frame building with a “colonial” façade that included a portico with columns. The building was named for Bishop Charles H. Phillips who was at that time the presiding National Bishop for the CME Church, and who was present at the building’s dedication in October, 1908. Phillips Chapel was remodeled in the 1940s. A  two-story addition was built on the back of the structure, providing room for expansion of the pulpit and choir area in the back of the church as well as office space on the upper level. The exterior of the building was redone in pink stucco and the portico was removed. It was probably also during the renovation that the 11 stained glass windows were installed, commemorating families who attended the church. Mrs. Waron Raily, who has attended the church since the age of 14, said that she remembers the building being remodeled twice, once in the mid-1940s and again around 1947. “That’s when the windows were done and the choir area was enlarged. We had a parsonage right next door at 412 Bay Street-which is now across the street-it’s a social hall.” Mrs. Raily is related to the Billingsley family, one of the families that donated money for the windows. She says the windows mostly commemorate families who attended the church and gave money. To her knowledge, none of the windows commemorate family members lost during World War II. From the 1930s to the 1950s, the area around Phillips Chapel was developed, with the building of the Civic Auditorium, the high school, and other new buildings. Many members of the Phillps Chapel congregation were displaced and moved to other areas. Some continued to commute to the church while others founded new churches in other parts of the city. TODAY AND TOMORROW While Phillips Chapel was once able to command a large congregation, the dispersion of the local African-American community to other parts of Santa Monica, and the decline in church-going among younger people has left the church with a small, though loyal group of attendees. “It’s almost all women,” says Mrs. Raily. “Most of them are old ladies like myself-I’m 76.  There are only two men who come regularly.” She says that the church frequently holds charity yard sales and barbecues to raise funds. Reverend Raymond believes that community outreach is important. He notes that many  religious institutions spend their energy on “maintenance” (trying to pay the bills and keep the institutions going) rather than going outside to the community to bring people in. To that end, he is implementing several programs, including the “One Church, One School” program started by the CME Church’s Reverend Henry M. Williamson Sr. in 1992. This program creates partnerships between churches and local schools to help students via tutoring, mentoring, after-school programs, nursery schools, childcare for working parents, and summer and recreational programs. “Being in the center of a high school and grade school right near us – it’s imperative that we get out there and touch bases between where our kids are going to school and the fact that they’re not allowed to receive any kind of religious information in their schools. So we have to bridge that gap in some way… “Getting some black men in the schools – letting them know that it’s a good thing for our young men to go into teaching because our students need to see more men in that kind of authoritative role. In the news articles they only point out the bad things that we see in our neighborhoods.” Reverend Raymond also wants to use his church to provide a nurturing environment for today’s kids, pointing out that with many of the elderly in nursing homes and parents working hard to put food on the table, no one has enough  time to give kids the attention they need. CELEBRATION Phillips Chapel will begin its year-long   centennial celebration this fall. “We’ll be bringing one of the elder preachers – who was pastor two or three times in the heyday of the church – we’re going to invite him for the kickoff fellowship.” says Reverend Raymond. “Then we plan to conclude with a major celebration with inviting the United Methodist Church to come in July [of 2006] to celebrate our 100th year. “We kicked off the celebration with a 99 year anniversary – where we invited a lot of the CME churches in the area. Our presiding prelate in this area came and closed the ceremony. I was celebrating, ironically, my 25th year in the ordained ministry and he came over and did a fellowship with us.” If Phillips Chapel is designated a landmark during this time, it will be the icing on the cake for the chapel’s celebration. Reverend Raymond believes the Commission nominated his church because of empathy with the church’s cultural significance and struggle to survive. “We survived in a location that probably a stronger congregation, a stronger church, might not have been able to survive in. I’m sure there’s been different pressures. I receive something in the mail almost twice a day, requesting to buy the property. We own the four lots – the lot across the street, the parking lot, and the lot behind the church. We’re not interested in selling. We’re committed to the place where we are. We think we have a great history here.”Ed. Note: Thanks to Alison Jefferson whose USC term paper and research provided information for this article and to Rev. and Mrs. James C. Raymond Jr. for  their information and support.

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