LA 5: Trinity Baptist Church  

TRINITY BAPTIST CHURCH: LOS ANGELES

Fontella White


Trinity Baptist Church in Los Angeles was organized on November 11, 1917. Archie J. Williams and two other adults and 15 children became Trinity’s charter members. Nearly 90 years later, Trinity, located in the Jefferson Park neighborhood in the western section of Los Angeles, remains a major center for African American social-religious formation. This community’s uses of the Bible provide a window onto the formation of African America. Such uses should be thought of in terms of resistance and renewal—resistance not in terms of the traditional historical-theological understanding of standing against ‘temptation’ or ‘sin,’ but non-being, erasure, invisibility; and renewal in terms of self-recovery and healing. [1]

Signifying on Matthew 28:19 

Trinity’s scripturalizing practices are evident to the public as one nears the corners of Arlington and Jefferson. At that location, one cannot help noticing the concrete cross resting on the roof of the church at 2040 W. Jefferson Boulevard. The symbol stretches nearly 50 feet into the sky. Once inside the sanctuary, one finds equally unique expressions of sacred texts. The building’s stained glass windows, each with its own theme, frame the sanctuary frame and a stained glass mural rests above the baptismal pool. In the “Crucifixion” window the colors of the glass are green and red. According to a brochure produced by the church, the two colors “signify that Christ by His love (red) and spilled blood (red) won for humankind eternal life (green).” [2] In addition to the Crucifixion window, the other windows are “Trinity,” “Nativity,” “Christ Child in the Temple,” “Gethsemane,” “Resurrection” and “Baptism.” [3] When the windows were completed in 1988, Dumas A. Harshaw, Jr., the pastor, wrote the following: “These windows are memorial pages of the Holy Scriptures which will teach the story of Jesus Christ, our Savior, for future generations.” [4]  


But once inside the sanctuary the observer’s gaze quickly rests on a stained glass mural constructed into the wall just above the baptismal pool. The mural and baptismal pool combined to create the undisputed center of the sanctuary.  From a pew in the sanctuary, one must look up, well above the pulpit and the choir loft, before eyes can behold the two. According to a brochure produced by Trinity, the mural depicts:

    "The baptism of Jesus Christ in a beautiful setting, surrounding the river of Jordan. Beyond the blue water showing the magnificent sun light and majestic mountains. And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto Him, and He saw the spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon Him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, this is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:16 and 17) [5]

Here the baptismal pool and mural are not only the center of the physical space, both are center to formation. Alvin J. Tunstill, Jr., a native of Louisville, Kentucky and the current pastor at Trinity, explained that the ritual of a “believers’ baptism” [6] is foundational to the teachings of the Baptist church, but that is only the beginning. He argues that Matthew 3:16-17 is “lived” through what he calls “Scriptural Evangelism.” [7] In an interview (November 2003), Tunstill was asked to explain what he meant by “Scriptural Evangelism.” His response: “I am Scripture.” His idea is that the individual “believer” is “scripture.” This is deeply connected to Tunstill’s focus on what he calls “living texts.” His thought is that the believers are “scripture.” The words on the page are “text.” Those words remain words until the individual comes along and decides to function as “living text.” So, for Tunstill, there is no such thing as an “ancient text.” There is only the “living text.”  Matthew 28:19 resonates as living text: “Go, therefore, make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

At Trinity, the baptismal ritual is practiced on the first Sunday of each month as newcomers are fully immersed beneath the waters of the baptismal pool. Unlike most Christian traditions, Baptist initiation requires complete immersion beneath water. For Baptists, in general, the model for the practice is said to be found in the New Testament; however, scholars have argued that Africans in the Americas found some aspects of the practice alluring because of the sacredness of water in traditional African religion. In Old Ship of Zion, anthropologist Walter F. Pitts argued that a “powerful attraction of the Baptist sect for blacks was the rite of total immersion baptism – the candidate was submerged in water instead of merely sprinkled. Total immersion closely resembled African water rites.” [8] Pastor Tunstill argues that the symbolism of the practice is “lived” out each time people enter the sanctuary, the place where “they come out of the wilderness.” At Trinity, the baptismal pool is the place where one begins to reckon with the perduring question: “How does one exist in this wilderness but not be of this wilderness?”

Text and Ritual: Believers’ Baptism


Dawn has just broken and the first worship service of the day is about to begin at Trinity. The light of a new day has yet to pry its way past the stained glass windows and into the sanctuary, so the cavernous room looks and feels a bit sleepy. But that is far from true in the second floor hallway. There, church deacons and deaconesses are busy preparing for the most important event in the life of those who enter this congregation as first-time believers – baptism. The day is special and the occasion calls for special clothes. The men are all dressed in black suits, white shirts, and black ties and shoes. The women are dressed in white from head to toe – white berets covering their hair, white beaded necklaces rest at the necklines of their white two-piece outfits, white stockings cover their legs, and white shoes. Soon, the baptismal candidate arrives.

The candidate’s name is Cheryl Westbrook, in her late 20s or early 30s. Two deaconesses, Carrie Carlton and Mary Smith, usher her into the ladies’ dressing room, which is located adjacent to the left side of the baptismal pool. Once inside, the seemingly frenzied pace of the preparations in the hallway (the gathering of appropriate vestments from linen closets) seems somewhat dull compared to the energy in this tiny room. In one corner three white, terry cloth baptismal robes hang ready for use. Soon, the young woman emerges from behind a dressing stall. She, too, now is dressed in white from head to toe: a white swimming cap covers her hair, one of the white terry cloth robes covers from her body from her neck to just beneath the middle of her calves, and white cotton ankle-high socks cover her feet.

Soon, the music from the sanctuary stops. Everyone freezes. Cheryl, who just minutes before seemed appeared jovial, suddenly is cardboard stiff. Someone asks, “He’s in the water?” referring to the pastor, Tunstill. Deaconess Carlton replies, “Yes,” as she reaches for Cheryl. Cheryl tugs on her swimming cap one last time. We can hear the pastor, who is in the pool, say: “Let the church say, ‘Amen.’ As if on cue, Carlton ushers Cheryl up steps leading out of the dressing room and into the pool. In the background, the waiting congregation, bodies swaying keeping time with the stomping of their feet, has begun to sing the familiar almost required sing to accompany the ritual: “… Take me to the water… Take me to the water to be baptized… None but the righteous, none but the righteous shall see God...” Carlton coaxes Cheryl along as she climbs the three steps, “Okay. Go ahead,” she says to Cheryl. “… None but the righteous … to be baptized.” The music and singing stop as Cheryl dips her right foot into the pool. The pastor and an assistant reach for Cheryl’s hands. Once she is in the waste-high water, the pastor takes her hands and places them across her chest, creating an image akin to the wings of a fluttering butterfly. He leans down and whispers into her ear. He wants to know her name. She whisper’s back: “Cheryl Westbrook.” He fills his left hand with water and then gently releases the water on her face as his open palm glides down from her forehead to her chin. He returns his left hand to her left elbow. Then, while raising his right hand into the air, as if he administering an oath, he speaks: “My brothers and sisters we are baptizing Sister Cheryl Westbrook and we are thanking God for her giving her life to Christ. Now, in obedience to the great head of the church we now baptize this our sister, Cheryl Westbrook, in the name of the Father.” Congregation responds: “In the name of the Father.” Pastor: “In the name of the Son.” Congregation responds: “In the name of the Son.” Pastor: “In the name of the Holy Spirit.” Congregation responds: “In the name of the Holy Spirit.” The pastor then removes his left hand from Cheryl’s arm and uses it to cover her entire face. Next, he dips her back and downward until she is underneath the water. Once he raises her body from the water, the congregation applauds loudly, and music and singing begin once again “… Take me to the water… Take me to the water to be baptized…” As Cheryl Westbrook arises from the water, she turns to the pastor and whispers, “Thank you.”

Prior to her baptism, Cheryl was asked, “What are you hoping for?” Her answer: “Peace and the joy which had been lacking in my life for so long. A purpose. A reason. Direction.” Ghanaian-born scholar Kofi Asare Opoku’s essay, “African Traditional Religion,” illuminates this response.

    To be human means to belong to a family or a community, and when the Akan [people of Ghana] say: ‘onipa fi soro besi a, obesi nnipa krom’ – [trans.] when a man [sic] descends from heaven he enters a town inhabited by human beings, – they imply that society is the context of human existence. One’s humanity is defined by a sense of belonging, for it is not enough to be a human being unless one shows a sense of and participation in community. … Religion itself is one with life and is not an isolated aspect of the community’s life but permeates every facet of the community’s existence. [9]



What we find at work with Cheryl Westbrook, and very likely with most members at Trinity, is the ability to take a sacred text and to speak of self. She moves from the abstract to the actual condition of her own human estrangement. Ms. Westbrook appropriated this practice of baptism to relate to her own condition of estrangement. This is not uncommon to the story of the African Diaspora, but it does represent a decidedly culture-specific reading of the baptismal story in the Gospel of Matthew. At the African-inflected Trinity Baptist Church, the baptismal pool is the place of regeneration. But in this context, regeneration signifies resistance. In a sense, the resistance here is closely akin to what Vincent Wimbush argues about asceticism as a fundamental dimension of the complex process of social-cultural formation. Using the African American experiences as heuristic wedge, Wimbush challenges us to think about “asceticism” in terms of “resistance to non-being, erasure, invisibility; and healing in terms of the practices of a complex weaving which results in wholeness.” [10] In the Los Angeles context, dominating social powers in the form of long-term conditions of urban violence, poverty, high unemployment converge upon the individual; thereby creating an atmosphere where a new world orientation is needed to combat the encounters of every day life. Here, modern descendents of a people not meant to survive the rapture of the African slave trade persist as they create and recreate “certain construals of hope and certain strategies and practices,” [11] which result in the “transmutation of hope into social power.” [12] But perhaps the pastor at Trinity states it best: “This is the wilderness. I think this world is a wilderness. How do we exist in this wilderness but not be of this wilderness?” [13]

At Trinity, the baptismal pool represents both the site of resistance and renewal, meaning resistance to non-being, erasure, or invisibility and renewal – in terms of self-recovery and healing. It is the place where the individual dips beneath the conditions of her actual, physical environment in the hope of rising into a new orientation. But, more to the point, is Cheryl Westbrook’s biblical language, “I’m about to embark on a new life … [of] … peace and joy which had been lacking in my life for so long ... a purpose ... a reason … direction.” [14]

 

[1] Regarding resistance and renewal, see Vincent L. Wimbush, unpublished essay: “‘Like a Ship that’s tossed and driven …’: The Ascetics of Social Formation;” and his “Reading Darkness, Reading Scriptures.”
[2] Trinity Baptist Church, Memorial and Appreciation Book, Stained Glass Windows, 1.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] As Norman H. Maring and Wintrop S. Hudson explained in A Baptist Manual of Polity and Practice (Judson Press, 1991), the most distinctive emphasis of the Baptist denomination has been its rejection of infant baptism, insisting upon a believers’ baptism. Denominational polity requires individuals to accept Jesus Christ as their personal Savior prior to baptism.
[7] Alvin Tunstill, Jr., interview by investigator, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 16 October 2003.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Kofi Asare Opoku, “African Traditional Religion,” in Religious Plurality in Africa: Essays in Honour of John S. Mbiti, ed. Jacob K. Olupona and Sulayman S. Nyang (Berlin: Mouton De Gruyter, 1993), 76-77.
[10] Vincent L. Wimbush, “‘Like a Ship that’s tossed and driven …’: The Ascetics of Social Formation” (unpublished essay), 3.
[11] Ibid., 27.
[12] Ibid.
[13] Tunstill, interview by investigator, tape recording, Los Angeles, CA, 8 December 2003.
[14] Cheryl Westbrook, interview by investigator, video recording, Los Angeles, CA, 2 November 2003.
 
 


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