The statue in front of Christ the King Church in Logan Heights is becoming legendary. During the '60s, vandals broke the hands from Jesus's outstretched arms and painted his face black. Then one morning the priests found a sign under the statue that read: I HAVE NO HANDS BUT YOURS. The statue remains that way today.
During that same decade, there bloomed a whole flock of churches where show business took the altar. Cults grew up around especially popular ministers who could spellbind an audience. Attics and basements, equipped with closed-circuit televisions, were used for overflow crowds. But something would eventually happen to reveal the cult-minister as too human, not godlike enough, and the extra rooms would begin to empty and the hip, guitar services would echo on empty pews. Something important was missing. Somehow the energy issued from the altar to the crowd.
What is different about Christ the King Church is that the current is reversed. The strength comes from the community. The priests, although highly valued by the congregation, are almost incidental.
29 North 32nd Street, Logan Heights
The parish held its first Mass on Christmas Eve, 1938. At that time, it was housed in a storefront on Imperial Avenue. In 1948, the present structure was built and staffed by the Jesuit order.
There now exists a curious separation of races in the four Masses held each day, due more to culture and age than to race. At 7:30 the traditional Catholics, mostly older black parishoners, celebrate a traditional Mass. The next Mass is something akin to Southern Baptist witnessing, sent aloft by spirituals and rowdy hand clapping. Church members and visitors speak from an open microphone, requesting special prayers from the congregation. These are mainly younger blacks and a few whites. Following this is a Mass that emphasizes a liturgy for liberal whites, a rock or folk Mass. This Mass is attended by only a few blacks.
There is a generous supply of hugging, squeezing, laughing, and some crying, especially in the modern Masses. Children run up and down the aisles without detracting from the service. No questions are asked of individuals who wish to take communion. At times, this lack of concern about marital or denominational status has brought intense pressure from the bishop.
Today, at the second Mass, Father Jim Gallas, 44, a meek-looking man, is talking from the pulpit with measured, loaded phrases. He seems to be speaking not only to his congregation but also to the Catholic hierarchy. No one can serve two masters, he is saying. Either he will serve God of Mammon; and in some cases, it is dangerous to follow the will of God.
"It's hard to speak the gospel to someone who has you on his payroll. The great prophets were never beholden to the king. Jesus wasn't economically dependent on those to whom he was speaking. He was free."
Father Gallas talks about the recent Episcopal decision to accept women into the ministry. He praises the decision and brings up another sore topic: "Christ the King Church has continually irritated the bishop by encouraging the participation of women in the service. Women are included as "extraordinary ministers" who stand beside and assist the priest during the service, and they are allowed to handle the bread and wine. These activities are in defiance of established Catholic procedure.
Later, a parishioner will circulate a parishioner to the congregation calling for the entrance o women into the priesthood. "If we don't move on this," said the parishioner, "we're going to lose all the Catholic women to the Episcopals."
Father Gallas talks then about the religious leaders he admires, like Mother Theresa, who works for the poor in Calcutta, and Bishop Camara, who is risking his life opposing the repressive government in Brazil.
"The other day I read a statement by Father Augustus Taylor and David Taylor of Pittsburg about the massacre of black protestors in South Africa Catholics are interested in life inside the womb, as they should be, but would that they were as interested in the 200 protestors mowed down by South African police. Had these deaths been caused by abortions, there would have been a massive uproar, but where is the anger over atrocities against black people already born? Those priests were willing to stand up against a church that has been for the most part silent about the racism and murder in South Africa."
Then the microphone is handed out to the parishioners for "prayer of the community."
One woman stands and says, "May the warmth of this community envelop the visitors to our church as it has enveloped us." The microphone goes around the room as people begin to ask their friends for special prayers, prayers for family, prayers for Jesus, prayers of thanks for a miraculous healing. This segment of the service is far more Pentacostal than it is Catholic.
Two retarded men are sitting in the front pew They walk each Sunday from a private home nearby. According to one parishioner, the two men have a symbiotic relationship; one, a Mexican, is old, crippled, carries a cane, and is more articulate than the other man, who is physically strong and leads his friend everywhere by the hand. The more articulate man asks a prayer for the city, so that it might awake to the fact that "Jesus needs a clean place to live."
A woman with three children stands and asks the congregation for a prayer of thanks that she has finally, after months of searching, found a full-time job.
After the "kiss of peace," when all the parishioners hug each other or shake hands, the choir starts to clap and then a black spiritual rises up and up, and the congregation is jumping and swaying.
Behind me, a woman with a face twisted and crushed in an auto accident begins to cry.
Martha Fields, a white woman from Clairemont, will later say that she comes here because it reminds her of her Southern Baptist upbringing in Alabama. It feels like coming home, she says. Rita Blasman, a black woman from Logan Heights, will say that there's no church like this one. "It's got spirit. At the other churches I got my lessons, but nobody would walk up to me and say, 'Rita, how are you?' Here, if I'm sick, the pastor notices I'm not at Mass. The church is my family." And Louie, an engineer who drives all the way from San Diego State, will say that, although the power is coming from the people, the priests have led the way. "The bishop overloooks the women in the service and the serving of communion to non-Catholics, because he doesn't want a confrontation with the blacks. But there's always a sense of pressure from the bishop and the national church structure. This parish is just much farther ahead of most other Catholic churches."
Right now, though, the two retarded men are walking out in front of the rocking choir. The older, crippled man is jumping to the beat, up and down, his cane planted firmly on the ground, but his body taking flight. He just can't contain himself. He's been the quiet one so far, but this music — it just gets him going, and he has to show his friends how he feels. His partner turns to hold his hands and lead him out as the parishioners get up to go. But he just keeps dancing, and the choir is clapping, and there's the feeling in the place that the statue out front must be smiling and vibrating a little with the beat.
Father Bernie Cassidy, 58, is one of the white Jesuits at Christ the King Church. A native of San Diego, Father Cassidy was an electrical engineer for 15 years before becoming a priest. He came to Logan Heights after serving at a Hollywood parish.
"Something is alive here," he said quietly. "The sense of community here is intertwined with social action."
As the notoriety of this church has spread, television cords have, on occasion, laced the building. Reporters have rushed past the lobby posters of forgotten black history-makers like Mary McLeod Bethune, a member of FDR's black cabinet; Granville T. Woods, a pioneer in railroad technology; Sojourner Truth, who was born a slave and became a lightning abolitionist Nat Love, the cowboy; and others.
"Starting in the late '60s," Father Cassidy said, "our objective was to determine that black people in San Diego could get a fair trial. That was the reason we got involved with the Black Panthers, who served breakfast to children in this church, and the Angela Davis trial. We stopped the breakfasts after several Black Panthers were shot to death a few blocks from here. We found out later that our meetings were infiltrated by FBI informants, who later went to the bishop. The bishop called one of our priests a communist dupe."
In 1971, Bishop Leo T. Maher of the San Diego Diocese, began a lengthy effort to remove the activist priests from Christ the King Church. The Jesuit Order provided some immunity to the priests from arbitrary decisions by the diocese, and the outraged congregation stood up to protect its priests. Bishop Maher, who had personally known the judge killed in the Marin County shootout in which Angela Davis was implicated and later cleared, backed down.
During this period, Christ the King Church served as a center of communication for the black community and helped to calm the growing anger and confusion erupting out of the FBI's maneuvering in Southeast San Diego.
Released in April, the Senate Staff Report on the activities of the FBI describes the FBI's role in the mounting violence: "As the tempo of violence quickened, the FBI's field office in San Diego developed tactics calculated to heighten tension between the hostile factions" within the black movement. J. Edgar Hoover himself had noted the existing hostility between the Panthers and the United Slaves, a less-known black activist group in San Diego. A memorandum from Hoover to 14 field offices pointed to the state of "gang warfare" that existed with "attendant threats of murder and reprisals" between Black Panthers and United Slaves, and called for "imaginative and hard-hitting counterintelligence" measures aimed at exploiting the violence and destroying the Black Panthers. Four Black Panthers were killed by United Slave members in San Diego. The Senate report outlines the series of FBI dirty tricks that led to the explosion between the two groups.
Christ the King Church provided a link to the white power structure in San Diego, stopped rumors, and helped hold back some of the violence being stimulated by the FBI.
Between the bishop and J. Edgar Hoover, Christ the King Church was finding its own form of Christian witness somewhat uncomfortable, if not dangerous. Surviving that controversy, it became the first Catholic church in America to give sanctuary to men fleeing the military.
In September, 1971, nine sailors deserted the U.S.S. Constellation. Stating that they were conscientious objectors, they sought refuge in several churches and were refused. Christ the King Church accepted them.
"The Navy was really uptight about the situation and wanted to handle it quietly," said Father Cassidy. "Our staff made the decision without the bishop's public support, though he did support he privately. We got his violent letters and phone calls calling us communists, but we kept the young men here for three days before they were picked up by federal marshals."
The action had no civil or canon law to support it and was based only on historical precedent dating back to the 18th Century in Europe. The custom never has prevailed in United States civil law, nor had any churches claimed this as a right. The closest vestiges in the U.S. were the exemptions clergymen had in retaining "privileged confidences," as in confessional matters. In searching for the Berrigan brothers, for instance, the FBI did not hesitate to raid church property; neither of the Berrigans, both priests, sought sanctuary in the church.
So, Christ the King Church had done it again, in direct confrontation to church and state. During this same period another Christ the King priest, Father Gallas, went to jail in Washington D.C. with 130 other antiwar protestors.
Today the church is still involved in social action.
"But times are different," Father Cassidy said. "And different times call for different tactics. We're now more community-oriented than issue-oriented. More Mexican-Americans are moving into the area, so we can't be as black-oriented as we have been. We're becoming involved in the farm worker's struggle. Cesar Chavez has been here. Things are improving in some ways in Southeast San Diego."
Today a parishioners' board directs the church and is only slightly more conservative than the priests have been; but then again, times and tactics are changing.
"Martin Luther King said that unearned suffering is truly redemptive. That is the source of strength of these people," Father Cassidy said.
Irving and Joan Malone, middle class black parishioners who maintain a conservative lifestyle, believe that there is still undue pressure from the bishop, and that the FBI is still shadowing social action activities in Southeast San Diego.
"We had a committee formed and working on the conditions of the city jail," Irving Malone said. "Suddenly it just fell apart. Now, activities like that just don't fall apart, not in our church. And there's been a good deal of economic teasing going on by funding agencies, pitting the Chicanos against the blacks. I wonder where that stimulus is coming from."
Everyone at Christ the King Church said, go see Mrs. Lilly Picou if you want to know where this church came from; a church with this kind of power doesn't just hatch from the latest fad.
On a Monday morning, Mrs. Picou, 84, was sitting all alone in Picou's Market at the corner of 19th and Imperial. She was behind the counter eating honey. She had pictures of her life surrounding her. She was looking through shoeboxes of receipts, decades of receipts which record the money she had managed to spare for her church, Christ the King. She has letters from the bishops, who have come and gone. On one side of the store were stacked the pillows and handiwork that she has made for the Mardi Gras. She is raising plants to sell at the Mardi Gras, too. She waters them daily with care and love, because the Mardi Gras — the biggest public event on Imperial Avenue — was brought to San Diego a quarter of a century ago by Mrs. Picou to help the church which she conceived. She did all that, and she's got receipts to prove it, and letters, and she showed these to me one by one. She has never really gotten over teh neglect and lack of recognition back in the 40s and early in the 50s from the original white sponsors.
Now, the church she bore has grown up into a fiery, human contraption, full of life and love and anger and friendship. Mrs. Picou is proud of her contrary church. It is not the Christ the King Catholic Church for Colored People anymore. Jim Crow died and was given a Christian burial. But still, there are those old hurts. Like Mrs. Picou said, "You can forgive, but you can't forget."
In a raspy voice that fluttered like a hummingbird, she described how it was: "I came here from New Orleans and Calexico with my husband over forty years ago. In those days, we called San Diego the 'Mississippi of the West.' People here didn't have time for people like me. There weren't enough of us to matter. You could count the number of colored folk on the fingers of one hand and still have a couple fingers left. My husband, he was a half-breed. There was a lot of half-breeds in New Orleans when I was a child. And we all spoke French. Ships from all over the world docked in New Orleans, and that was all right, too. We were just the human race.
"Four of my children died in five years. But we got over it. Times went by. We went on. We lived there in Calexico and there was 11 Texans that migrated there, and I swear this to you, if I could live my life over again, I'd stay in a small town, 'cause people loves you in a small town. The Salton Sea, back then, was not a half-block wide or long. The Salton Sea, that's right! It was known if you fell in, you wouldn't get out. We'd have big feasts and cook beans in the bathtub. It was such a pleasure, and there wasn't no trouble between the races.
"When my mother died back in New Orleans, it took me 10 years to pay for her funeral and 20 years to buy her and my father a headstone. I never saw the headstone till seven years later when my sister passed from this land.
"I believe it was because of my mother dying that I started Christ the King Church. After I got it all started, something happened that hurt me very much. It cut me deep. It was like on the train when the white folks would make us dance a jig to the gun. For years I taught the little children their catechisms. I'd walk blocks and blocks, instead of riding the bus, so I could save a dime for a prize to give to the child who did the best.
"Because of my classes, the bishop got interested in putting a church down here, and so they finally built Christ the King Church to take care of all the new Catholics who I'd taught for all these years. Here, look at this picture. Do you see what happened? All the white people - the priests and the nuns and those society women - they crowded up and got their picture taken for the newspaper, while somebody else kept me busy back here so I wouldn't be in the picture. I was the only colored person there, but they managed to keep me out of the paper and take all the credit themselves. Sure they did. So I just went off to one side and stood by myself.
"Then they took the Mardi Gras away from me. My husband and I put up the money, year after year. I'd make over 200 uniforms for the children from skin of satin every year. Oh, it was wonderful. But then one year, this white man took me aside and said, 'Mrs. Picou, there's some important people coming down this year to the organizing meeting, and there just won't be enough room for you at the meeting: I was just struck dumb. I walked away from her, and oh God, it would have been nice to walk and walk for miles until I came upon a muddy, shall I say, stagnant slough of water. I would've walked so far that I'd just lay down in the water and go to sleep."
Mrs. Picou lifted her chin and pointed to another picture on the wall.
"I've got four living children, 19 grandchildren, and all of these receipts. Christ the King Church is still mine. I've lasted long enough to know that everything comes back around in the end."