Interview with Pastor Phil Reller: Los Angeles Filipino-American United Church of Christ

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Boulevard Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Los Angeles Field Research course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities in Northeast L.A.


Subject: Phil Reller
Organization: Colorado Boulevard
Boulevard: Los Angeles Filipino-American United Church of Christ


Phil Reller is a Pastor who is active in Los Angeles and Arizona. He travels between states, and is pastor of the Los Angeles Filipino-American United Church of Christ during the weekends. He is deeply involved in our community, not just as a church leader, but also as a community leader. Pastor Phil Reller's knowledge and enthusiasm for the Eagle Rock community, especially of the church's community, makes it unbelievable that he has only been a Pastor of the church for a little over a year.

His initiative to involve the church in the Eagle Rock Festival, for the first time, clearly demonstrates his visionary path for the church being a public/communal space and not just a religious one.


How would you describe Eagle Rock and Colorado Boulevard?

Well I'm new here, I've only been here since January [2012] and I just really love the community. There is the word, "funky," and I think Eagle Rock epitomizes that word. It is obviously a blue-collar community, and it is transitioning from a small community where all the neighbors know each other; there has been a lot of urban growth. It's kind of lost the small town feel for the older residents. I love the kind of gentrification that seems to be happening with multiple races and ethnicities -- that is really exciting to me. And it's exciting to me because a church, and particularly a church like this, can really play a role in developing the community and helping with change and transition. So I love Eagle Rock.


What kinds of people attend this church?

This is an ethnically identified congregation. It's identified with Filipinos. It's an immigrant church, and I don't think many of the members who are older than 35 were born in the United States. Most of them come from the Philippines, there are some Latinos, and there is only one Anglo other than me. He is an immigrant from Norway. The younger people were born here but still have those deep connections to the Philippines.


Are there any cultural or language barriers?

Well that's interesting, I don't know if there are language barriers. There are different languages in the Philippines, and different dialects of those languages in the Philippines. We have cross sections of Filipinos. Many of the older grandparents and parents still speak Filipino and it is very convenient for them, although the services are in English, they can communicate well with each other and in their own dialect. The younger generation doesn't speak the language, and they are much more acculturated in English.


How would you describe the intergenerational differences?

The Filipinos have been a very successful ethnic group. There is apparently really high quality education in the Philippines; I think primarily school related churches. They didn't come necessarily into a low/middle class environment; they were born in a middle class environment. The question is to what extent do you hold on to your ethnic traditional identity and to what extent do you leave that. This is a really hard question and it's a question the church faces too.


Would you say that your church encourages assimilation?

That is such a good question. Here is a group of people who hold on to their ethnic identity, but who have been very successful at assimilating. I hate that word, and yet in the midst of living their lives out in a dominant culture, when do they have the freedom and the joy of just coming and being a community. Is the church a place for that? Or is the church a salad bowl of diversity. To what extent do they want to stay Filipino, and to what extent do we want to become a place where other ethnic groups come together?

That is such a good question, and I don't think they have answered that question. I can give you one good example. We start service at 10 o'clock, but nothing in Filipino culture starts when it says it's going to start. But people of dominant culture come at 10 o'clock and want to start at 10 o'clock. So does the church change to, "the time is right when the time is right," or does the church start at 10 o'clock? And if it doesn't starts at 10 o'clock, do we risk not being open to everybody?


Does that create small problems in the church?

Well if they want to grow, unless they want to grow as Filipinos, which is also a legitimate direction, they have to wrestle with that one.


What is your current opinion of the neighborhood?

I really foresee, I will answer it in a future sense first, a community that is growing, developing and thriving. It's still a place for mom and pop business and it's still a place for big corporate development. I don't think it has much of a foothold as other places. That opens up all kinds of possibilities for small businesses and art and cultural businesses. I think the art center is a marvelous resource that can really develop. But I am really excited with the multiple ethnic developments that can happen here.


How did you enter your neighborhood role?

Well, again, this church has not had an identity or understanding of itself as being part of a community. It has been a community to itself: caring for its members, extended Filipino families, and welcoming Latinos and Anglos as well. So for the first time, we made our facilities open for the [Eagle Rock] music festival and that was seen as something the community out there has been doing. Instead this time we approached it as: "Well, we got a space, so we can be a community partner. We can support what we think is an important dynamic in the life of the community, and that is the arts." So it was a brand new thing for us. I want that to continue to grow and spread. "What are the businesses doing if there are homeless people outside their businesses? What can we provide? What can we provide to other social service agencies?" That is what I want to do.


What would you say about the church attendees? Are they local?

They're family, they can live in west L.A., they can live in Burbank, which they do, but this is their family, so they come back and that is the identity of the church. We want to say that we can be that but there are hundreds of families within the mile radius. My vision is to connect families. We need to connect more than on the social levels, we need to connect in terms of political advocacy, resources, and to join with other social services agencies to meet needs -- deep human needs. That is what we are all about.


What organizations do you collaborate with?

Well, again, this has not happened yet, but the arts council will be one. We certainly want to be affiliated with some form of business organization. I would want the church to have a seat in the neighborhood councils -- all that stuff. The church should have a place there to support the development and the economic development of a community like this. In particular, those who are hurting the most, who are marginalized, need to be there as an advocate and political partner for them.


How would you compare Eagle Rock with Highland Park?

My sense, just by passing through and talking to people, is it has more of a single ethnic identity, primarily Latino, maybe Mexican I don't know. Eagle Rock seems to have more Pacific Islanders and Asians, but it doesn't have one single ethnic identity.


What kind of neighborhood do you want to see in the future?

One that is blended, one that is open to diversity, and one where there is neighborhood gatherings where people would come together and talk about preserving their neighborhood safety.


In what ways can the church help?

That is such a good question, and that is the key mission. In North America, particularly with mainline Christian denominations, the church was the community, the center of community. In Central America, it was basically the Roman Catholic Church that was built in the town square, and people came to not only worship but to come together -- to gather. It was the same in the protestant tradition in New England.


What do you think of Colorado Boulevard? How does it play a role in Eagle Rock?

If I was deeply involved in the community, Colorado Boulevard is the old Route 66, and I would build on that. Make it nostalgic, but then contemporize it with arts and funky little restaurants. That should be at the center of the commercial development here.

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Throughout the interview and informal discussions, Pastor Phil Reller expressed his enthusiasm of expanding the role of the church as a public space. He sees the church, which is predominantly Filipino, as a space that can expand its welcoming to diverse people of multi-ethnic backgrounds. Although very optimistic of the growth of the church, Pastor Phil Reller did address a concern he had of the Boulevard, and neighborhood in general. With the rapid growth of urbanization, his concern for the community is that it might entirely lose its "small town" feel, as it was once a community "where neighbors all knew each other." However, at the same time, the church is rapidly growing as a public space, as evident in its public participation in events such as the Eagle Rock Music Festival. The church will serve as a multicultural and communal space that is needed as Eagle Rock transitions from a collective community to a community of mere individuals.


Read more Boulevard Voices interviews here.

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