Nothing signals “Revolution HQ” about the Church of the Epiphany in Lincoln Heights. Its chocolate brown beams, gray-brown stonework and customary ecclesiastical architecture seem standard for a small community church in Lincoln Heights, but if its walls could speak, perhaps they would rally and roar because this place of worship was also a place of resistance in the 1960s and 70s.
“This church became a magnet to come and organize,” said Ravi GuneWardena, preservation architect for the church along with Frank Escher of Escher GuneWardena Architecture. “The basement of the church was given for activities. The newspaper, La Raza, was edited and created here. The Brown Berets met at the church. Both Robert Kennedy and César Chávez used it as a Los Angeles base.”
Nothing speaks of its rebellious history more eloquently than the artwork that adorned its walls and ceiling these past three months. Inside the church’s Gothic Revival interiors, paper plane-like installations fly overhead (artist Ismael de Anda's “ Love Duster”), a tied up mattress occupies the aisle (Camilo Ontiveros’s "Deportables”) and tearful photos of families re-united for three minutes across the U.S.-Mexico border hang on a wall (Tish Lampert's “3 Minutes Allowed – Door of Hope”). The artwork is part of “The Art of Protest: Epiphany and the Culture of Empowerment,” an exhibition that finished its run at the end of March. The exhibition was co-curated by LACMA educator Sofia Gutierrez; artist Ricardo Reyes, who was already working with the church during the Chicano Moratorium; historian Rosalío Muñoz, co-chair of the Chicano Moratorium; and GuneWardena. Many other artists works were shown in the church, each with an eye toward social justice.
“[We] chose these artists because they reflect the values of the cause and the culture of activism, social justice and civil rights which the Chicano and Mexican American leadership and youth refined at the Church of the Epiphany in the 1960s and 70s,” said Gutierrez.
Click left and right to view images of the church and the art exhibition below:
Even before the Chicano Movement, the church had a deep history in the community. Founded in 1887, it is one of the oldest continuing Episcopal congregations in Los Angeles. It has seen its Lincoln Heights neighborhood transform from a predominantly-Anglo population to one defined by Mexican immigrants.
Perhaps moved by the community it serves, its religious leaders during the 1960s and 70s became vocal defenders of the Chicano Movement, even though they did not share the community’s culture, or even their religious background (most Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are Roman Catholics.)
Father Tom Carey, the church’s vicar today, has another theory. “Those priests were a part of a generation of clergymen that were changed because of the experience of World War II.” The Barragan brothers, who were both priests, and even Sister Mary Corita, were part of this national zeitgeist.
The three central clergy in the Church of Epiphany during the 60s and 70s are: Fathers John Luce, Roger Wood and Oliver Garver. They were also assisted by Virginia Cueto Ram, the church’s program director, a beloved figure who bridged the church’s primarily Anglo congregation to its rapidly changing demographic in the 1960s. “[She] brought in the need to establish a Mexican-American mindset to the church’s programming,” said church historian and co-curator Rosalio Muñoz.
It’s not that the church did not care for the Civil Rights or Chicano movement before the arrival of Luce, “it’s just that when John Luce arrived, the moment did too” says Carey.
The turbulent Civil Rights Movement had swept the nation, yes, but in this Lincoln Heights neighborhood, there was an undercurrent of dissatisfaction particularly in the Latino community.
Newly arrived to the community in 1965, Luce, a “tall, slender 34-year-old” who worked in a Spanish-speaking New York City congregation headed straight for the Redwood Bar in downtown, a favorite hangout for Los Angeles Times journalists. There, he got a feel for the neighborhood thanks to the city’s reporters, not to mention a glimpse of the mistreatment of Chicanos.
“The injustices were enormous,” Wood said in “A Cleansing Fire: The Rise of the Chicano Movement and the Church of the Epiphany,” a historical booklet published by the church in 2007. “People were being reprimanded for speaking Spanish in the schoolyard, they were being pushed off into vocational schools and being told: college isn’t for you. I wasn’t just reading about that, people were experiencing that.”
Chicanos were treated like second-class citizens, forbidden to speak their language and subject to police harassment. “I got arrested by the sheriffs and harassed… my brother got arrested,” Carlos Montes, former Minister of Information for the Brown Berets, said in “A Cleansing Fire.” “They would trump charges; they would stop us and give us tickets.” Rather than be harassed for violating curfew, 13-year-old Salvador Barba ran from three officers. When the police caught up with him, they made their arrest and sent Barba to the hospital with two broken vertebra, internal bleeding in his groin area and 40 stitches for head injuries.
Safe havens were hard to find, and so the church led by the four stepped up.
The Church gave the community a place where their culture could thrive. Here at last was a place that didn’t attempt to erase their culture, but celebrate it. “An important aspect of what happened at the church in the 1960s was an acknowledging of Latino culture,” said GuneWardena, “ Especially in a historically Eurocentric church as the Episcopal church, the inclusion of Folklorico (Mexican folk dance) and Aztec dance and their aesthetics into the church liturgy was of great transformative significance for the Latino community. Church art included Aztec and Maya figures as the three kings, liturgy incorporated Mariachi music, Spanish