Pastor Profile: Rev. Dr. J. Benjamin Hardwick
Church: Praises of Zion (“Praise City”)
How Long: 61 years since founding the church in 1955 at age 24
Family: Wife of 58 years, Thelma, two grown children
Hometown: Los Angeles
Key Position: President of Western Baptist State Convention, representing 312 churches in the state of California Reflecting back on founding the church at 24, how has the L.A. church community changed?
There’s a vast difference in the quality of people. Members at that time were so loyal to the church but there’s a decline in the attendance of churches all over the nation. That’s a sad commentary. What it means it that we must work almost day and night with all kinds of programs and ministries that will catch the attention of all segments of our community. We have 30 ministries and services here, which range in scope from mental health and college prep to childcare in addition to our gymnasium.
You’re especially proud of one such program…
You might remember the name Leonard Deadwyler [the case that sparked the Watts Riots in 1966]…they were members of my church. Johnny Cochran represented him and was my attorney at the time and we had to beg money to bury him. With all the national publicity from the riots, 5,000 people turned out for a march and people began sending money to their family. Every television camera was there, but at some point Johnny said to me something must happen in the black community and after some time, we came up with an insurance policy so that people could bury a loved one. Everyone who joined this insurance group—and it is still good today—received $15,000 to cover burial costs. We are the only black church to have this kind of ministry.
You started the church at a time when activism was a huge part of the fabric of the black church, do you believe that is still as big a factor today? I’m concerned about that. I feel like that’s the church’s duty. Wherever there is a real need, I believe that the church ought to be a part of seeing that it is met. I’ve been in this community for a long time and I’ve seen the community change but instead of fighting it, we’ve embraced it and I’ve really advertised the church as “the east side church”.
Does the shifting—or already shifted—demographics challenge what you’re doing here?
Yes, it affects us and I’m concerned about it, but we also have people who drive long distances—from Riverside and Fontana—and we have some members who now live in Sacramento who were in church last week. Many of our members have passed and you can’t replace them, so I thank God for the young people of this church. Every month we get gospel recording artist Malcolm Williams to come here from Chicago to draw young people and we open the gym up to neighborhood youth.
Additionally, we had 9-10 Hispanics to join our church a few weeks ago, and we have an active social media ministry. Many of those taking part in our feeding program, mental health services and utilizing our gym are Hispanic. I’ve encouraged young preachers to get 501c3s and instead of moving or them coming to take over your church, they come to support your church. We are building a life center, senior citizen home and housing and we are going to keep buying houses until we control the neighborhood. That’s what I’ve been trying to get people to do years ago, don’t move, improve.
Yours is a more traditional congregation, it is more challenging to outreach to youth?
To get young people in your church you must do one of two things. You lower the standard of the church to get them or you stand still and win them over to what the real church is for. Now I’ll be criticized for that, but I’m telling you there’s a lot of things going on in the church that years ago you would have been condemned and caused some to be put out of the church. Young people dress a certain way, they live together…
Do you think young people want the tradition that churches like yours has to offer?
Well I believe this: that you don’t have to yield to modern technology to get young people in your church. I still think you can stand firmly on the word of God and if your ministry is Christ centered you can make it.
I’m old but I think young and that’s the policy, but it’s about ministry. We have the gymnasium, family preservation with the county, a foster family unit, childcare center, and adoption facility and we prepare our young people for the SAT.
And we are getting ready to build. The L.A. Lakers just donated $85,000 that is earmarked to update our gym.
You were privileged to know Martin Luther King who died at just 39 years of age, what do you think about the young pastors coming up now?
Can you imagine that the nation in a few weeks will recognize the works that he [Dr. King] has produced for this nation? Everywhere he’s a treasure and I listen to his speeches now and it brings back memories.
The church has been successful in every worthwhile movement. We have the influence and the resources and if we could live up to the potential and be more progressive in that vein, the black church could make so much more of a difference.
I just wish more young ministers would think more about the people than themselves.
Do you think it’s necessary for pastors to be political today?
Definitely so. I think Martin would be kind of shocked at the involvement of the black church. This last election just crushed my spirit and I’m wondering will this nation ever recover?
What is the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?
I had a stroke some years ago where I couldn’t speak for nine days and I still can’t speak as clearly as I used to, but they told me I would never speak again so if I can just utter a word I’m grateful.
What has been the highlight of your six decades of ministry?
Helping people for over 60 years. When I see young people who I know are making it because some of the programs at this church. Every year we give 10 scholarships for $4000 and between that we give even more funding. We’ve helped so many of our youth to go to college and get scholarships. A young fellow I know just received his doctorate through this program. I only wish we could do more. There is a sense of belonging to other people and knowing that you have given your best and see it become a reality in someone else’s life. It’s the satisfaction that comes with truly helping somebody.