Ancient faiths in modern times: exploring the diversity of religious life in Eagle Rock

The Eagle Rock Seventh-day Adventist Church in Los Angeles. Nov. 2, 2019. Meghan Lee/The Occidental

Driving past glitzy technicolor signs, lanky palm trees and imposing hills, thousands of cars chug through hundreds of miles of freeway in Los Angeles every moment of every day. But the city also hosts another, less visible form of life, constant as the traffic and steady as breath. In Northeast LA alone, from Eagle Rock to Pasadena, a fervor of faith pulses. There are synagogues, Hindu temples, Catholic and Protestant churches, Buddhist monasteries and many more centers for religious and spiritual communion. The faith communities they create serve as an anchor against the pressures and pace of life as an Angeleno.

Pastor Danny Chan, who has served the Eagle Rock Seventh-day Adventist Church on Merton Avenue for 16 years, emphasized the importance of this diverse community to his faith.

“I would hope that people, when they come through our doors, will feel loved and accepted regardless of who they are,” Chan said. “We are proud to know that when people do come in and they’re from different walks of life, cultures or spiritual experiences, they will be loved and treated with basic human dignity.”

And indeed, the first words of Chan’s Nov. 2 service were, “God loves you. Whoever you are, God loves you.”

The church’s Nov. 2 service began on a still Saturday morning, with dozens of churchgoers exchanging hugs and warm greetings. Teenagers handed out service programs, elderly people took their seats and parents corralled young children. A rich ethnic diversity was apparent.

Jen Sacro is an Arcadia resident and attorney whose family has been attending the Seventh-Day Adventist (SDA) church since 2010.

“It’s a very family-oriented church,” Sacro said. “We were just starting our family, so it was a very easy transition to parenthood because the church has such a strong children’s ministry and the people are very aware of the needs of young parents, and so they make attending church much easier.”

As Sacro spoke, her toddler ran over to give her a hug. Another woman walked over to ask about the labeling on the food Sacro had brought for everyone to share. Despite the elegant arches and the churchgoers wearing their Saturday best, the service was a relaxed, routine one. This was not a special event, but a natural, everyday indication of faith and community.

This sense of simplicity may come from the church’s family-based nature. Young children scurried through the pews to collect donations, then assembled at the front for a children’s story. Both Chan and Sacro’s husband are second-generation Adventists whose fathers or grandfathers served as ministers.

“This is the place where my teenagers were raised,” Chan said. “This is the only church they’ve known. They’ve been loved and supported by the community at every stage. My faith has been a blessing to me because I’ve seen firsthand how God uses any circumstance to work it out to good. My hope is that my children grow to experience that kind of walk with God so they will see themselves as servants of humanity to bless the lives of others.”

Sacro also spoke of her hope to share her faith with her children — in particular, her habit of beginning each day with prayer and Bible study, a hallmark of Seventh-day Adventism. The Protestant Christian denomination, which originated during the Second Great Awakening in the 1860s, has over 25 million adherents worldwide. Unique from most other Christians and similar to Judaism, Adventists observe the Sabbath, from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, as their day of rest and worship.

“During that time, we really focus on worshipping God,” Sacro said. “We set aside our secular tasks for the week and we try to worship, go to church and have our personal prayer time so we can be refreshed and focus on our mission and our basic beliefs.”

Just three miles away from Eagle Rock SDA Church, on Monte Vista Avenue, stands Temple Beth Israel (TBI). TBI has been in Highland Park since 1923. Yellow stained glass windows, a wooden Star of David and a menorah make up its facade. Tiny potted flowers are signs of life on the outside, and the stirring, rhythmic Hebrew prayers during the Nov. 9 service signified the life on the inside.

Jason Rosner has served as TBI’s Rabbi since May 2019. Having initially studied history, he later decided to become a rabbi and actively involved himself in his school’s Jewish life, running Shabbat dinners for other students in graduate school.

“I chose to become a rabbi because I enjoy the intellectual depths and spirituality of Jewish tradition,” Rosner said. “What I had been learning in preparation to become a history professor translated to something that worked in the Jewish community very well — exploring the depths of Jewish tradition.”

The TBI service was highly participatory. Attendees prayed for each other and for loved ones, took part in a Torah reading and donned their kippahs with the ease of familiarity.

“I’d like everyone to know that Judaism is a religion that has evolved over time like all other religions,” Rosner said. “There are mystical traditions and meditative traditions and different streams of thought about gender and history. It’s a very diverse, very rich culture and history that can be explored through reading and discussion, and that can be explored through coming to services.”

During the service, a man stood up to inform the rest of the congregation that the Nov. 9 Shabbat service marked 81 years since Kristallnacht, or “Night of the Broken Glass.” In 1938, anti-Semitic government-sanctioned rioters across Germany terrorized Jewish people, destroying synagogues and Jewish-owned businesses. An unplanned moment of silence ensued in the temple. For Rosner, religion offers a way of understanding such devastating events.

“Faith evolves over time to address the questions in every generation of the odyssey— why is there evil in the world?” Rosner said. “This is the relevance of an ancient faith in the current day. We have a central text, we have thousands of years of commentary on that text, we have commentaries from Republicans and Democrats and communists on that text. The purpose of religion, in my view, is to help us curate a set of shared values that give meaning to our lives. The thing that gives us the authority to do that is our sacred text.”

According to Rosner, Jewish history is in many ways a story of leaving and moving, often in response to deep cultural trauma like Kristallnacht. But Rosner said these teachings can be applied even to everyday, modern challenges.

“I would say that the central question of Judaism is a quote from the Talmud. ‘What has this come to teach us?’ What can we learn about ourselves, the world and other people?” Rosner said. “My faith is my reference point for how to make ethical decisions, for how to understand my life and its meaning relative to the lives and the meanings of the lives of the people around me.”

These questions may seem too profound to answer, but for people of faith like Rosner, the answers come as much from prayer and meditation as from daily life and small acts of spirituality. For Sacro, faith changes how she approaches her work as an attorney.

“At work, how I represent my clients and how I do my work and interact with my coworkers hopefully shows fairness, kindness and generosity, principles that, for me, come from the Bible,” Sacro said.

These principles can also come from other places. At the Pasadena Hindu Temple, people walk among brightly-colored idols, leaving flowers and money at the altars, stringing garlands on Lord Ganesha’s neck and touching Lord Krishna’s feet. This temple is one of two major ones in Northeast LA. The Hindu sacred text, the Bhagavad Gita, teaches the importance of inner sanctity in the face of tumultuous day-to-day emotions and events. Hindu practices and interpretations of the Gita vary considerably.

Ornate religious accessories and symbols displayed at the Pasadena Hindu Temple in Los Angeles. Nov. 3, 2019. Meghan Lee/The Occidental

Vraj Rajgor is 13 years old and the son of the vaadyar, or leading priest, of the Hindu temple. He sits at the temple frequently, even while it is empty or when his father is not there, doing homework or playing on his computer in the presence of the godly idols.

“To me, Hinduism is basically praying to God and following what you believe,” Rajgor said. “I pray to God every day for my family to have a good life and live long and stay together as a family.”

According to Rajgor, his father is often busy, flying to different cities to visit Hindu centers. But Rajgor said that he is grateful for the structure and faith that Hinduism provides his family.

“We’re just a happy family living in LA achieving our goals,” Rajgor said. “It’s not that hard for us, but I’ve seen families that really need help. We do this thing called ‘seva’ every third Sunday of the month where we make sandwiches for homeless families and we give them around in Downtown LA.”

Each of these religious centers — the Eagle Rock SDA Church, TBI, the Pasadena Hindu Temple — emphasized not only the spiritual needs of their attendees, but also the physical needs of the communities around them.

“We have three growth areas as part of our church,” Chan said. “We as a church reach up to work on our relationship with God, we reach in to develop relationships with each other to grow spiritually, and we reach out to serve our community.”

The Eagle Rock SDA Church hosts a warm meal every Monday night for 40–60 people in need in the Eagle Rock and Highland Park communities. They also host depression and anxiety management workshops, as well as programs to aid people with diabetes and substance addictions.

According to Rosner, Judaism, too, puts an emphasis on society being structured in an ethical and equitable way. While religion often has solitary, archaic connotations, the synagogue’s efforts are deeply intertwined with contemporary LA issues.

“In our community, that practically plays out because we believe that ecology is a very important value,” Rosner said. “We put solar panels on, we’re trying to do low-waste and low-plastic and so on, based on the idea that we’re supposed to be fruitful and multiply as Genesis says, but only as our ecosystem allows us. We’re also interested in gentrification issues in the area. We’ve seen Highland Park change a lot.”

Even at a physical and aesthetic level, all of these faith centers blend well into the neighborhoods in which they are situated. Far from being imposing structures, these locations are well-maintained, small and brightly colored; from a distance they could easily be mistaken for one of the many houses on their streets. This sense of communion with the neighborhood extends into their values as well.

“Our location is critical because it dictates who our members are,” Rosner said. “Our membership is based mostly in Northeast LA, Pasadena and the San Gabriel Valley area, so the kind of people who choose to live in this area like the artistic, cultural or historical aspects of the area. They also tend to have shared values — inclusivity, ecology, a lot of focus on food culture as well.”

In even the smallest of ways, these centers — which are only a tiny sample of LA’s religious diversity — have much in common. Music is an important factor, from the rousing Christian hymns to the Carnatic ragas that teenagers at the Hindu temple played on violins. All emphasize taking a break from technology’s fast pace to reconnect over meals and quality time with loved ones. All resembled a home in many ways, with a small kitchen where attendees left food in marked Tupperware containers.

Outside, the landscape of Eagle Rock Boulevard epitomizes LA, with Southern California’s signature palm trees dotting the sky. Next to the trees, a storefront sign reads, “Jesus is the Lord” and “Stop suffering.” Perhaps these faith centers show that faith is not so much about stopping something as beginning it — taking people out of their own limited perspectives and agape before something greater, whether that is God or community or service.