Sunday Steeplechase: From Louisiana to Hell’s Half Acre and Beyond

Faith on Fire 2, Memorial Tabernacle Church, Oakland, CA (copyright, 2011, Laurie Snyder).

Faith on Fire 2, Memorial Tabernacle Church, Oakland, California (copyright, 2011, Laurie Snyder).

The church featured in this week’s Sunday Steeplechase has its roots in America’s Deep South. Christened as the “Christ Holy Sanctified Church” when it was founded in 1910, Memorial Tabernacle Church was brought to life in Keatchie, Louisiana, a small town in DeSoto Parish (about 35 miles south of Shreveport), by Bishop Judge King (1872-1945) and his wife, Sarah (1878-1971).

They were welcomed to the community by some, but feared by others, and suffered greatly from the racial prejudice and hate which ran rampant in the region during the early years of their work. As a result, Bishop King made the difficult decision, during the outbreak of World War I, to uproot his family and move his church to Los Angeles, California.

Preaching out in the open as they traveled, they reached out along the way to willing ears. After a brief sojourn in southern California, they moved north in the 1920s to Oroville, where Bishop King was able to secure steady work at a local sawmill to fund his ministry . There, he launched a new ministry – a small mission church where, they hoped, both Black and White people of faith could and would worship together. They honored the first members of their new church by calling them “saints.”

Unfortunately, the Oroville environment proved no better than that of the Deep South. Locals responded to their new neighbors once again with fear, labeling the Kings as “fanatics” and their church as an “extremist” one. Word spread, through sheer ignorance of Pentecostal religious procedures, that members of the new King church were engaging in the practice of voodoo. With frightening speed on one terrible day, a gunman entered the mission and shot Sarah King in the arm while she singing and preaching from the Bible. Still others beat Bishop King and several of his saints, who were then later jailed for their religious beliefs. Then, those same residents of Oroville burned the church to the ground.

So, Bishop King and his family had no choice but to move once again. They finally found their footing in West Oakland where, in 1925, they established the first Christ Holy Sanctified Church in “Hell’s Half Acre,” a section of the city so named because of the nightclub-associated prostitution and violence occurring nightly on the surrounding streets.

But vice was not the Kings’ only companion in those days. Hell’s Half Acre, which would also later be re-christened as “the Harlem of the East Bay,” was the birthplace of the San Francisco Bay Area jazz scene. It was here that many of America’s greatest jazz and blues musicians of the time began their rise to prominence (including Oakland bandleader-pianist Sidney LeProtti, who dazzled listeners with the Crescent Orchestra and So Different Jazz Band; bandleader-pianist Henry Starr of the Cafe Richards Syncopators; singer-guitarist Saunders King of the Les Hite Band; alto sax player Jerome Richardson; trumpeter Vernon “Jake” Porter; and the orchestras led by clarinetists Clem Raymond and Wade Whaley, who’d honed his skilled in concert with Jelly Roll Morton before gaining fame with his own Black and Tan Jazz Hounds at the Creole Cafe one of the jazz clubs often reported by the Oakland Tribune during those years as a place where johns and police were easily able to find prostitutes).

According to author-historian Robert J. Chandler:

Charles ‘Raincoat’ Jones – unofficial mayor, West Oakland booster, legendary gambling man, and loan shark – held sway…. Best known was Slim Jenkins’s Supper Club at 1748 Seventh Street, at the northeast corner of Willow. It opened the day after the repeal of Prohibition on December 5, 1933….

Almost immediately, Bishop King and his wife reached out to alcoholics and others they believed to be lost souls, preaching to them wherever they saw a need – in front of bars or on street corners where pimps were hanging out – and inviting society’s shunned into their home and the waiting arms of the congregants at the CHSC (also known at the time as the Seventh Street Mission).

As a result, the church grew. It grew so rapidly, in fact, that the congregation needed to move to a larger building on Seventh Street. From this new location, the Kings’ church became a recognized center of classical Pentecostal teaching in the Bay Area, inspiring well known evangelists from across the country to preach at the Kings’ increasingly popular revival services.

Even after Bishop King’s passing in 1945, church members ministered on, particularly after Bishop Judge King’s son and assistant, Bishop Ulysses S. King, took up the mantle of leadership. Joining the Center for Urban Black Studies in Berkeley, the younger Bishop King reached out to the larger Christian community to broaden ties and build bridges. An organizer by nature, Ulysses King also became a member of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance.

But, as so often happens in life, change reared its head once more. Prompted by changes to the neighborhood and the U.S. Postal Service’s purchase of a section of Seventh Street to build one of its major branch facilities, church leaders were forced to relocate their flock yet again when. Ultimately, Ulysses King and his search committee settled on a structure which had been owned and operated previously by the Evangelical and Reformed Church.

Located in a section of North Oakland near an off-ramp to Highway 24, this site has been the permanent home of the Memorial Tabernacle Church CHSC since that time.

The move proved to be a an inspirational one. From that 1960 relocation until his passing in 1985, Bishop Ulysses King preached to all who would hear him in Oakland – and in West Africa. Reaching out to souls overseas first in Lagos and then Uyo, Nigeria, he also established a second church in Uyo in 1976, and preached tirelessly across the United States – to Baptists, Methodists, and others of diverse denominations.

Today, according to the tabernacle’s current head, Pastor Stephen King, the church continues its mission of compassionate outreach and teaching while still adhering to many of its Pentecostal foundations:

The Memorial Tabernacle Church has come together by the Holy Spirit for the specific purpose of preaching and teaching the word of God, (the Bible), and about Jesus Christ, God’s son, and to proclaim the gospel of the Kingdom of God to the North Oakland Community and its environs; to bring healing to the brokenhearted and deliverance to the oppressed; to be a center of genuine concern for those in need, a sanctuary of community worship that is neither shallow nor restrained, a spiritual home where members find an expression of precious love for one another and a haven for the unsaved.

In God, as Father and Creator of the Universe; in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, whom God and this Jesus was born of a virgin by the power of the Spirit of God; we believe that Jesus was crucified on the cross and that He willingly gave his life, was buried, rose again, and will return visibly to the world; we believe that man is born in sin, needs the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration; we believe that there is a continual sanctification work with keeps one clean and separate to God for spiritual service; we believe that the gift of the Holy Spirit is for people today and that “speaking in tongues” is valid, but must be used wisely in church edification and privately in personal edification; we believe in signs, wonders, miracles and healings of mind, spirit, and body; and we believe that the Bible reveals the plan of salvation and that the Scriptures were written down by different men, in different localities,in different times, but all inspired by the same God; we believe in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments; we believe the Bible is inerrant.

 

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