In 2017, after months of toxic infighting, the congregation of Koreatown’s First Unitarian Universalist Church, one of the most radical and historic churches in Los Angeles—if not the nation—was faced with some of the most difficult questions in its 143-year existence: What would it become without a minister? Could the church be led by its laity? Could it even survive? The questions were not born of philosophy or mysticism or meditation. They were far more human than that. And, in the big scheme of things, frankly petty.
They were questions of money and property. A stagnant congregation with a shriveled endowment faced a daunting expense: the minister’s $80,000 salary. Back from a sabbatical, the minister had a proposal: Why not sell the church, a 16,000-square-foot edifice on 8th Street between Vermont and Westmoreland? He estimated the value of the land at roughly $7 million and figured that First Unitarian could build a smaller home with half that money while living off the rest. But the congregation was bitterly divided over the plan.
Over the next few months, as the argument turned increasingly ugly, the minister scolded his flock in a newsletter for not rushing to his side—“We showed disrespect. We gave offense. We closed our minds. We closed our hearts.”—and asked: “Do we want to be a church, or not?”
He had been hired in 2008 to revive the church but now was saying growth was impossible for this quixotic derelict. Many congregants supported his plan. Who argues with a minister? But at a congregationwide meeting to decide the church’s fate, an enthusiastic band of local immigrants showed up to argue in favor of the status quo. Unlike most of First Unitarian’s members, the immigrants lived within walking distance of the church. To them it was their community center and lifeblood. After a close vote the church stayed and the minister hit the road, along with half of the congregation.
The board was reduced to just one committed member: Ligia Gonzalez, a prickly septuagenarian communist from Nicaragua who lives off Social Security and sleeps in a nearby rent-controlled one-bedroom courtyard apartment surrounded by portraits of Che Guevara and Nicolás Maduro. This revolution was more than her moment—it was her specialty. The pastor, according to Gonzalez, had contributed to racial tension by only superficially caring about Latino congregants—the kind of person who isn’t anti-immigrant per se but doesn’t go out of his way to be pro immigrant. Gonzalez demanded more.
Gonzalez, who turned 77 in May, is no stranger to such battles. As the debate raged over First Unitarian’s future, she had secretly rallied the church’s congregants and local immigrants to speak up against the plan. After their surprise victory, she turned a congregant’s birthday party into a raucous celebration. “Maybe it was the sugar from the cake or the alcohol from the wine, but I was so emotional,” she recalls. Did she cry? “I screamed,” she says. “I shouted, ‘La gente unida nunca será vencida! (The people united will never be defeated!)’ We celebrated the salvation of the church that day, its return to the people.”
What’s happened since could be called a minor miracle. After withering to just 20 people after the schism, the congregation boomed to more than 60 regulars. It continues to expand every month. Without a minister, the church is run like a cosmic kibbutz—with a carousel of guest speakers. And it’s working. The church’s ledgers moved into the black for the first time in recent memory, and it plays an outsize role in progressive politics and culture.
In August 2018 First Unitarian hosted an 800-person standing-room-only Democratic Socialists of America address from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, then a bartender who was about to become America’s youngest woman elected to Congress. A rainbow banner was mounted outside the church, each colored stripe declaring a core value: “In this congregation we believe: love is love; black lives matter; climate change is real; no human being is illegal; all genders are whole, holy, & good; women have agency over their bodies.” Services are now trilingual in English, Korean, and Spanish, and the musical choices range from “Bridge over Troubled Waters” to “Shallow.” In March, First Unitarian opened a stylish meditation center and library with entire book sections dedicated to the antiwar movement, communism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, poetry, indigenous faith, transcendentalism, and more. In February 11 new members joined, the largest increase in five years.
The congregation—peppered with self-described “red diapers” (elderly folks raised in communist homes in the 1940s and 1950s)—suddenly won over enough young people to sustain new programs with new energy (and funding). Among its new congregants were two improv comedians from Chicago, a polyamorous poetry instructor from Montana, a recovering alcoholic writer for HBO, and a hotshot lawyer from Hawaii. Like Unitarian essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson’s protégé Henry David Thoreau, they have gone confidently in the direction of their dreams, and it has led them to this church, which might as well be called Melrose Place Divinity School for the vibes of cool thoughtfulness it radiates, despite the new ukulele quintet. “I’ve been to a liberal church before,” says the institution’s new president, Keola Whittaker. “But this one is straight-up leftist.”
First Unitarian’s success is the latest victory in Gonzalez’s half-century battle for local economic, racial, sexual, and social justice. Acerbic and sometimes profane, she is not your average church lady. Parishioners describe her as the secret patron saint of Koreatown. She descended from the clouds—albeit by plane—when she arrived in Los Angeles at age 15 in 1959, she says, the same year Alaska and Hawaii joined the Union. Her family was fleeing the brutal rule of the Somoza family, whose patriarch was assassinated at gunpoint by a poet in 1956. Gonzalez says the regime had jailed her mother and tortured her brother. In 1961, then 17, she married José Vigil, a dashing 37-year-old Cuban-born Spaniard. The couple met while buying cigarettes at a liquor store. Her family, unhappy with the age difference, disapproved of the union. Undaunted, the pair eloped to Tijuana. They would eventually raise two sons, José and Martín, but separated in 1979 over political differences. “He was too conservative,” Gonzalez says now, “like a grandfather even when he was young!”
By then she had become besotted with the liberal renaissance taking place throughout the country. It was the era of America’s Great Society, when the nation created public housing, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Peace Corps, and the Civil Rights acts of 1964 and 1968. It was a time of men in space and women of color in Congress.
She has never held a 9-to-5 job, Gonzalez says, because “I was too busy with the struggle.” Instead she devoted her time to decades of activism—against segregated school buses in the 1960s, for gay rights and the Iranian revolution in the 1970s, for Latino literacy in the 1980s and 1990s, for immigrant rights in the 2000s. “I became what I am here,” she says, “not Nicaragua.”
“Some people called me Yolanda,” Ligia Gonzales says. “When you’ve done the things I’ve done in my life, it’s not smart to use your real name.”
I ask her how she chooses her battles. She laughs. “There is only one side worth defending in history,” Gonzalez says. “I stand on the side of the people. What other choice is there?” I ask if in all her fights she ever earned a nickname. “No,” she says softly after a lengthy pause. I ask again, and she relents: “Some people called me Yolanda.” Why? “When you’ve done the things I’ve done in my life, it’s not smart to use your real name,” she says mysteriously.
A firebrand like Gonzalez would stick out like a sore thumb in a typical church—but First Unitarian is far from typical. The church was founded in 1877 by Caroline Severance, an abolitionist turned suffragette, in her living room. In 1923 the church opened Sunset Hall, a retirement home for progressives. By the 1940s and ’50s, First Unitarian had become a hotbed of left-wing ideology, counseling conscientious objectors during World War II, railing against Japanese American internment camps, and defending members of Hollywood blacklisted by McCarthyism (the Hollywood Ten were congregants). In 1952 it welcomed John Day, an anti-Franco Spanish Civil War veteran into its fold. In 1954 the church refused to sign a loyalty oath of allegiance to the United States enforced by the state of California, losing its nonprofit status and paying taxes while challenging the law in court, ending in a 1958 Supreme Court victory. During the long, hot summer of 1967, which saw race riots scorch 159 U.S. cities, the church created Black Unitarians for Radical Reform. From 1942 to 1974 both the FBI and the LAPD kept First Unitarian under constant surveillance.
Over the years First Unitarian has hosted sermons from left-wing icons such as Ed Asner, W.E.B. DuBois, Jane Fonda, Rita Moreno, Paul Robeson, and Pete Seeger. In 1979, decades ahead of its denomination, the church created a gay support group. In 1983 it became the first church in Los Angeles to promise sanctuary to Central American refugees (it helped that First Unitarian was already home to AMOR, a group of refugees named after Óscar Romero, a leftist priest assassinated in 1980).
In 1992, in the wake of the Rodney King riots, the church created Urban Partners, a nonprofit program that distributes bags of groceries to the needy every Saturday. The church’s hard-core activism was evident as recently as 2013, when it was the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against the National Security Agency’s wiretapping programs—and again in 2014 when it converted its parking lot into an affordable housing complex. Last year Gonzalez led a forum on Venezuela that was met with noisy protests from anti-Maduro activists. (The protesters’ permit was denied after the church told police the event was part of its religious service and therefore protected speech.)
Since the coronavirus descended on the city in March, the church has strived not to lose its social mission while maintaining the necessary distance. The congregants now conduct services via Zoom. The church has increased its food services to meet growing need in the neighborhood. It was handing out 400 grocery bags a week until the lockdown—it now distributes 1,600, with L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis dropping o 50 pounds of candy. “It’s not charity like at a Catholic church,” says Gonzalez. “When we do it, it’s solidarity!”
“Inter religión y revolución, no hay contradicción,” Gonzalez tells me, adding: “Después del primero paso, no pararemos de andar jamás. (After the first step, you never stop walking.)” When she sees me writing her quote down in English, she clucks her tongue and asks, “What are you doing? I didn’t say that.” I explain it is for people who don’t know Spanish. “Déjales aprender,” she replies with an impish smile: Let them learn.
“She’s mean as hell in the best possible way,” says Sara Pinho, a congregant. “She fancies herself a fancy lady, and she is a fucking sexy lady. She’s all for community and social justice without the phoniness and the evangelism.” Certainly, she’s not quite a saint.
“There was a little Christmas party, and Ligia told me we needed to turn it into a Latin dance party. With wine. At noon!” says Pinho laughing. “I just look at her and the other elders and realize the palpable possibility of my own future. I’m not fated to be stodgy or grouchy or conservative. There’s a thing people say: If you’re not a Democrat when you’re young, you have no heart. And if you’re not a Republican when you’re old, you have no brain. Ligia tears that thinking apart by having a soul. I want to be her—be that—when I grow up.”
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