Old Traditions and New Beginnings: Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City

In Featured, Latest News, News by Andrew Eakes

“…Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”

Matthew 5:2-6

The corner of 41st Street and University Avenue in City Heights holds the Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City. The Spanish-style, stucco building, weathered and roughed up after standing for nearly 73 years, is currently home to seven different congregations, countless homeless outreach offerings and, now, a heavy scandal involving a former pastor and congregant of the church.

On Jan. 16, 2018, former Mid-City congregant and Point Loma Nazarene University student Amy McClanahan sued former Mid-City pastor and PLNU professor John Wright, and the Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City, over accusations of sexual battery and assault. That same day Wright counter sued McClanahan, accusing her of illegally recording their private conversations both online and in person. While the next court hearing isn’t slated until June 29, 2018, Mid-City is faced with a lull period filled with uncertainty and grief.

PLNU professor Katie Manning is a current congregant of the church. She says that she began attending when she was a freshman student at PLNU.

“I won’t try to speak for the whole congregation, but I can tell you that I am shocked and grieving and will be for a while,” said Manning. “I was initially heartbroken that our church might fall apart, but now I feel hopeful about our future as a congregation.”

Interim pastor and PLNU professor, Bob Smith, was faced with the task of stepping in and comforting those who chose to hang in there, and fight for the church many have been coming to since Wright brought them there when they were students.

“I do not have all of the answers,” said Smith to his congregation of 20 in the service following the breaking news coverage of this story. “But I am here for comfort.”

“At that point there was some strangeness, and I didn’t know very much either,” said Smith in an interview with The Point. “I was just wanted to prepare them for the preparation of the advent season. So that is where I took it.”

Smith said that he chose to stick to the Lectionary used by Mid-City that day. This featured Isaiah 40:21-31 which discusses becoming weak, stumbling and falling, but ultimately “renewing their strength” through faith in the Lord.

“That material I thought, without having to say a lot to the people about any kind of situation, showed we all know where we are in need of having that strength of God given to us,” said Smith. “I was able to stand there and proclaim that and be thankful to God for that promise he has given to us. If we trust in him, our renewal will come.”

The Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City began over 20 years ago in the living room of PLNU professor Ron Benefiel and his wife. It was founded by Benefiel, Wright and David Whitelaw who came together with other like-minded people new to San Diego.

“As a new professor, I was looking for a home church,” said Benefiel. “After pastoring for many years in L.A., my wife and I were especially interested in a church that was engaged in ministry in the city… When we decided to begin worship services, it seemed natural to begin in our home.  As I recall, that was only a few Sundays as we grew, and our gatherings were too large to meet in a home.  

Quickly outgrowing the small space after a few weeks, the church, then the Church of the Nazarene in North Park, called Monroe Clark Middle School in Mid-City home for a while until moving to their University Ave. location in 1999 under remarkable circumstances.

“The facility was originally built and occupied by the University Avenue Church of the Nazarene. That congregation today is Mission Church of the Nazarene in Mission Valley,” said Benefiel. “When they outgrew the facility in about 1980, they sold it to an Apostolic Church. The terms that they sold it under were very favorable to the small Apostolic congregation.”

Benefiel explained that the Apostolic Church thrived, and eventually, they outgrew the facility and put it up for sale, remembering the gracious offering they received when they were a new church looking for the opportunity to thrive.

“When they sold it to us, they had a better offer from an established organization,” said Benefiel. “But they sold it to us instead. And at that time, we were still a relatively small group of mostly students. It wasn’t the best business deal to go with us, but they remembered.”

The decision to locate the church in City Heights was based on a moral that is still an influence today, compassion ministry. This means giving as much as possible to those who need something greater. For many years the Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City held food distributions to the homeless on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, an offering still practiced today.

“It’s about emulating Jesus in serving those who are most marginalized in society and meeting people’s real physical needs,” said Manning. “At times we’ve also had an inclement weather shelter to house people who are homeless during storms, and we’ve participated for years in providing a weekly dinner at the Salvation Army downtown.”

The future of the Church of the Nazarene in Mid-City remains unclear, but those closely involved with the church feel a strong sense of hope and faith that they will remain the same church as they once were for two decades, only now with a new reputation. According to Smith there have been very few people leave the church because of the lawsuits stated above.

“With every opportunity there is a huge risk that people could become disenchanted or disenfranchised,” said Smith. “Certainly, I believe that when we stand open before God, that opportunity for growth and development, and our own awareness of how God wants to be active in our lives and in our worlds, will be there.”