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Two Evergreens: Bigger – Not Better

By Bill Watanabe

My wife and I have been members of Evergreen Baptist Church for nearly 40 years. When we started attending, it was located at the corner of Second & Evergreen in Boyle Heights (hence the name Evergreen Baptist). It was a small church that had seen tremendous growth under the new leadership of Pastor Cory Ishida wherein the weekly Sunday service attendance grew from about 40 people to over 200 by 1980.

Evergreen Baptist was started in the 1920’s when there was a sizeable Japanese community living in Boyle Heights. After WW2, the church was re-activated but JA’s began to disperse to the suburbs and the Nikkei population around the church had dwindled, creating difficult times for the church. Ministers came and went in such rapid succession that Evergreen old-timers have commented that sometimes they needed to look at the Sunday worship bulletin to find out who the minister was! Downtown LA had the famous “Church of the Open Door”, and some Evergreen members, with biting humor, began to refer to Evergreen Baptist as the “Church of the Revolving Door”! Though the numbers shrank, the faith of the remaining few did not, and in 1977 they hired as their Senior Pastor Cory Ishida who was then a youth pastor at a local Japanese American Presbyterian church.

One of Cory’s early staff hires was a divinity student from Fuller Seminary named Ken Fong. Under the ministry of this dynamic duo, Evergreen gradually began to shift from a Nikkei church to a bi-ethnic church composed primarily of English-speaking Japanese and Chinese Americans. By the mid-1980’s the church outgrew the facility and made the move to Rosemead where many Asian American families now resided. A new church that could seat about 600 was built and very quickly there were two Sunday services held to accommodate the growing congregation that was reaching a count of 1,000 believers!

At this time, I was the Moderator of the church (similar to the Chairman of the Board) and we began to look for a mega-church site that could accommodate a larger congregation – perhaps upward of 2,000 members! One day, after years of looking at many different sites, Pastor Cory announced at a Church Board meeting that he had come to the conclusion he did not want to be the pastor of an Asian American mega-church! He felt it was not a sustainable model for a multi-cultural church, and he didn’t like the fact that as the church grew his role was more and more of an administrator and not of a minister. Cory shared how he liked getting to know the members and their kids, baptizing them and visiting them when they got sick or needed counseling. He made the daring announcement that the church should split into two separate but thriving congregations. I remember sitting at that meeting in a stunned silence – as if I had just heard the announcement that the Pope was not a Catholic!

Cory also announced that either he or Ken Fong will stay at the current site and the other will leave and look for another location but he didn’t say who would stay and who would go. I think everyone assumed the scenario that Cory would stay, which would be natural since as the Senior Pastor he had overseen the construction of the new church, and Ken being the junior pastor would depart. In a surprising move, Cory designated Ken to make this major decision as to who should stay in the new church facility and who should move out – another stunner!

So, in 1997, the church amicably divided when Ken decided Senior Pastor Cory Ishida should move from the Rosemead facility. Cory left with about 3/5 of the congregation and Ken Fong remained with about 2/5 of the congregation. The goal was to have two balanced and healthy churches, and as far as I could tell from the Moderator’s viewpoint, the separation and transition went remarkably well.

While all these changes were happening at Evergreen Baptist, I was working as the Executive Director of the Little Tokyo Service Center (LTSC), a nonprofit community service agency in downtown LA. I was well-aware of the trials and temptations that come with running a nonprofit organization, and as such, I could only marvel at the unprecedented leadership decisions that were transpiring at Evergreen Baptist Church.

Churches (and nonprofits) most-always assume that “bigger is better” and the size of one’s congregation or operational budget determines if one is “successful”. It was refreshing for me to hear Cory prefer to downsize and focus on the people and not be influenced by the numbers of the congregation or its budget. It was also inspiring to see a leader being able to humbly entrust a most-important decision to someone else – even a staff subordinate. Believe me, this does not happen very often!

It has now been 20 years since Evergreen Baptist Church became two separate congregations. They are called Evergreen Baptist Church – Los Angeles (Ken) and Evergreen Baptist Church – San Gabriel Valley (Cory). Rev. Ken Fong has just recently retired and Rev. Cory Ishida has announced his own imminent retirement. Both Evergreens have now selected new Senior pastors to carry on the work. The two Evergreen churches have taken different paths and different ministries – and both are lifted up as leading churches within the Asian American Christian community. Both of these churches have a legacy of great faith and humble leadership – I can only wonder what the next chapter of this amazing saga will bring.

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