The history of people of African descent in America is inextricably linked to the Christian church.
The Civil Rights Movement owes its strength to the African American church, the leadership of which was paramount in forging a legacy of justice and equality for African Americans in the United States. Education has always played a key role in that objective.
Elder Oscar Owens has been a member of West Angeles Church of God In Christ for 25 years, and is currently serving as both West Angeles Bible College President and Christian Education Minister. His list of mentors reads like a who’s-who of historic African American Christian leadership; among them: former pastor of Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, Dr. Thomas Kilgore; former pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in New York, Rev. Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor; former Senior Pastor of Canaan Baptist Church in New York and Chief of Staff for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Wyatt T. Walker; and Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake, under whom Owens serves at West Angeles Church of God In Christ in Los Angeles.
Married for 30 years to the powerful singer and Tony-nominated playwright Lita Gaithers Owens, Elder Owens has been on the West Angeles staff for 22 years, and has a passion for helping others deepen their connection to the Bible. Along with overseeing West Angeles’ Christian Education department, he also teaches Systematic Theology, one of the many classes offered by the West Angeles Bible College. He is currently studying for his Doctorate of Ministry in Christian Spiritual Formation at Azuza Pacific University’s Seminary in Los Angeles.
Elder Owens recently joined several ministers and community leaders called to pray for our city and our nation at Biola University’s Prayer for Los Angeles event, and is also a panelist for an upcoming discussion between Asian American and African American Christians in Los Angeles. The November 3 symposium, A Christian Vision of Belonging: Race and Gender, is hosted by The Institute for the Study of Asian American Christianity (I.S.A.A.C.).
I was recently honored to interview Elder Owens, who has shared his own history; his message to Christian women about finding purpose in ministry, and West Angeles’ vision for Christian education.
Q: Elder Owens, thank you for taking the time to speak with me. Can you share a little bit about your personal journey, and how you were led to Christ?
I’m originally from Chicago, and moved to Los Angeles with my family when I was in elementary school. My family attended the historic Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles under the leadership of Dr. Thomas Kilgore, Jr. He was the first Black President of the American Baptist Churches USA, and also lead the Progressive National Baptist conventions. He was mentored by Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. and was an important force in the Civil Rights Movement. He was also very close to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who referred to Second Baptist as his West Coast church home and gave many speeches there.
Although I was raised a Christian, I came to Christ in college during my first year at UCLA while studying English literature, psychology and especially science – which actually drew me closer to God. From there, I enrolled in Union Theological Seminary. Dr. Kilgore was an alum of Union Seminary and inspired me to attend. Among my professors there were Dr. James Cone, Dr. James Forbes, and Dr. Cornell West. Because of its intellectual approach to the Bible, it is probably one of the most theologically liberal seminaries in the world; but because I was rooted in the strong faith and social justice practice of the Black Christian Church, I actually came out of seminary a stronger Christian.
Theologically, I’ve always been very impressed by the teachings of Paul – this Pharisee, skeptic, persecutor and enemy of Christians – who became one of the most ardent champions for Jesus. The change in him is proof of the existence of the resurrected Jesus Christ.
Q. Please tell us about your connection to education, and the integral role it’s played in your journey.
I’ve known books all my life. Both of my parents were educators, and of course, that had a great influence in shaping the person I’ve become. As Youth Pastor of Abyssinian Baptist church in Harlem, NY, I was honored to be under the tutelage of such a great minister and educator as Dr. Samuel DeWitt Proctor. Being in Harlem at that time was an amazing experience, and I’m proud to be a part of that church’s historic legacy.
After I received my Master of Divinity degree, I returned to Los Angeles where I taught elementary school for the LA Unified School District, while serving as Youth Pastor at Second Baptist during Dr. Kilgore’s last years there. Dr. Kenneth Hammonds, who was Director of Education and Training for West Angeles, and whose assistant I later became, invited me to teach a class at the Bible College. I realized then that it was time to answer the call to go into full-time ministry.
Q: What first impressed you about Presiding Bishop Charles E. Blake and West Angeles COGIC?
Bishop Blake is definitely one of my spiritual fathers. I see him as a man who really knows and loves the Lord, who has a sincere and true relationship with Jesus. Intensely passionate and exquisite in his integrity and his pursuit of excellence, he brings every part of the West Angeles organization into that same excellence to serve the Kingdom of the Lord. He’s a man of humor; a kind man, who’s one of the greatest preachers and fantastic teachers of God’s word today.
The Lord began to draw me toward West Angeles because of Bishop Blake’s clear preaching and communication of the gospel. He honors (COGIC founder) Bishop Charles H. Mason’s legacy of embracing traditions revealed through our slave fore parents’ manner of worship as both African and Christian. That part of our heritage and the history of the church continues the traditions of dance, clapping, and improvisation, which are found in the bible. West Angeles has also made an amazing contribution to redefining musical praise and worship; taking it to a whole other level under Judith McAllister, who is now the COGIC International Minister of Music. It is an honor to serve under such a great leader and visionary as Bishop Charles Edward Blake.
Q: In closing, what message would you like to impart regarding the role of Christian education in the life of the believer, and the benefits of studying at West Angeles?
The place where you can grow as a Christian is in one of our classes. There, you’re allowed to ask questions, and learn at a pace that’s easy for you to digest, surrounded by others with whom you can fellowship, and who will encourage you. In addition to the Bible College curriculum, we also create partnerships with other schools of higher education for advanced theological study.
I also want to encourage women to pursue their calling and role in ministry. God is doing something great among women today. More than half of our Bible College professors are women who have earned advanced degrees in theology and ministry, including Zenobia Bereal, Cheryleigh Bullock, Eugenia Greene, Jini Kilgore-Cockroft, Candace Shield, and Precious Williams. But it’s important for the men to increase their involvement as well: we want to continue to grow and to exceed the enrollment of previous semesters.
We also have great classes offered through the School for Practical Christian Living (PCL) and the West Angeles Sunday School; and Carl Anderson leads the Tuesday night Prayer and Bible Band, the oldest COGIC auxiliary which dates back to the days of Bishop C.H. Mason.
We want to help our students to develop discipline in studying the Bible, to understand scripture, and to learn to meditate on God’s word. God used real, ordinary people, like all of us, to speak through in the Bible. It’s important to engage the scriptures and to allow the Holy Spirit to become a part of you; empowering you more and more, and enriching your life as a Christian.
CONTACT WEST ANGELES CHRISTIAN EDUCATION at 323/733-8300:
Elder Oscar Owens, Bible College President and Christian Education Minister; Ayanna Bereal, Administrative Assistant to Elder Oscar Owens – X2345
Elder Richard Brooks: Christian Education Program Coordinator, New Members Orientation, School of Practical Christian Living, and Prayer and Bible Band -X2366
PLEASE JOIN US FOR THE “MY SOUL SAYS YES, LORD!” WORKSHOP, facilitated by Elder Oscar and Mrs. Lita Owens. The sessions are on 3rd Sundays: October 19, November 16, and December 21, 2014 at 2:00 PM in the Multi-purpose Building. For more information, call 323/733-8300, X2345.
DID YOU KNOW?
Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles was built by noted African American architect Paul Williams Jr., and is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.