The smell of smoke lingered in the air Monday morning as members of the historic Victory Baptist Church in South L.A. mourned the destruction of the 79-year-old building following a fire early Sunday morning.
A bulldozer sifted through the wreckage of the church, which was almost entirely burned to the ground. Wooden planks and ash lay where the historic building once stood. A small group of photographers and congregation members stood outside the church. A heavy silence washed over the crowd as meaningful photographs were salvaged from the rubble. Assistant minister Cory Williams watched as firefighters cleared the debris.
“This is our church home, it’s part of our family,” said Williams. “It impacts us, just like a loss of anything, seeing the devastation of our church.”
The church, a historically Black congregation founded in the 1940s by Arthur Atlas Peters, boasts a rich cultural history in spiritual, political and artistic spheres. Victory first made national news in 1950 after its Sunday night services began airing on Channel 11 KTTV at prime time. A destination for acclaimed musicians, the church has hosted singers including Mahilia Jackson, Jester Harston and Ethel Waters, making music a cornerstone of the congregation. By the 60s, the congregation expanded its political reach campaigning for voter registration, fundraising for the civil rights movement and even hosting Martin Luther King Jr. to speak in 1959 and 1964. Victory is now home to over 300 conjugates.
“This church is very important. When you look at the history, back to our founder Dr. Peters, how involved he was in the community and how [involved] we are today,” said Williams. “We have a full ministry, we provide academic tutoring to the community, we will continue to be involved in the community in spite of our current circumstances.”
Pastor Williams received a call at 2:30 A.M. Sunday morning as over 130 firefighters attempted to quell the flames of the raging fire. Three responders suffered moderate injuries, two of whom were transported to a hospital, according to Brett Willis, Battalion Chief of the Los Angeles Fire Department. An arson investigation is underway to determine the cause of the fire.
“We are working on exposing parts of the building for total extinguishment,” said Willis. “We still have some pockets of fire that are burning but they’re very difficult to get to... We need to make it safe enough where church authorities will be able to retrieve some items.”
Despite the wreckage, Williams remains hopeful for the future of the church.
“Yes, our four walls are where we come in and worship as a corporate body, but the church is who we are as individuals,” Williams said. “That’s why we’ll be able to come again on Sunday morning and worship as a church.”
As the flames died down Sunday, what was left of the decades-old building became visible to the congregation. A collection of artificial yellow flowers could be seen among the piles of rubble. Responders were able to salvage the pulpit where MLK delivered his sermon in 1964.
Two pianos, one with minor damage, were also recovered. Through the ash, the tune of “Amazing Grace” could be heard as Rev. Randy Allison, minister of music, played for the firemen in a garage outside the church.
“If you’ve ever heard the music in a Black church, that’s what it [was] like, to hear that song being played by one of our musicians,” said Williams. “Even though we were in the garage, I felt like I was in church.”