A Church Without Walls

Rev. Mandy Sloan McDow has zero need for a church building, not while parishioners are without a place to call home.

By Renée Olson | Photography by Michael Timmons

a church without walls
Rev. Mandy Sloan McDow preaches in a parking lot, which makes for a pretty porous church. Her expansive vision could also be a new model for 21st century churches.

In recent years, the Los Angeles First United Methodist Church, the city’s first Protestant church had been reduced to worshipping in the multipurpose room of a housing complex on church property. Hard for the public to find and reliant on YouTube for music, the space lacked inspiration for worship and the congregation had dwindled to a dozen.

“On my first Sunday, July 2, 2017, midway through the worship service, I invited everyone in the room”—the congregation includes Filipino residents from the affordable housing project, homeless people “hanging out with us for a while,” some LGBTQ members—“to pick up something from the altar—a parament, the bread, the chalice, the pad and cross, everything, and walk it outside,” says Rev. Mandy Sloan McDow, MDiv ’03, the church’s senior minister. Waiting for them in the adjacent parking lot were white street-fair-style folding tents, chairs, and a guitarist.

“We re-created the altar table outside and that’s where we had communion,” McDow says. “And we have not gone back in that room since. We show up on Sundays for a couple of hours and then we disappear. We’re a functioning parking lot the rest of the week.” First United Methodist Church has a history of unconventional worship spaces. The church was born in a saloon in the mid-19th century and with the means in the early 1920s to sink $1 million into what was then the largest and most expensive church on the West Coast.

McDow is generally accustomed to having a building in which to lead worship. A few years after earning her MDiv, she ministered in a 1903 Gothic Revival granite building, the home of Atlanta’s Saint Mark United Methodist Church, the largest Reconciling United Methodist Church in the Southeast, says McDow, who served there for seven years. More recently, she had been senior minister for three years at Laguna Beach United Methodist Church in a low-slung, 1960s-era structure with magnificent views of the Pacific Ocean on one side of the sanctuary. “I moved to a traditional ministry,” McDow says. “It was just not what I had in mind for myself. I loved the people, but the work didn’t feel right.”

She noticed more of her time at Laguna Beach disappeared into keeping the roof from leaking than went into actual ministry. “It just seemed ridiculous,” McDow says. “Yes, we should be good stewards with what we have, absolutely, but I didn’t see what this building was doing, especially if it was sitting empty 90 percent of the time.”

McDow, a mother of three under 14 years of age who watched her marriage fail despite the move to California that had been seen as a way to save it, found herself called to a much different posting: A church in downtown Los Angeles without a sanctuary, or even many congregants—a church, in fact, that had been put into dormancy not long before she arrived.

“That’s actually the final step before a church closure,” says Rev. Mark Nakagawa, superintendent of the West District of the California–Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church, to which First Church belongs. “It was at that point that I came in as superintendent. I just said that we’re not going to close this church. It was also that year that I became aware that Mandy might be available to come and plot a new course with the congregation.”

Moving outdoors infused the congregation with new energy. “It got us unstuck and so I was all for it,” says Tom Grode, a member of the church for two years and its newly appointed Skid Row Liaison for Compassion and the Arts. “Holding church on [the lot] literally puts us out into the community. It’s extremely open, with Mandy needing to stop mid-sentence every time a Harley goes by. It works great if you’re looking for adventure.”

Colleagues would say that McDow, amped with her headset mic, has what it takes to go head-to-head with a Harley, and that includes a preaching style that her friend and colleague Rev. Sam Persons-Parkes, pastor of the Cloverdale United Methodist Church in Dothan, Alabama, describes this way: “It is biblical,” he says. “It is authentic. It is contextual. It is life-affirming and life-changing.”

Nor does having decent music filtering out to passersby hurt. “We don’t do a lot of church music,” McDow says. “We’ll repurpose some hymns, but we do songs by bands like Tears for Fears and Radiohead, and the musicians are exceptional.”

Tripling her regular worshippers in her first year, is due, in part, to her belief in trying new things under the open air, especially if they jibe with the church’s mission, and then trying more. “We should want to express our theology publicly,” she says. For Advent last year, First Church staged the only public nativity scene in downtown Los Angeles, one told from Mary’s viewpoint and using tall, laser-cut screens created by Noa Yekutieli in conjunction with the public arts organization Now Art LA. Says McDow, “It was a pretty vibrant story in downtown—to be a homeless, non-Caucasian, pregnant, unwed mother looking for a place to give birth.”

The unprepossessing surface lot with space for 100 cars sits—this is the magical part—three blocks away from the Staples Center and LA Live, an adjacent sports and entertainment center, which is a “big magnet for downtown urban night life,” Nakagawa says. “My family and I attended the Christmas Eve service under the stars and it was fantastic. Folks who were walking around were stopping in.”

First Church’s revenue comes from that very lot, which gets rented out for “an enormous amount of money,” McDow said in her 
2018 Denver LEAD talk, the United Methodist Church’s answer to the TED Talk. “Praise be to God! Because you know what parking lots don’t have? Opinions about hymns.” (Laughter.) “I can’t piss it off. It shows up every Sunday. It tithes. It’s my greatest member.”

man with bible

A half-century after whites fled cities for the suburbs, a shift which ultimately forced First Church to sell its fortress-like building in 1981, downtown Los Angeles is once again a desirable, even hip, place to nest. “You’re seeing people moving in,” Nakagawa says. “In fact, you’ve got all these developers building condos and apartments.” An apartment complex where rents run $3,000 or $4,000 a month can be around the corner from a homeless encampment, and Apple recently announced they’re building a store here, its largest in the U.S. “All of a sudden downtown LA is booming. The big fear is, ‘Where are the homeless people going to go?’ Mandy has been able to at least start a vision for a role that the church can play in all this.”

That’s no idle concept: The city is squarely in the middle of a 
“homeless epidemic” in LA, which has surged to approximately 55,000 people living either in city or county shelters or on the street, up from just 32,000 six years ago. “The church is struggling to get people inside its walls, and what we say in Los Angeles is that people are struggling because they don’t have walls,” McDow says. “They need walls and a roof.”

To answer these needs, McDow envisions what she calls City Beautiful–LA, a theological co-housing project with space for the church and 360 units of housing sited on the current parking lot. The structure would combine market-rate housing for people who have regular jobs, workforce housing, and supportive housing for people coming out of homelessness. (Ironically, First Church already has two large affordable housing units adjacent to the parking lot, but most of the residents are Catholic or worship in a language other than English. First Church hasn’t actively nurtured relationships with them, McDow says.)

Now in the embryonic stage, plans for City Beautiful–LA, which include a limited-population trial run, will be geared to put relationships first. “There are co-housing communities all over the country that have a code of ethics, and if you look at them, they’re very similar to what you’ll find in Matthew 25 and Acts 2,” in the sense of what it means to “take care of your neighbors,” McDow says. “Acts 2 says, ‘This is how you do this, new Christians: Sell what you have, put it in a shared pot, make sure everyone has what they need.’”

Los Angeles is facing a particularly severe time crunch around housing because the Olympics are due in 2028. “There’s never been more encouragement for innovative thinking. Not just in the city, but in the church too,” McDow says. She credits her conference with granting her the freedom to experiment. “I don’t have the challenges that most traditional pastors do because my congregation has already lost everything. Now because we have a vitality and an existence, they’re happy to do whatever it takes for First Church to become a vibrant part of Los Angeles’ religious landscape again.”

Persons–Parkes, who met McDow while earning his MDiv from Emory’s Candler School of Theology while they were both in Atlanta, argues that she is reaching for an even bigger vision. “She’s beginning to enter into these kinds of relationships with the community that churches used to—and still do. There are still Methodist hospitals and Presbyterian hospitals and schools, but they have become kind of divorced from the church, in other words, they’re more of a civic institution than a religious institution.” Persons-Parkes believes that McDow is restarting the capacity for the church itself to be civic-minded.

“Dare I say it’s a grander sense of what the church can be in a community,” Persons-Parkes says. “You don’t need to have the albatross of a gargantuan piece of real estate hung around your neck.” Still, he points out that McDow isn’t taking an easy path. “This is just so weird for a church to do anymore. On the one hand, you have church people that are used to doing church the way they’ve always done it, right? A Christendom-style church. On the other hand, you have a community that has experienced the church being distant from their civic work.”

Too often, our stained glass is so beautiful, and it tells some portion of our story, but it keeps us from being able to see the stories that are right on the other side. Mandy doesn’t have just clear windows, she has none at all.”

It’s an isolation that Persons-Parkes knows McDow doesn’t have the luxury into which to withdraw. “Her congregation cannot avoid the needs that are right around them,” he says. “Too often, our stained glass is so beautiful, and it tells some portion of our story, but it keeps us from being able to see the stories that are right on the other side. Mandy doesn’t have just clear windows, she has none at all.”

Putting the pastor and the church on display that way takes courage. “One of the things we pastors are not is comfortable with risk,” McDow said in her UMC LEAD talk. “If there’s one thing that’s going to get us into the future as Gospel-proclaiming people, it’s learning how to become risk welcoming … risk tolerant, at best.” Acknowledging that the current moment is difficult for pastors seeking to grow or keep congregations, McDow explained that trying to recreate a church’s heyday is no longer possible, if even desirable.

“I can create something else for and with you,” McDow told the audience. “It’s going to look different. It’s going to be something you don’t recognize. And we’re all going to have to be okay with it. Friends, don’t you ever forget, Jesus said, ‘I am the living word.’ The church isn’t dead.”

A native of Knoxville, Tennessee, and a lifelong United Methodist, McDow was starting her senior year at Oglethorpe University in Atlanta when she pulled a pile of seminary viewbooks from her mailbox. The one from Princeton Theological Seminary sat on top. “I was like, well, all right. I’ll start with this very elite school that I have no chance of getting into. There was a card inside and it said, ‘There is an anomaly in this viewbook. If you find it and apply by November 30th, we’ll waive your application fee.’ Now I’m super motivated because this is saving $75.”

She soon spots a photo with the caption, “Professor Rolf Jacobsen teaches introductory Greek to his summer school students.” Then she notices the writing on the board behind him. Not Greek. Hebrew. She sends in her application, gets accepted, full ride, thinks “God’s working pretty hard on me,” and doesn’t even apply to another school. Fast forward: “Rolf Jacobson and I are godparents to my best friend’s daughter,” McDow says. “I’ve always wanted to tell him, ‘You changed my life. The whole course of my life changed because of a photo of you.’”

McDow also credits the Seminary, in a sense, with another anomaly. “Going to a very reformed Presbyterian theological seminary made me—and I mean this in a good way—it made me more Methodist,” McDow says. “It made me contend with my own theological position because I was presented with another so clearly and beautifully that I could see what part of my own doctrinal tradition I really adhere to, what parts I could see were fairly universal.” Had she gone to a Methodist seminary like Candler Theology School or Duke Divinity School, she says, “I don’t know that I would have walked away with that sort of clear conviction about my denominational heritage.”

Becoming a pastor, let alone trailblazer, wasn’t part of McDow’s original plans as a seminarian. “I went to be a pastoral counselor,” McDow says. “I didn’t even intend to get ordained. I’d never seen a woman in ministry before, coming from the South. I thought I would just politely get a PhD in pastoral counseling and open a practice in a quiet office in a church building.”

Eventually McDow decided to pursue her MDiv and with that came an internship at tiny Kingston (New Jersey) Presbyterian Church, just north of Princeton, where the pastor was away seven of the 10-week-long internship. “I got to that little church and I thought, Oh no. I love this,” McDow says. “It’s here in this ordained, pulpit-serving, parish-ministry setting. Maybe one of the reasons I have a bit of a detachment from the church is that I didn’t intend to serve it in this way.”

She also sees her time at Saint Mark in Atlanta as shaping her pastoring in unforeseen ways. “I saw what it meant to be bold and courageous and I never had to closet myself about my ally-ship with the gay community,” McDow says. “I learned what it meant to be clear and convicted, that churches that are clear and convicted tend to thrive because you know what they stand for.”

Besides shaking off a traditional church building, McDow is modeling another way to be a risk-welcoming, Gospel proclaimer: City Beautiful–LA is not designed to boost Sunday morning worship attendance, as least not as a top priority.

“I think worship is wonderful,” McDow says. “I enjoy it. I celebrate it. I love leading it. But I don’t think it’s fair to assume that it’s the primary reflection of someone’s discipleship. With co-housing, we’re working to teach people how to live—to actually live out our faith—rather than how to worship in a mainline denominational way.” There will be no ask that City Beautiful-LA residents be Methodists or even believers. “You don’t have to believe our faith, that’s fine. But we do ask you to respect it.”

Persons-Parkes has a hunch as to why McDow may see success with First Church. “Mandy is a relationship farmer,” he says. “She tends her relationships. She seeks to nurture them. It is very difficult to have a superficial relationship with her because she is going to invite you into the house of her own heart.”

RENÉE OlSON is a contributing writer.