SANTA MONICA, Calif. — The closets at Herley Jim Bowling are overflowing with beautiful dresses, long dresses made of velvet, tulle, silk and organza.
What do you want to know
- Ocean Park Church was founded in 1923, the congregation is non-denominational but is hosted by the Methodist Church
- The structure needs renovations and their roof is damaged
- Insurance won’t cover $100,000 needed for repairs, so congregation looks to community for financial help
- The 98-year-old building sits in a historic district and is one of the oldest structures in the city
He’s been collecting her clothes for years, and as a gender non-conforming guy, he’s as comfortable in denim as he is in one of her many dresses.
“It’s stimulating; it’s part of me. I can enjoy being who I am,” Bowling said.
Bowling, 73, said he hasn’t always been so comfortable with himself. Growing up, her father was a Methodist minister, and the family had an itinerant life—in each new place, Bowling tried her best to fit in.
“I didn’t feel like I could totally be myself,” Bowling said.
Later, he began to experiment more with gender expression. In his twenties, he moved to Los Angeles and was living a few blocks from the beach when he came across The Church In Ocean Park, another Methodist church but quite different from the congregations of his youth.
“I walked in and started getting involved. I soon realized it was more innovative than what I had grown up in. I was thrilled with it,” Bowling explained.
Outside, Ocean Park Church looks traditional – arched stained glass windows, an unassuming porch, and a white sign that reads “The Church of Ocean Park United Methodist.”
The organization’s ethos, however, is radical. It was founded in 1923, and since its inception the church has focused on acceptance. Activism is a common theme. In the 1980s, the church’s main sanctuary space was used as a meeting place for activists fighting for better rent control in the city. The current pastor, Reverend Janet Gollery McKeithen, has married LGBTQ+ couples since 2008.
While the Methodist Church welcomes them, it is in practice a non-denominational space. Sermons and speeches are just as likely to be about spirituality as they are about climate change, racial justice and immigration.
It’s this community that has helped Bowling feel more comfortable expressing itself fully.
“It was a crucial part of me accepting myself more. Being more welcomed by who I am,” Bowling said.
For nearly 50 years, Bowling has attended services in person, but since the pandemic, he and the other 126 members have been attending virtually. While many faith communities have returned to meet in person, The Church In Ocean Park has no set date to return to its sanctuary due to massive structural damage. The roof falls.
As she planned to reopen the space, McKeithen found a pile of rubble on the floor.
“About six months ago the ceiling came down, luckily no one was hurt,” McKeithen said.
They had an assessment done and realized the entire roof was compromised. Repairs will cost $100,000.
“I wasn’t too worried at first. When I found out the insurance company wouldn’t cover it, that’s when it all came crashing down. We don’t have a lot of big donors,” McKeithen said.
They have turned to GoFundMe but are currently far from their goal. Despite the challenge, McKeithen is optimistic in part because other organizations have expressed interest in keeping the structure standing.
“Ocean Park Church is 98 years old. It’s in the middle of a historic district. It is a contributory building. The Santa Monica Conservancy fears he will stay here,” McKeithen said.
While the structure is important, McKeithen also notes that the community fostered by the space is too valuable to lose, especially for people who have felt excluded from other religious groups.
“This church is completely different, we are not trying to create disciples of Jesus Christ. Everyone we meet has something to offer us,” McKeithen said.
It’s this unusual approach to religion that has kept Herley Jim Bowling returning to The Church In Ocean Park since he first entered it. He said the Zoom meeting was fulfilling, but he misses sitting with other worshipers in the building he’s come to love.
“The most important thing we can do is create loving communities. It’s not dependent on a building, but it really helps to have a dedicated space for it,” Bowling said.