Better Together: A Brief History of Cornerstone

by Brian Colmery
We were unaware, when we named our church Cornerstone, that it was the most common church name in the United States. In one sense it was really appropriate: all churches are supposed to preach the gospel, love God, and love our neighbor. In that sense, being "common" is exactly what we are aiming for. But in another sense it’s rather ironic, since the story of Cornerstone is not very common at all. And in a place like LA (where people move in and out every year), it's a story that plenty in our church haven't heard: Cornerstone is one church that came from two churches.

In 2005, Pastor Scott and I planted a church. This Christian term for starting a church is appropriately organic, since putting something in the ground and hoping it takes root is exactly what starting a church feels like. West LA had been my home since I attended UCLA a few years earlier. Scott moved down with his wife Lara, then pregnant with their first child, Harper. It might surprise you, but back then there were not many churches in West Los Angeles. There were some, many of them good, but not enough to serve a population of this size. So we started prayer meetings in a small apartment on Berkeley Street (along with lots of Moose Tracks ice cream), rented a hotel ballroom on 4th Street in Santa Monica, and called the church "Shoreline," given our proximity to the beach. Over the next few years we would progressively move east, our name making less and less sense as we went.

Shoreline was exciting and new and communal. We skewed younger, which wasn't surprising since the pastors were in their mid-twenties, and we barely had any children. We preached through books of the Bible, met in small groups, kept having prayer meetings, and kept eating Moose Tracks. After our services in the ballroom, we'd all head to the food court at the Santa Monica mall. After we moved to a movie theater in Westwood, we'd find a place to eat somewhere in the village. It was a very enjoyable time, and slowly more people joined us. We baptized new believers in the ocean by the Santa Monica pier, and we welcomed in Christians moving to Los Angeles from across the nation and the world. We did weddings, welcomed in new children, and eventually had to set up an odd indoor/outdoor childcare situation that spanned the lobby of our one-screen theater and the sidewalk just outside. Those who were there from the beginning grew up together.

In 1901, First Baptist Church of West Los Angeles was planted. I don't know exactly who planted it. I'm still learning this part of the story. But someone did, and I've been told they started the church to minister to veterans of the Civil War. They were located in what became the city of Sawtelle, later annexed by the larger city of Los Angeles. They were here before the freeways and before the apartment buildings, when there was farmland around and West Los Angeles actually felt rural. We aren't sure what their demographics were, and plenty of things were different over a hundred years ago, but some things don't change: it was exciting and new and communal. They ate together, and baptized new believers, and welcomed in people moving out west. They did weddings, and funerals, and welcomed new children. Those who were there from the beginning grew up together, and so did many generations that followed.

In the 1920s they had the chance to purchase land on the corner of Idaho St. and Barrington Ave. where they built a church building. Later there would be a high school on campus and all sorts of ministry activities. They served the homeless, evangelized, held Sunday services, and gathered for plenty of prayer meetings. There is no record of Moose Tracks, though I have my suspicions.

One day in 2008, a pastor from First Baptist (Kevin) and two pastors from Shoreline (Brian and Scott) met for coffee at Champagne Bakery on Olympic and Sawtelle. We told each other the stories of our churches and encouraged each other. One coffee turned into a second, then a third. Pastor Jim from First Baptist joined the mix. Along the way, Kevin brought up the possibility of our two churches becoming one church.

It wasn't entirely out of the blue. Our churches had a lot in common: same gospel, same faith, same love for West Los Angeles. We were around the same size at the time. But we also had many differences that were surprisingly complementary: Shoreline had mostly people between the ages of 18-30, while First Baptist mostly had people 0-18 and 30+. Shoreline had experience as a new, agile church; First Baptist had the stable presence in a community that comes with having a building and, well, being over 100 years old.

And so the third coffee turned into weekly meetings at Steve Campbell's house, where we talked theology and ministry and what in the world this could possibly look like over pan dulce. These were invigorating conversations. We were getting to know each other, but much of it felt like CS Lewis' definition of friendship: finding someone that makes you say, "What? You too? I thought I was the only one."

There were other twists and turns, some very exciting and others less so. But the bond between us only grew, and soon we were introducing the congregations to each other. Shoreline celebrated its five year anniversary at Federal Park, where we invited First Baptist—only to find out they were celebrating their 104th anniversary that same month. The pastors "swapped pulpits," preaching at each other's churches, slowly realizing that God really was drawing two churches together to make each one better, more complete, more fit for what he had for us to do in West Los Angeles.

And then on Easter Sunday, 2011, we held our first service as Cornerstone Church of West LA. It made sense to change the name since, joining together, we weren't either church anymore. This new church would need to be founded on something larger than our individual histories, so we called it Cornerstone, in reference to Jesus, the rock on which every church is built. The building also had a literal cornerstone at the bottom of the belltower and had been a metaphorical cornerstone in the city for decades. The name Cornerstone honored the saints who came before us in both our histories. On that Easter Sunday, I remember getting up to preach and looking at the first pew. Right across the aisle from each other were a 90-year-old man and a young mother with a three-month old child. They were a picture of our two churches joining together, two people who were now part of the same church family. We were better together.

I'm writing this in February of 2022, not that far from Easter, which will mark 11 years of Cornerstone. Every year it makes me reflect on the meaning of our name, and what it means for our story. We look back and see God's faithfulness through generations before us. Jesus Christ, the real Cornerstone was there then, and he is still with us now. Whether you lived that history or have just come to Cornerstone this week, you are being wrapped up in a story that Jesus is still writing. We stand on the faith and legacy of those who came before us, and by God's grace we will be that foundation for those who come after us. And so we go on: we eat together, baptize new believers, and welcome in people moving out west (as well as north, south, and east). We do weddings and funerals and welcome in new children. We hold Sunday services and pray together, ideally with ice cream. And as we grow up together, we watch God write more history, confident that he is an even better author than we know, seeing our story blend into his story, enjoying him and each other.
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