After flourishing for several decades as a cornerstone of the community, the Toluca Lake United Methodist Church experienced a congregational decline in the 2000s and was forced to cease operations in 2014. However, when the property was gifted to the Hollywood United Methodist Church for a second campus three years later, Harmony Toluca Lake was born.
Led by Pastor Mark Stephenson, who has been in his role since the church’s first worship service in September 2017, the church has strived to be a “diverse, inclusive, vibrant, vital and growing congregation that serves as a visible beacon and anchor of God’s love in Toluca Lake and in the surrounding communities,” he says.
Driven by faith and prayer, Stephenson and the affirming Harmony congregation have spread goodwill throughout the neighborhood by contributing to and supporting the community in countless ways.
“The faith community has participated in fundraising events such as the Pancake Breakfast for the local fire department, and we’ve held numerous meetings for the Toluca Lake community at our campus,” says Stephenson, who currently serves on the Greater Toluca Lake Neighborhood Council (GTLNC) Planning and Land Use Committee. “With the GTLNC’s leadership, Harmony has hosted the Los Angeles County Homeless Count each year. We’ve also joined Toluca Lake with its love of celebrating Halloween and Christmas, and we hope to host an upcoming ‘Run, Hide, Fight’ presentation to be made by the LAPD.” In addition, Harmony is part of the Toluca Lake Homeowners Association and the Chamber of Commerce, and welcomes community members to all its events.
Having started from ground zero with a facility that “definitely needed some TLC” and several renovations inside and out, Harmony has been able to build a thriving worship community since opening its doors.
But perhaps nothing tested the congregation’s faith more than the start of the pandemic, when “our momentum as a faith community came to a screeching halt,” Stephenson says. “We could no longer meet in person, and we had to immediately figure out how to be a church in new and different ways so that connection could still happen. What was thought to be only a few weeks of ‘downtime’ became 18 months.”
Like most in the community, “Harmony took this opportunity to evolve, casting a new vision to reach people where they are in their lives, both physically as well as with pandemic comfort levels,” Stephenson says.
In many ways, Stephenson believes overcoming the pandemic was one of the most important accomplishments in the church’s history. “We had to think outside the box and figure out how to flatten the curve of fear with faith, flatten the curve of worry with peace and flatten the curve of despair with hope,” he says. “And while doing so, we fulfilled a vision to create a children’s ministry for the church, as well as enhance the worship experience offered both in person and online.” Installing cameras and production equipment so that worship services would be accessible online at any time actually allowed the church to increase its reach to participants as far away as Europe and South America, he adds.
Moving forward, Stephenson says the church’s next goal is to grow in numbers so that it can continue to make a difference in people’s lives, in partnership with the community. “It’s a blessing to be part of and involved with so many caring and passionate people who are committed to making this neighborhood thrive,” he says. “There is a commitment here that is not seen often, and I consider all of us fortunate to be working alongside each other for the greater good.”