Dr. Sylvia Lee Mann plays the viola as part of Bethel United Church of Christ's "Resound" concert series. (Khai Le/Correspondent)
ONTARIO - It's a Saturday morning at Bethel United Church of Christ and emanating from the sanctuary of Gothic revival stone castle-looking building are the sounds of Tchaikovsky.
Just outside the sanctuary is a line of residents - all recipients of the Pet Food Bank - waiting to receive free food for their furry friends for the month.
Bethel is a hub of activity, which is no surprise to the pastor of the progressive church.
"No matter who you are or where you are on life's journey, you are are welcome," says Rev. Jonathon Edwards, reciting the church's creed.
Those sounds of Tchaikovsky is the latest move from the church to welcome in the community.
Since October, the church has embarked on Bethel Arts. Through the nonprofit program, Bethel is looking to become the "arts incubator" for the city.
The church started by hiring Sylvia Lee Mann as the minister of music for the congregation and who has already organized several public music events.
Mann is helped by her partner, Sandy Gunn, who serves as the associate minister of music for Bethel.
Mann said she she had been searching for a church that needed help with its music program but was accepting of the gay community and was not afraid to discuss social justice issues.
She found all of that in Bethel.
"I didn't want to go to work where I just was a spectator," she said. "I wanted to be part of a church that really care about everybody."
One of Mann's first tasks was to form the Southland Symphony Orchestra. In its inaugural season, the orchestra is comprised of students from Cal State Dominguez Hills - where Mann is a professor - and professionals. She serves as the music director of the orchestra.
The 50-member symphony rehearses at least once a week in the main sanctuary. They have done two performances so far, a third one is scheduled for next month.
"Bethel Arts, it's about enriching the community through world performances," she said. "It's exciting for Ontario to have a symphony."
It takes at least six weeks to prepare for the a show which means they plan on only doing four performances throughout the season.
Mann said one of the difficulties she encountered in operating previous orchestras was keeping down costs. It isn't easy finding a location that didn't cost more than a $1,000 just to rent.
Being able to use to the sanctuary not only to practice but for shows allows the orchestra to do performances at a lower cost for the public.
The location, the church's sanctuary, was also a perfect fit for the orchestra.
Well, almost. Edwards did have to do a little maneuvering with the first rows of pews. They were removed to not only make room for future performances but Edwards said it also helped them meet ADA standards.
"The acoustics are great. There's a lot of height and with the wooden ceiling, we have to be careful in the way we play but the acoustics are great," Mann said.
The Resound concert series, which was also born out of the arts program, is a bit different. Since October there have been eight concerts, and ranges in a variety of types of programs in modern classical music.
Both Edwards and Mann know there is still a lot of work left to do.
Partnering with the community
Councilwoman Debra Dorst-Porada applauded the efforts by the church, saying their efforts will help reinvigorate the downtown.
"They're doing a lot of hard work for such a small congregation," she said.
Dorst-Porada said events focused in the downtown will provide people a place to congregate, as well as bringing attention back to the area.
"I think anything we can do to introduce arts into our community the better we are," she said. "Our art walk, the city's museum, and Chaffey Arts association and Bethel are all doing something to present arts and culture in the downtown."
For those who may hesitate to join any programs or events for fear that their will be religious overtones, Edwards says they shouldn't be. There will be no religious component because they are all intended to be secular activities, he said.
"It's our job as Christians to serve Ontario," Edwards said. "Bethel Arts is a gift to Ontario."
The church is allowing the groups to use the space free of charge, it also doesn't keep any money it raises from its events, he said. Anything the groups raises stays within the organization for future events.
But that's where they need the public's help, not only getting them to attend the events but spread the word about what's happening. The group has established the website www.BethelOntarioMusic.com to help publicize what they are doing. They have also launched Facebook page and Twitter account.
Everything is fluid at the moment, says Edwards who not only welcomes the financial support from the community but their physical presence as well.
Setting up for a 50-piece symphony or special performance is no easy task, he said.
And they are not just looking for able bodies to help set up, they are also looking for people to join their musical groups.
Expanding the Arts
Edwards also envisions creating other arts-related programs and events that will focus on community outreach.
While it has started with the music component, the goal is to branch out to put on fine arts exhibits and even theatre productions.
The exhibitions might range from curating art for the sanctuary or bringing in a visual artist who would create live art in response to Edwards' sermon.
Currently, Edwards and Mann are discussing about launching the Southland Rainbow Chorale, a Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender group.
"There is not one in this area. The closest on is in LA or Palm Springs, so we're positioned, geographically well to have a GLBT chorus," Edwards said.
They are planning to do meetings. The choir would mostly likely perform three times a year but would also be available to sing at community events, weddings, he said.
"The GLBT community in the IE is underserved," Edwards said. "Unfortunately there is no healthy community events or activities, which is important center of community life."
The pastor also hopes to partner with local artists for future events. He also hopes to partner with artists and allow them to use two former classrooms on the second floor of the church as studios.
Edwards admits he has been busy helping set up the various arts programs that he hasn't had time to touch base with the budding Ontario Emporia Arts District which is only several blocks south of the church to see if anyone would be interested in getting involved.
"Looking around the congregation and what they can bring to the table. How can we build a ministry around those gifts and service to the world?," Edwards said.
Reach Liset via email, call her at 909-483-8556, or find her on Twitter @DBOntarioNow.