Hundreds Gather for Los Angeles Street Baptism by Fire Hose

Hundreds of worshippers lifted their heads and raised their hands as water blasted down from fire hoses during a symbolic street baptism in South Los Angeles.

The mass baptism on Sunday was organized by the United House of Prayer for All People, one of the nation's largest black denominations, as part of its 80th annual Holy Convocation.

The 3-million-member organization has held outdoor baptisms with fire hoses in Eastern cities such as New York and Philadelphia, but this was the first street baptism for California, according to church officials.

"It's a baptizing for the city of Los Angeles," said Pearl Fuquay, who lost one son and is trying to raise another in a gang-racked neighborhood known as the Jungle. "It's a cleaning of the city."

All members of the local organization were encouraged to take part, even those who had already been baptized. Community members also were invited, as were members from congregations around the country.

Worshippers, mostly dressed in white, came from places including San Francisco, Georgia, North Carolina and Washington, D.C.

"It's a spiritual healing," said 34-year-old Renico Smith, who serves in the Navy in San Diego. Smith said he dedicated his prayers to fellow soldiers serving in Iraq.

"They're fighting a very dangerous battle," he said. "They need the prayers so they come home safely to their mothers and fathers."

The fire hoses, held by church elders, were turned on at about noon. Brass bands played as men, women and children danced, exulted and sobbed in the middle of Vernon Ave outside the church, where less than half a block away last week a young man was shot to death.

"Father, we ask you to drive away the violence," called Apostle C.M. Gibbs, who came from Baltimore. "This city needs healing."

The hoses were turned off after about 10 minutes, and the street was reopened to traffic.

"I feel blessed," Fuquay said.

The United House of Prayer was founded in 1919 in Wareham, Mass., by Bishop Charles M. "Sweet Daddy" Grace and incorporated in 1927. The organization is known for its brass bands, ecstatic worship and exultation of its bishops.