As Mass ended and the choir burst into the Spanish version of a popular hymn, the Latino congregation streamed out of Holy Family Roman Catholic Church--mothers carrying infants, teen-agers chattering, elderly women with lined faces and black veils, families of seven and eight.
Many clustered outside, exchanging family news and talking of church events. Some flocked to buy churro pastries at a fund-raising stand; others filtered into the adjacent social hall to patronize the church's credit union or browse among the household items for sale.
It was Sunday at Holy Family, where 10 weekend Masses draw more than 10,000 worshipers who crowd into the gold-stucco church and overflow into its aisles, doorways, vestibule and stairwells. But Holy Family has more than a spiritual impact on Wilmington, and the community feels its influence every day, not just on Sunday, parishioners say.
In a community beset with many longstanding problems, Holy Family has become a center of social and economic support for many low-income residents.
"The church provides a lot of help for the needy people in Wilmington," said parishioner Teresa Huerta. "It has a food bank, that credit union; they just have a lot of information for when something happens in your family. People always call the church. My husband had a friend (whose) wife died and the church helped him get money for a funeral."
Each Wednesday and Saturday, hundreds shop at the church's low-priced food co-op while dozens of people with no money get free milk, eggs, beans and other groceries. Church members buy discounted household goods at the weekly church sales. The poor get clothing at monthly distributions.
Parishioners borrow from the church credit union, a federally approved institution with assets of $1.5 million that helps people turned away by mainstream banks. Residents get legal advice from a church-enlisted attorney, selected for her sensitivity to the language and cultural needs of the mostly Spanish-speaking congregation.
More than 200 families are enrolled in a low-cost, church-arranged dental service; more than 100 a year seek financial help from the rental-assistance program and 60 received scholarship aid last year. Hundreds more attend the church's alcohol awareness programs and health-education clinics.
During labor disputes at a harbor-area cannery last year, the Rev. Luis Valbuena picketed with workers. When Wilmington residents wanted to organize a neighborhood action group, they went to the church for meeting space and help with distributing information. Residents turn to the church for help in immigration cases. In one recent instance, Father Valbuena, pastor for the last three years, obtained guardianship of a 17-year-old Salvadoran refugee who faced deportation.
"Holy Family's always been important and active in the community, but more so now than ever with Father Valbuena," said Wilmington resident Elsa Herrera.
The dynamic priest--who previously launched social programs while assigned to churches in Pacoima and San Fernando and, at one time, helped renowned organizer Cesar Chavez mobilize indigent farm workers in Brawley--has been the architect of many of the church's programs, including the food co-op, credit union, legal service and dental plan.
"I can't just baptize people and say the Mass and then leave them," said Valbuena, 55, a native of Spain. "I would feel very bad to leave these people alone in their struggles for a better quality of life. Right now, they aren't getting any help from their society. The purpose of all these programs is to take care of people as dignified human beings."
Valbuena has garnered support from the more prosperous members of his large congregation. Acting initially as the instigator, he has delegated administration of church social programs to members with special expertise.
For example, the 2-year-old credit union is managed by resident Peter Mendoza, a Wilmington businessman; the low-cost legal service is provided by Marlene Gerdts, an attorney with offices in Glendale and Beverly Hills who, although not a member of the parish, volunteered to help; the scholarship fund is administered by Irene McKenna, a professor of English at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
While many of the church's programs provide free service to Holy Family's poorest members--all profits raised through the food co-op, for example, are given away in free goods--many simply provide lower-priced services from professionals that parishioners can trust and understand.
To provide the financial assistance--which last year included $25,000 in rent and emergency assistance, $10,000 in scholarships and $18,000 in food--the church relies not only on members' weekly contributions but also on volunteers.