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In the ashes of a mortuary, a preacher prepares for a revival

August 21, 1986|DEAN MURPHY

He has a tattoo of a beautiful woman on his arm, once paid his bills by hustling drugs, and for years roamed the streets of east Wilmington as a dedicated member of the Chain gang.

Pastor Robert Crivelli is not your typical Sunday morning preacher.

"Some people look down on my past, but God doesn't," Crivelli said this week. "I've seen it all, and I am ready to help other people who are going through what I went through."

Crivelli, 33, is back in the South Bay after nearly three years in San Jose, where he and his wife, Belen, set up a storefront ministry to save souls. Crivelli said he left Northern California in June after receiving instructions from God.

"The Lord called us back to Wilmington," Crivelli said. "And we have yielded to his call."

The unlikely pastor, who lives across the Wilmington border in Carson, has chosen an unlikely building to launch his new spiritual mission. Crivelli and about 40 friends and relatives who believe in his cause have purchased the fire-ravaged Wilmington Funeral Home on Broad Avenue.

Last winter fire gutted the second floor and attic of the landmark building, which for decades was the only funeral home in the community. The 60-year-old structure was destined for the bulldozer until Crivelli proposed saving it. A generous financing plan arranged with the owner, Ernest Brower, allowed the group to buy the building, he said.

"It used to be a house for the dead, but now God is going to raise it from the dead and make it a place for the living," said Crivelli as he stood in red sandals outside the blackened building. "This building has played a vital part in what has happened in Wilmington. It is a beautiful place."

Crivelli and his friends have set out to convert the former funeral home into a religious center that will serve the spiritually hungry of the harbor community. He said the center will cater to the hundreds of street people who have chosen drugs and alcohol over the Scriptures.

The center, which he hopes to open in December, will offer Bible classes, counseling and a 15- or 20-bed facility for male drug addicts and alcoholics who "are hurting and know God can help them," Crivelli said. The center will be incorporated as a nonprofit religious organization, and should not need any special permits or licenses to operate, he said.

"There are a lot of people in this area who use drugs, and they are crying out for help," Crivelli said. "I know, I cried out so many times, and I tried to help myself but I couldn't until I accepted the Lord as my savior."

Crivelli attended half a dozen funerals at the home, he said, but he no longer thinks of it as a mortuary. Friends and relatives who have helped clear debris from the building have also been instructed not to refer to it as a funeral home.

"I've told them not to say, 'Oh, this is where this happened, or that happened over there,' " Crivelli said. "I have been here many times before, and have watched people leave with faces full of misery and sadness. Now people are going to leave with joy and happiness."

The funeral home is in south Wilmington, in a sparsely populated area not far from downtown. There is a mission and residence hotel several blocks to the south, where during the day the sidewalks are littered with sleeping men. Some of the men have torn a sheet of plywood from one of the funeral home's windows, and have made the charred building a nighttime resting place, Crivelli said.

Though Crivelli says his ministry will help the area by getting people off the streets, at least one neighbor complained this week that the outreach center will bring crime and disruption to the neighborhood.

"I have been waiting for 15 years to see something happen to upgrade this area," said Carlos Hill, who owns a three-unit apartment building next to the funeral home. "It would be nice if it were a church, but we already have a mission in this area. I am afraid these people who use drugs might come over and bother my people here."

The new ministry will be associated with the New Life Faith Center of San Francisco, which Crivelli described as a small, evangelical religious group that operates outreach ministries in Northern California.

Crivelli and his wife moved to San Jose as members of the Victory Faith Center in Wilmington, a similar outreach ministry. Crivelli said he first turned to God six years ago when he felt an overwhelming desire to visit the Victory center. After that visit, Crivelli said he gave up his life of drugs and gangs and spent the next several years "ministering on the streets" for the Victory center.

But Crivelli and Victory Faith have parted ways, and the one-time drug dealer has turned to the New Life ministry for his spiritual guidance. Crivelli does not like to talk about his departure from Victory Faith, except to say that "God had other plans for us." He said his ministry is not designed to compete with Victory Faith.

"In the Lord Jesus Christ, no one is competing," he said. "There are plenty of souls."

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