Saturdays were as dreary as any other day for Carlos Martinez when he was a transient camping out in a small maintenance building in Marina del Rey. He spent most of his time hustling for nickels and dimes, stealing bologna from supermarkets and picking scraps out of dumpsters.
That was 12 years ago. Martinez, 33, now spends every other Saturday out on the trail with other members of the Hiking Church of West Los Angeles. The man he follows along the winding paths is Pastor Dick McClain, who took him in more than a decade ago. The two men share McClain's two-bedroom apartment in Mar Vista.
"I think Dick was actually led by God to take me--a total stranger--into his home," said Martinez, one of 15 children reared in Brooklyn by Puerto Rican immigrant parents. "Just as I believe he was led by the Lord to start this church."
Since McClain founded the nondenominational, evangelical Christian church last May, it has drawn an increasing number of followers, many of them stockbrokers, lawyers and other professionals. Last Saturday, 24 of them hiked three-quarters of a mile along an alder-shaded stream to a small waterfall in Monrovia Canyon Park, a section of the Angeles National Forest east of Pasadena. The members said prayers before leaving their meeting place in Santa Monica and then twice during the hike.
The church, described by McClain in mailers as "a little more hip than usual," is a spinoff of Hal Lindsey's now-defunct Church on the Beach, which once met on the sands in Santa Monica. McClain was a member of Lindsey's church.
"That's when I first saw what a difference getting out in nature instead of sitting in a pew could make," said McClain, 39, an unordained minister who encourages followers to call him by his first name. "For some reason, when they get out in nature, people start relating to each other better."
McClain sets a slow pace on the hikes, which range from about one to seven miles, so that hikers have a chance to get to know each other. Conversation last Saturday included computers and the latest Christian best-sellers. Martinez talked about photography, a hobby he picked up after going back to high school and getting a diploma.
"I thought I'd be a sports photographer, but now I want to devote myself to taking pictures for Christian magazines," said Martinez, a former Catholic who was "born again" through McClain's efforts.
McClain's brand of Christianity has been personal from the very beginning. He had been a "born-again" Christian for only a month when he found Martinez scrounging around in a dumpster and invited him home for a hot meal. He believes that getting people to establish and improve their relationships with one another is the path to greater love of God.
"This church offers the opportunity to have a relationship with God without having to wear a certain type of clothing," said Paul Lobascio, 32, a former Catholic and an airline salesman who was on his third hike with the group. "Me and my generation are tired of the rhetoric you get in most churches."
The Hiking Church has strict rules against drinking, smoking and recreational drugs. Personal sharing sessions, which resemble encounter groups, are conducted during stops along the trail.
Pamela Haynes, 30, a computer operator whose rich voice rang out through the woods during the hymn-singing at the end of the hike, said she welcomed the prohibitions.
"I'm here because I love to hike," Haynes said. "It's nice to find people who are clean cut . . . who aren't going to start smoking marijuana or doing something weird like that."
Haynes also said she was there to meet other single Christians. McClain, who is not married, said he originally thought about starting a singles group for Christians.
"I decided against it because it was too shallow," he said.
The new church combines his two great passions: religion and nature.
"I've always loved nature," said McClain, whose modest apartment is filled with books on Christian literature and photos Martinez took of outdoor scenes. "People go on retreats all the time, so I figured, why not on a regular basis instead of just now and then?"
McClain has been hiking and camping regularly since he went on his first 60-mile trip up above Kings Canyon National Park at the age of 9. A former Presbyterian, he has spent the last 12 years studying the Bible and attending several churches. None provided him with what he wanted--the chance to worship God through an appreciation of the outdoors.
Thus, the Hiking Church was born.
'Step by Step'
"It wasn't easy," McClain said of the process of getting tax-exempt status as a religious organization from the federal and state governments. "But I couldn't afford a lawyer, so I just took it step by step."