Each Wednesday, members of the Iglesia Hispana-Fides, a small Latino evangelical group, hold their Bible study meeting in the Panorama City living room of Santiago and Lilian Moran. The Morans, a young Salvadoran couple, arrived in the United States four years ago.
There is no cross, no altar in the room, "but I like to look at this," Carmen Ramirez, 27, said as she points to a picture of a snow-covered forest clearing with sunlight filtering through the trees.
"I look at the light there," Ramirez continued, stepping towards the picture. "You know, on the day Jesus was crucified, there was a bright light like this, then the sky went dark, so I look at this, and I think of Jesus on the cross."
The 40 members of this born-again Christian group started meeting in homes across the San Fernando Valley in August after the storefront they rented for $950 a month and used as a makeshift church was razed to make way for Claire Court, another mini-shopping mall at the corner of Sepulveda and Victory boulevards in Van Nuys.
The loss of its permanent base spelled trouble for Fides. In August, its budget was at an all-time high, said pastor Jorge Enciso, a 41-year-old unemployed former factory worker who got this group of recent Latino immigrants together eight years ago. "We were very close to $2,000," he said, "and we looked at a property in Panorama City, a house on an acre of land, but our loan application got refused."
And that left Fides--the name is Latin for "faithful"--with no choice but to organize a movable church in the Morans' living room Wednesday evenings and in a back room they are permitted to use in the Iglesia Bautista del Valle in Pacoima on Sunday afternoons. For other meetings, such as the 8 a.m. Saturday prayer meeting, the Thursday evening youth group and the Friday evening service, the location rotates throughout the Valley, to and from the living rooms of members who take turn playing hosts.
Even though the constant moving about cost Fides the loss of about 40% of its congregation, members say this is preferable to being lost in the crowd of a more-established church.
"When we were at the facilities of other churches, we couldn't be like we wanted to be," Enciso said. "We were restricted, like being in somebody else's house.
"I don't like to say this, but many people consider the Spanish a secondary race. Sometimes they give help just to show they are doing something for the Spanish, but, in essence, they don't really care.
"So we are saving to buy a new place and start all over again," he said. "Now we are like Gypsies; we pick up our things and carry our church around."
On a recent Wednesday night, people start trickling into the Morans' living room. Some carry folding chairs and line them up in rows facing the place where Enciso traditionally stands. Others walk in with tambourines, while three or four teen-agers fuss over the synthesizer and the stereo speakers.
By 7:15, the room is filling up. About 25 members are sitting around, some on the couches, others on chairs. Santiago Moran lights two incense sticks and sets them on a shelf.
The meeting starts with a Spanish version of "Jingle Bells," with lyrics altered to praise the birth of Christ. Daniel Ramirez, a 33-year-old silk-screener from Tijuana who is also Fides' deacon, gives the beat with his right hand. Then he invites the "brothers and sisters who want to give a testimony" to stand and do so.
A young Salvadoran, Jaime Vallares, rises. "I want to offer thanks to our Lord Jesus Christ," he booms, "because I have found work, a good job as a printer. And also I have managed to get a car to go to work," which brings him a resounding chorus of "Amen, Hallelujah" from the congregation.
Adolfo Enciso, the pastor's middle-aged brother and a self-employed electrician in Van Nuys, stands to give thanks for being reminded daily of the Lord's presence in his life. Ironically, there hangs above him on the wall a small picture of a 19th-Century scene, a crowd milling about the Moulin Rouge in Paris' red light district.
Next, as in most evangelical meetings, Enciso reads from the Bible. He stops to expand and lecture on each point. He stands about five-feet-tall beneath a light bulb's glare. Then the congregation breaks into a Spanish version of "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," which has Gloria Peyre and Soledad Enciso tapping and jingling their tambourines.
The mood quickly changes with the swaying rhythm of yet another hymn, which seems to put the singers in the right mind for the 15-minute prayer that follows. Each says his own piece, mezza voce at first, then some voices become intense, rise or sound grave tones--turning the room into a Babel of incantations that muffles a child's whines and the sniffles of a woman in tears who has just dropped to her knees. Suddenly, there is one more hymn and this meeting is over. Or is it?
There is still time for Lilian Moran to pass around some coffee, rolls and cupcakes, and for the group to sit around in a klatch. To Karen Enciso, the pastor's daughter and a 10th-grader at Chatsworth High School, meetings like this are ideal.
"In the homes," she said, "it's like being with family."