As Pastor Robert B. Town stood at the lectern of the Jacob's Well Christian Centre in Fullerton one recent Sunday, he surveyed a roomful of about 150 church-goers, half of whom he later described as former drug users, gang members or prison convicts.
"It's good to have faith in God!" Town told them, his voice booming over a loudspeaker.
"Y-e-a-h!" replied the congregation, most of them wearing T-shirts, jeans and hopeful smiles as they looked up from rows of folding chairs.
Operating from a makeshift sanctuary in an industrial warehouse, Jacob's Well is a Christian church catering to street people and low-income families. Earlier this month, it was thrust into the news when police accused a member of stabbing his mother and her boyfriend, then killing the 3-year-old daughter of another church member.
Michael Robert Pacewitz, a 21-year-old with a history of drug use and mental illness, said in an interview after his arrest that he indeed committed the attacks. Once regarded by church officials as a model convert, Pacewitz said he had been driven to the violence by the devil and that while carrying out the attacks he was under the influence of methamphetamine.
As Pacewitz awaits a preliminary hearing on murder and attempted murder charges, Town and others at Jacob's Well want to distance themselves from him and his statements.
"What he did had nothing to do with this church," Town said. "We tried to help him and he was doing very well when he was here. But he relapsed back into drugs and we're sorry for that."
For some, the Pacewitz case illustrates both the promise and the questions that surround churches like Jacob's Well.
Russ Spittler, a religion professor at the Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said such churches play a crucial role in meeting the spiritual needs of people who otherwise might feel they have no place to worship. Although street people are welcomed in many more-established churches, Spittler said that "research has shown that people are comfortable in church with people like themselves."
But Spittler and other experts question the effectiveness of any church in dealing with members who may have deeply rooted mental disorders that can lead to drug abuse or other serious criminal problems.
In his interview from jail, Pacewitz said church officials at Jacob's Well had encouraged him to quit taking medication for his mental illness and instead rely solely on his faith in God.
Town denied that Pacewitz was told any such thing. The pastor added that new converts, in fact, are told to consult with a doctor before ceasing any medication.
"We tell them that God can heal them," Town said. But he stressed that Jacob's Well, which follows a doctrine of traditional Bible teaching, has never held itself out as a drug rehabilitation program.
Town, 36, grew up in the small town of Wickenburg, Ariz., and attended a charismatic church in his youth. He said he dropped into a "party head" mode during his young adulthood, and drank alcohol and used drugs. Town said that about 10 years ago, when he was running an exterminating business, he experienced a religious conversion and dedicated his life to preaching.
He spent four years studying under a pastor at his church in Arizona, then moved his wife and two young children to Orange County, where he opened the church now known as Jacob's Well.
Since then, the original congregation of about 50 has grown to about 250. The church began in Town's home, then moved to a small shopping center, then a year ago to its current location.
Town said that despite the checkered background of many of the church's congregants, there have been few problems aside from an occasional theft.
"If they're getting saved, I don't worry too much about them," Town said, adding that he has five burly ushers ready to intervene should any trouble occur during services.
At the opening of one recent service, a Christian rock band led a rendition of "Let's Clap for Jesus" while Town, standing atop a carpeted altar, clapped and sang along with his congregation.
Then Town presided over a wedding ceremony for two church-goers before delivering a sermon about good versus evil, ending each sentence with a hearty "Amen!" The congregation cried back "amens" and "hallelujahs."
At the close of services, the band struck up "He's a Savior of My Soul, My Jesus" as Town called to the altar anyone wishing to be saved that morning. Slowly, they came forward until a dozen church-goers kneeled in tears at the altar. Town murmured in a soothing voice: "God loves you this morning."
In recent interviews, several Jacob's Well church members said they were able to quit drug habits solely by believing in God. Outreach counselor Todd Maloney, for example, said he kicked an eight-year cocaine and alcohol addiction after being saved by the church four years ago.