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PROFILE : Riverbed Chapel : The ministry of Mary Carr is not the damnation sort, but exhortation blended with example and contemporary slang.


No robes. No choir. No altar. No stained glass. Just spirit and praise ringing out on a Sunday afternoon in a wind-swept parking lot at the edge of the Ventura river bottom.

Pastor Mary Carr, who is also business manager for the Ventura County Medical Society, is standing in green running suit and sneakers presiding over the Outdoor Gospel Church. This is an afternoon service--her congregation follows another redemption rite in the mornings; most of them go "canning," collecting Saturday night's litter to turn it into cash.

Today there are about 20 participants, a light attendance. They sit in a circle of mismatched folding chairs, or gather cross-legged on the grass beyond. The dress code is relaxed.

Passing among the group, a tall, fit man in a black leather jacket, jeans and snakeskin boots hands out song sheets. It's Bill Carpenter, ex-rock band roadie, ex-speed addict, and pastor-in-training for this eclectic ministry.

At the open end of the circle, Carr stands, holding a microphone to carry her voice above the traffic noise from the Ventura Freeway to her right and the Main Street bridge to her left. She begins a hymn in a clear alto, oblivious to the stares of residents rushing along the bike path at her back.

The congregation joins in. Sometimes they sing a cappella, but today they are accompanied by a small keyboard played by Carol George, who lives on the Avenue and attends an indoor church as well as this one.

Following the songs, Carr--voice confident, hands gesturing, copper-colored hair whipping in the wind--delivers her message. It's not a damnation kind of speech. More earnest exhortation, blended with personal example and contemporary slang.

"I am the righteousness of Christ; I have got all the answers . . . Not!" Carr declares. She warns that Satan " . . . wants to get you so screwed up that you will never find the Lord." Her former life is invoked as an example of backsliding--she admits to aimlessness, faultfinding and dabbling in drugs.

There are prayer requests, and the service ends. Carr and Carpenter move to a parked van where they distribute goods from the tailgate. There is food for anyone who asks, clothing and sleeping bags for those who filled out an order slip the week before.

"The Lord meets our specific needs," Carr says. "If someone wears a size 32-34 pants, there's no point in giving him a size 36."

A network of local churches and citizens supplies the clothing and some of the food. More comes from bargains bought at Oxnard's Food Share. Operation Warm-Up in Camarillo provides the sleeping bags.

A young man named Tom, who is waiting in line, says he is there because "I was really hungry, and if you get close to the Lord it can't hurt."

Norm Whitson, 52, says he has attended the service regularly for two months. A former maintenance mechanic, he has his life's possessions strapped to an ancient bicycle.

"She reaches out and I keep coming back, knowing that she cares," he says.

Carpenter may have the greatest seniority in the group. He arrived a year ago, he says, led directly to Carr by God. "I was doing some pretty scary stuff. Mary more or less helped me through the whole thing."

He has given up a well-paid career on the rock-band circuit to devote himself to studies toward his ordination. He lives in a small trailer in the Avenue area and takes odd jobs.

The ministry has worked for over a year. Contributions pay the rent of $300 a month on warehouse space for the goods, and so far there have been 17 baptisms in the Pacific Ocean.

It's just one of a series of missions the 40-year-old Carr has involved herself in. Others have been Sunday school teaching, prayer meetings, and joining a monthlong crusade to Africa.

"She is extremely bright, and a good listener," said her employer, Riley McWilliams, executive director of the Ventura County Medical Society. "She has touched quite a few people--a lot of people talk to her about their lives and their personal problems."

At first, Carr said, she had the same negative impressions of the homeless "as most of the rest of the world." But then something happened.

"I started praying more for them. . . . I felt the Lord saying, 'Go to the river bottom.'

"(God) sends people out two by two. I waited. Two weeks later, I got a phone call from a friend who said, 'The Lord impressed me to call you. What does 'Go to the river bottom mean?' "

The friend was Verda Thompson, on the staff of Golden Grain Bible College where Carr was ordained 10 years ago. She decided to accompany Carr to the camps at the mouth of the Ventura River.

"We took her husband and my (21-year-old) son, and walked right in," Carr said. "The first people we came upon, we shook their hands and said, 'We feel the Lord sent us down here. We know nothing about homelessness. Could you help us?' They stood there and told us everything. It turned out to be worse than we thought."

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