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Care for a Prayer With Your Haircut, Friend?

August 24, 1993|MICHAEL QUINTANILLA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

"C'mon in, brother," welcomes Archie Herrera. The customer, with a head of dark wavy hair, wants a trim, not much off the sides. He plops into a bucket seat while a shampooer vigorously lathers away.

Amid hair products stacked to the heavens, Herrera reads aloud from his Bible. Members of his prayer circle hang on his every word. Perm solution wafts in the air. A guy in a Miss Clairol T-shirt mixes a tint.

" Fija tus ojos en Cristo ," Herrera, 74, says, then loosely translates: "Faith in Jesus Christ is the answer to our problems."

For the last 18 years, Herrera--barber-turned-preacher man--has been leading Bible studies in the shampoo room of his barber shop and beauty salon, Archie's of Hollywood, located near MacArthur Park.

On most mornings the small room on Alvarado Street is filled to capacity with employees, customers and neighborhood friends clustered around Herrera, known simply as hermano , or brother, to everyone. Patrons pop in a few minutes before their appointments to sing along to a Spanish hymn while Herrera bangs a tambourine against his leg or to listen to a few Scriptures before they get coiffed.

At Archie's, there's no such thing as a haircut without a hallelujah, a perm without a prayer. And no customer ever leaves without Herrera's hearty handshake, a La Vaquita lollipop and a business card that asks, "What must I do to be saved?"

Herrera knows.

Many times over, he's told the story of his sinful ways: getting soused nightly with drinking buddies until eventually he landed in a hospital with a stroke.

"After that happened, I ran to the church," he says. "My life changed around completely."

So did his salon.

Within days of his religious cleansing, Herrera also tidied up his house of style.

The X-rated magazines once scattered on tabletops were replaced with Spanish-language Bibles. The girlie posters adorning mirrors at the 14 workstations were substituted with various religious stickers and banners declaring, "Jesus is my rock, and my name is on the roll" and "Yo Jesucristo." And gone was the bottle of Jim Beam that Herrera used to stash in the hair-gel drawer.

Archie Herrera--a great-grandfather who rinses his own hair a bluish-gray--traded in his clippers for the calling.

The hermano says he started his prayer circle for employees and customers who often complained about crime in the area, problems in their own lives and no way out. The majority of his customers--immigrants from Latin America--didn't go to church because they had no transportation, he says. Others didn't own a Bible or never sang a hymn.

"During haircuts I would speak to them about my conversion and how much better my life had gotten," he says. "I sensed they wanted religion in their lives. I guess the Lord put me to the test. I asked myself, 'Why not teach them here in the shop?' After all, the Bible says to go preach the gospel to every creature, that it doesn't matter where because wherever two or more are gathered, well, that's all it takes."

Herrera, who attends Victory Outreach, a Los Angeles church, says he's not out to save all the doomed souls who walk past his shop or use his alley for drug dealing and sex. He just wants them to know they're welcome at Archie's to share a cup of his stiff coffee, eat a doughnut and then, if they're still interested, to stay for a hymn or two. Appointment not necessary.

"There are a lot of lost people out there," he says. "Lost to drugs, booze, prostitution. Seems like you can get anything on Alvarado Street."

Including religion with your rinse.

Roberto Perez, 33, calls Archie's his second home. He joined the prayer circle five years ago after he walked in for a buzz and left a new man.

On most mornings, the construction worker from Guatemala is at his regular spot: the shampoo chair by the podium. Often he arrives early and helps Herrera arrange the room, placing Bibles and copies of hymns on top of chairs.

"I like the feeling of communion and camaraderie I get here," he says, adding that after Bible study Herrera invites several group members--many who don't have a place to hang out--to visit as long as they want.

Aracelia Alonzo, a 25-year-old Mexico native, has styled hair at Archie's for eight years. Often, clients ask her if Archie's is a church. "I say, 'No, it's not, but if you want to come to the Bible studies, you are more than welcome.' "

"When I started working here, I felt very sad and alone because of my problems," Alonzo adds while preparing a client for a perm. "I began to listen and pray and I noticed a change, something that I could feel here in my heart, a peacefulness. It was God."

Talk like that inspires Herrera, who oversees the study groups daily and twice nightly. On Saturdays Herrera moves out of the shampoo room into the main salon, where he spins, tilts and gestures wildly, reading from his worn Bible--underscored in yellow and annotated in ink--while his stylists are styling and customers are waiting.

But not everyone pays attention.

"Some people tune me out," Herrera admits. "But I always try to tell the younger guys who come in what I went through in my life, how I solved my problems. I listen to their worries. They can't find work regularly. They don't want to turn to crime. We pray on it, and I know they feel better when they leave."

In the end, that's all that really matters, he says.

"My work is not to convert my customers or my employees. I have 12 workers, and I hear them and customers talk among themselves about hangovers and too much partying. It reminds me of myself when I used to be out there boozing it up. I tell them, 'I used to be exactly like you, but God transformed my life.'

"You know, the Lord has all kinds of people doing his work," he says. "People with ministries at hospitals, under big tents, at revivals. And then he's got me in the shampoo room."

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