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Slices of Light

On Fire Ministries Delivers Love, Hope and Loaves of Bread to Someof he Children Who Need Them the Most

May 22, 1996|ENRIQUE LAVIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Sparky the Clown--wearing green overalls, red wig and apple-like nose--rides his bicycle down the street, blowing a whistle to wake up the children.

In Pied Piper fashion, he leads a string of young kids to a colorful tent on the front lawn of the Fashion Gardens Apartments in an impoverished neighborhood in central Anaheim.

He is calling them to a circus for Jesus.

"This is a different kind of waking up," says Robert Moran, known as Sparky to the children.

Across town at the El Dorado Inn apartments--notorious for violence, drugs and prostitution--there is a circus atmosphere too. Here, an energetic woman in a red T-shirt--a 12-year-old dressed as a clown at her side--has the attention of about 70 children sitting on blue mats in front of her.

Pink, yellow and green helium balloons are anchored at the sides of the striped tent, from where Julie Ortega announces that she'll lead the children in a prayer.

Ortega and Moran are members of the Anaheim-based nondenominational On Fire Ministries that once a week sets up at half a dozen apartment sites in depressed areas of Orange County to deliver a message of hope.

And loaves of bread.

"Dear God," Ortega says, her head bowed, her eyes shut, "make us have good thoughts so that we can do good things." Some of the children clasp their hands together like steeples. Others hold hands. A few older children on the fringes, riding bikes or cracking jokes, try to distract the children. They fail.

Shortly after the "amen" that marks the end to the morning's service, Christian march music pours through the loudspeakers. It's a cue for the children to line up for fruit punch and bread; lots of bread.

One little girl with a red-punch mustache tentatively takes one loaf, then another after a church member encourages her. She whispers "Thank you." Most of the kids take at least two loaves.

Parents, many of whom stood by during the hourlong service, also pick up free bread.

Last year, On Fire Ministries gave away over half a million pounds of food and clothing, according to Armida Rodriguez, 39, copastor of the ministry with her husband, Eddie, 46.

"Many times we have children come up to us to tell us they don't have food," Armida Rodriguez said.

*

Offering food for hungry stomachs as well as food for thought goes to the heart of this ministry. Launched nearly a year ago, the weekly program directed at children has until recently been held on Saturday mornings. Now, with longer daylight hours, it's held on Tuesday evenings. No matter which day it's held, though, it's known in the ministry as Sparks Sidewalk Sunday. On the street, it's simply Sparks.

The weekly attendance at each site is anywhere from 40 to 150 children.

"We can't get them to Sunday school, so we bring Sunday school to them," says Armida Rodriguez.

The programs are aimed at children, and the lessons are basic. After playing games, singing and clowning around, Ortega tells her Saturday morning audience about how bad apples can spoil good apples.

"The same thing happens with our thoughts," Ortega tells the children, showing them a bucket full of apples. "We don't want our bad thoughts to ruin our good thoughts."

*

Sparks Sidewalk Sunday is one of many "sparks" in On Fire Ministries. Founded by the Rodriguezes in October 1987, the ministry became affiliated with the Oakland-based Foursquare Gospel Church two years ago.

The ministry began with mobile theatrical plays that went into impoverished neighborhoods. "We'd go out and tell people we could help them," Rodriguez says, "They'd tell us, 'We need help, so help us.' "

That's how the first of the church's eight men's drug rehabilitation homes throughout Southern California became a reality.

"Our hope is to spark a flame that could speak through the community, in our children before they find themselves caught up in an endless cycle of drugs, violent gangs and family abuse," Rodriguez says.

Part of the Sparks Sidewalk Sunday program includes a follow-up by church members during the week. Church volunteers are assigned as leaders, or captains, at each of the apartment buildings, and they visit the children's homes, taking food or sweets with them.

They also take reminders that Sparky the clown will return at the same time in the same place.

"The day before Sidewalk Sunday, that's all they talk about," says Dawn Lombard, a mother of five children living at the El Fortin on Magnolia Avenue in Anaheim. "They can't wait to see Sparky."

Like Lombard, several parents at El Fortin express their approval of bringing some brightness to their otherwise dark neighborhoods.

"Now, when [the children] go outside and play," Olga Diaz says in Spanish, "instead of seeing people fighting and using foul language, they learn about God." Diaz has four children.

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