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A City That Runs on Faith

Loma Linda, famous for its groundbreaking medical center, is led by Seventh-day Adventists devoted to health and spiritual growth.

January 07, 2006|Susannah Rosenblatt | Times Staff Writer

Lynn Foll watches the unusual procession every Saturday morning. His neatly dressed Loma Linda neighbors pile into their cars and quietly disappear.

That's when the 62-year-old financial advisor usually heads to the supermarket. It's the perfect time to shop, because the aisles are deserted, just like the city's baseball fields, sidewalks and coffee shops.

While the rest of Southern California is buzzing on the first day of the weekend, the streets in Loma Linda fall still as thousands of Seventh-day Adventists gather in church for the Saturday Sabbath.

"It's a peaceful, sleepy town in the morning," said Foll, a former Adventist living alongside the growing number of non-Adventists who call the San Bernardino County town home.

The city is best known for Loma Linda University Medical Center, where in 1984 doctors performed the world's first infant cross-species heart transplant: "Baby Fae" was given the heart of a baboon.

Less known is that the university and medical center are run by Adventists. Loma Linda, home to at least 7,000 Adventists, one of the largest concentrations in the world, has been governed exclusively by church members since it incorporated more than three decades ago.

Adventism, a conservative Christian denomination, and the church's holistic devotion to people's health and spiritual well-being dominate daily life in Loma Linda, where biblical creationism and cutting-edge medicine exist side by side.

The city has a Ronald McDonald House to shelter the families of ailing children -- but no Golden Arches. Most Adventists are vegetarian.

There are no bars in town, and at the city's popular Adventist Book Center, the shelves are lined with volumes forecasting Armageddon.

Still, Loma Linda is no backwater. The population of more than 21,000 is downright cosmopolitan: Almost half the residents are nonwhite, and Adventists have Arabic, Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Indonesian, Japanese, Korean, Romanian, Spanish and Vietnamese congregations in town or nearby.

The city is an oasis of sorts, with low crime rates compared with neighboring Colton, Fontana and San Bernardino, according to local law enforcement data compiled by the FBI: In 2004, Loma Linda logged 18 violent crimes per 10,000 residents, while neighboring Fontana saw 51 and San Bernardino 133.

"You can really tell the difference when you cross into San Bernardino," said nurse Rachel Mose, 46, a San Bernardino resident buying groceries in Loma Linda. Said Mayor Floyd Petersen: "In everybody's mind, Loma Linda has a great reputation. But there's also something mysterious about it to everybody.

"We have spent an incredible amount of effort reaching out to the world," he said, referring to the hospital's international programs and the church's missionary work. "We haven't spent much effort reaching out to people that live five miles from us."

City Councilman Bob Christman noted, "In many respects Loma Linda is a different kind of community. I know we're in the middle of a metropolis, but sometimes we act like we're the island of Catalina."

Latia Cunningham had no idea she was moving to an Adventist enclave when she left Fontana four years ago. She was drawn to the quiet streets and a diverse set of neighbors -- but noticed something peculiar.

"I kept wondering why I didn't get mail on Saturday," said Cunningham, 38.

Loma Linda is one of a handful of places across the country where mail is delivered Sunday, and not Saturday, in keeping with the Adventists' Sabbath and by arrangement with the Postal Service.

The Loma Linda Market seems like a perfectly ordinary grocery store, until you search for the meat aisle. Cases of Morningstar Farms' $2.69-a-can Tuno meat substitute are piled next to Worthington's vegetarian Turkee slices. Organic shampoos share floor space with bulk barrels of spices and whole grains. The five-member City Council has historically enforced strict zoning laws against alcohol sales, reflecting the church's teetotaling ways. (Beer and wine are sold only at supermarkets and a few restaurants.)

In spite of that inconvenience, Debbie Paschall prefers living somewhere with a pronounced spiritual component, considering Loma Linda a bit like Salt Lake City, her former home and the world center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. A nurse, she and her colleagues at the medical center will often pray before starting a shift.

"It's good karma," said Paschall, 47, a nondenominational Christian. "You're working as a team, and everyone's on the same page to help others."

Pediatric heart surgeon Dr. Leonard L. Bailey said his Adventist faith complements the groundbreaking medicine he routinely practices.

"I think the health message has been fundamental to the Adventist philosophy of life right from the very beginning," he said. "I think it's part of the mission of this organization to [be] ... on the edge of science."

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