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The cost of gas fuels fury from the pulpit

June 17, 2008|Ronald D. White | Times Staff Writer

Record gasoline prices have been painful, but now they have begun to test the limits of faith.

In houses of worship nationwide, preachers are railing against the forces of energy evil, and congregations are praying for lower fuel prices.

So far, no results.

The Energy Department's weekly survey Monday showed U.S. pump prices hitting a fresh record of $4.08 a gallon. Oil neared $140 a barrel, but then retreated.

The problem is affecting even the holy business, driving down attendance at churches, synagogues and mosques. Religious leaders are struggling to help their members cope, spinning new themes about a society that has become almost sinfully reliant on motorized transport. Others are viewing the energy-price squeeze as a test of the way they serve God and their communities.

Pastor Matthew Barnett is spending nearly $11,000 a week to power a fleet of aging trucks and buses that ferry members to his megachurch at the historic Angelus Temple in Echo Park.

The buses also are used to give teens in troubled neighborhoods an all-day respite at the church's Dream Center and to deliver food and medical care to the poor. Financial advisors and other church leaders have suggested diverting the money spent on the fleet to a television ministry.

Barnett doesn't think so.

"I know a lot of churches that are folding up their bus ministries, but when you're called to do God's work, you have to weather the hard times," Barnett said. "The way to impact a community is to keep showing up and being consistent. We have to be a positive force, and there's no amount that gas prices can go up to that will stop that."

Some economists say Americans are spending more on foreign oil as a percentage of gross domestic product -- 3% -- than at any time since the oil shortages of the 1970s.

"Between 1987 and 2002, the percentage was below 1%, then came the recent rise in energy prices," said Edward Leamer, head of the UCLA Anderson Forecast. "This weekly slap in the face we get at the gas pumps is a symptom of an annoying reality: Americans are not as wealthy as they used to be."

Or as morally focused, some church leaders believe. One pastor, Ed Black of Arena Christian Church in Lincoln, Calif., told his flock on his blog Sunday that the car -- and the fuel it rode in on -- might be one of the roots of modern society's ills.

"With the invention of the car," Black wrote, "young men would change the dating scene, picking up girls, and taking them away from their parents, without supervision, dropping [them] off later after who knows what went on."

Fuel's expense is cutting across cultural and religious beliefs.

At the Islamic Center of Southern California, it was common before the surge in gasoline prices to see people visit five times a day to find fellowship and pray.

Now, coordinator Ahmed Mohamed says, many people come "just two or three times a day and sometimes less. They can't afford to drive here as often. I've never seen anything like it."

High oil prices remain the primary driver behind rising gasoline prices. But California's gas has taken several unusually large jumps in recent weeks, in part because of refinery glitches. Few facilities outside California make the state's super-clean gasoline formula.

California's average gas price jumped 15.5 cents in the last week to $4.588 a gallon, the Energy Department said. In the last month, California's average has increased nearly 64 cents a gallon while the U.S. average has risen 29 cents. A year earlier, the average was $1.35 lower in California and $1.07 lower nationwide.

The volatile oil gauge soared to a record $139.89 a barrel early Monday despite weekend reports that Saudi Arabia would boost production. But the commodity couldn't break the $140 mark and lost steam, closing at $134.61, down 25 cents.

Although gas is cheaper in other states, the $4 mark is being seen in most of the country.

At the First Baptist Church of Snellville, Ga., a sign proclaims "Free Gasoline," referring to the raffle of two $500 gas cards during a recent church revival.

At the St. Paul Evangelical Lutheran Church in Valley City, Ohio, Pastor D. Murawski's message Sunday was simple. By all means, cut back on your driving but not your driving to church.

"Yes, it may be more difficult at the end of the month to pay our bills and fill our tanks," he wrote on the church's website, "but one thing that hasn't diminished one iota is the commitment of God to love you, forgive you, and watch over you."

But one place of worship's cause for concern is another's apparent opportunity.

Chuck Warnock, pastor of Chatham Baptist Church in Chatham, Va., said the leap in gas prices "bodes well for small neighborhood churches, and badly for those who have a long commute to church."

"Small churches that position themselves to minister to their community will be attractive as our country refocuses on small, local, sustainable experiences from food production to education to work to worship," Warnock said on his blog, titled "Confessions of a Small-Church Pastor."

Back in Los Angeles, Barnett said he was looking for ways to improve his bus fleet.

"Some of them are 10 years, 15 years, 20 years old," he said of the church's vehicles. "We're open to any idea to keep them rolling."

--

ron.white@latimes.com

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