Members of Central City Worship team perform during a Sunday service at… (Ringo H.W. Chiu / For The…)
Things started heating up inside skid row's Central City Community Church of the Nazarene moments after its doors opened for Sunday morning services of gospel music, prayer and redemption.
Members of the church band, Skid Row Praise, sang, swayed and clapped hard and fast to the pounding of voices, percussion, organ, guitar and saxophone. Dozens of men and women, many of them homeless, danced in the aisles.
Even Senior Pastor Jeffrey R. Thomas, 46, was rocking side to side when he stepped up to the pulpit, reveling in the unbridled energy.
The music quieted and congregants returned to their seats.
Under a crooked cross made of old boards, Thomas launched into a sermon based on the casting of Christian martyrs Paul and Silas into the darkest cell of a Roman prison. They were shackled, beaten, demoralized and humiliated.
"But they never gave up hope," he said, pointing skyward and raising his voice for emphasis.
"At midnight, in the darkest hour of their lives they prayed and sang praises unto God. Suddenly, there was an earthquake that shook the prison walls. Then its doors opened and their shackles came off."
He concluded with a message: "So when you think you can't fight anymore, just hold on. God has a way of showing up at midnight, in the darkest hour of your life. Just hold your position a littler longer. Your miracle will come."
It was a variation on a theme heard every Sunday in the little church at the corner of 6th and San Pedro streets. Its entrance looks out at the heart of a 50-block neighborhood of trash-strewn alleyways, sidewalk encampments and crime-ridden shelters filled with the unemployed, mentally ill and those struggling with drugs and alcohol.
"All my sermons aim to empower people to overcome skid row culture and seek a better way of living," said Thomas, who recently earned a doctorate in theology and personality, with an emphasis in pastoral counseling, at the Claremont School of Theology.
His experiences at the church, wedged between the Union Rescue Mission, the Midnight Mission and the Weingart Center, were included in his doctoral dissertation: The Liberative-Prophetic: A Socio-Theological and Psychospiritual Analysis of Skid Row, Los Angeles.
Building up people's confidence is an ongoing campaign at the church, which was established in 1988. Its motto: The church on the corner where all are welcome.
Church volunteer Theresa Riordan, 46, described herself as "a former skid row prostitute for almost 40 years."
"I had just been released from prison in June 2007 when I wandered past the church and heard the music, which pulled me inside," she said. "It changed my life. I haven't sold my body or used drugs in three years. I owe it to Jesus Christ, Mr. Jeffrey and the little church at the corner."
"See this?" she says, pointing to a deep, 4-inch scar under her left eye. "Someone hit me in the face with a meat cleaver about two months ago. I had no one else to call on, so I called the church. It was a Sunday morning. They prayed for me."
"There are lots of people here with stories like that," said Thomas, who grew up in Augusta, Ga., and worked in construction "until I was 31, when I decided to go to college."
Thomas graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor's degree in philosophy and religion from Paine College in Augusta. He graduated from Claremont in 2009 with the school's highest honor: the President's Award for Academic Achievement.
He took the reins of Central City in 2003. Since then, weekly attendance has more than tripled to about 350 parishioners.
On a shoestring budget, the church provides services from the practical, such as resume writing, to the luxurious: It offers "day of pampering" events where people can get facials, massages, manicures and pedicures, as well as haircuts, clothes, shoes and dinner.
Rounding up donations and special services is not easy.
"There is some hesitancy among people we approach for help with these events because of hygiene issues," Thomas said.
"We tell them, 'We understand, but we have been doing this now for several years, and it has always gone well.' "
The church is particularly proud of its 4-year-old band, which includes nine skid row musicians and singers. The group recently released its first CD, titled "Power."
"I was sleeping on bus benches and spending every penny I had on crack cocaine and alcohol," said Joseph Warren, 54, a keyboardist and leader of the band, which performs at gospel festivals across Southern California. "I love this church and Rev. Thomas so much because they stayed with me."
As he spoke, an ambulance and fire truck rolled up with sirens blaring and lights flashing to help someone across the street.
"We fall down, and we get back up," Warren said. "That's what this church is all about."