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Helping others is the religion

For members of the Rock in San Diego, it's simple: Ease the pain, emulate Christ and maybe fill the church.

June 07, 2010|Mitchell Landsberg

SAN DIEGO — Maybe it was the rain pelting Balboa Park. Maybe it was the toll of so many years on the streets, measured in missing teeth and weathered skin, a deep scar running up a taut belly. Whatever the reason, the man they call Dollar Bill said he was thinking that maybe it was time to find a place to live.

"I'm tired of the streets, baby doll," he told Estreanda Fulford.

"And they're probably tired of you," Fulford replied.

Fulford, a social worker for San Diego County, is in daily contact with the homeless, the formerly homeless and the soon-to-be homeless. But this encounter was not part of her job -- not her paying job, anyway. Fulford spends 30 to 40 hours a week volunteering as the leader of a ministry for homeless people for the Rock Church, a fundamentalist mega-church in Point Loma that is making its mark as a powerhouse of community service as well as evangelism.

The Rock says it contributed 615,000 hours of service to the community last year, including 166,000 hours for the benefit of local government in San Diego. The Rock estimates the value of its "mayor's hours" -- projects it says were identified by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders -- at $2.6 million.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, July 08, 2010 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Rock Church: An article in the June 7 Section A about community service at Rock Church, a mega-church in San Diego, misidentified the affiliation of researcher Scott Thumma. He works for the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, not the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

For 2010, it has set a goal of 700,000 hours, 200,000 of them for the city.

"It's so simple," said Miles McPherson, a former San Diego Chargers defensive back who founded the Rock 10 years ago and is its senior pastor. The goal, he said, is to "just do something about the pain and brokenness of the world."

Religious institutions have always been at least nominally concerned with social welfare. From small community churches to vast organizations like the Salvation Army, Jewish World Service and Catholic Charities, they have helped to sew patches in the social safety net.

The Rock hardly stands alone, but it does stand out.

"I think this last year that they've ... taken their volunteering and engagement in the community to a whole new level," said Scott Thumma, a researcher who studies mega-churches for the nonprofit Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. "The last couple of years of recession have really concentrated the efforts of a lot of these mega-churches."

Pastor Rick Warren of Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, one of the largest evangelical churches in the country, oversees social service efforts that reach around the globe. In a brief interview, he said his church has been "feeding thousands of people" during the recession. Of the Rock, he said: "We're doing the same thing. We're just not talking about it."

McPherson does talk about it, at every opportunity. He has written a book, "Do Something! Make Your Life Count," that lays out his philosophy.

McPherson turned 50 in March and looks as if he could still be a nimble presence on a football field. He was drawn to youth ministry after his NFL career, and from there it was a natural step to establishing his own church.

Tall and rangy, with a self-deprecatory sense of humor and a wardrobe filled with neatly pressed jeans and open-necked shirts, he has a casual charisma that seems to personify his church. There is, too, something of an athlete's sensibility to his ministry, which places a higher premium on action than on words.

"Look around you," he writes. "We're facing economic chaos, endless wars, AIDS, famine, ecological ruin, political corruption -- the list is endless. Your neighbors are in desperate need of love and a helping hand."

Those are words that ring hollow in some quarters. In 2008, McPherson campaigned in support of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California. Then last spring, he stood behind Miss California Carrie Prejean, a member of the Rock, after she shook up the Miss USA contest with a declaration that gay and lesbian couples should not marry.

"We got hate e-mails -- hundreds of them," McPherson said. "But you gotta do what you gotta do." He said Proposition 8 was "a marriage issue for us, not a gay issue" and insisted that the church is nonjudgmental about its gay and lesbian "brothers and sisters."

You won't find many openly gay members of the Rock, but it is otherwise diverse and inclusive, drawing some 13,000 people -- black, white, Latino, Asian -- to Sunday services in its church megaplex in a repurposed military building in Point Loma. (The church uses weekly attendance to count its flock; it does not have formal membership.)

It is an informal yet tightly controlled environment, watched over by a large and hyper-vigilant security force. The crowd skews young and casual; the service is heavy on music and video, light on dogma. At its center is McPherson, whose sermons are folksy and humorous, yet peppered with deadly serious moments of fundamentalist faith.

"He's going to come back any time," he tells his congregation, referring to Jesus, "and we've got to get busy, because people are going to go to hell."

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