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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

The Sunday service is meant to launch people on the real work of the church, which is in the community. Everyone is expected to pitch in. Funding comes from donations.

Homelessness, cancer, gangs, child abuse, hunger, addiction, domestic violence, eating disorders, unemployment, deaf foster children, strippers -- the church seems to have a ministry for every conceivable social ill or need. And it is about to expand, with plans for a network of 195 international missions, capitalizing on the global reach of its Internet site.

There are those who wonder if the Rock's real agenda might be advancing its own growth and brand of evangelism.

"I commend them for whatever they do," said the Rev. M.A. "Mac" Collins of St. Mark's Episcopal Church in San Diego's City Heights neighborhood. But, he added, "My guess is, a lot of this stuff is stuff that has the primary purpose of conversion."

Typically, Rock ministries have no strings attached, but there is an evangelical undercurrent. The Rock volunteers see this not as self-serving but as an effort to save souls.

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.

Their primary motivation, McPherson said, is to do as Jesus would have done.

"I buy that, actually," said Jo Anne Schneider, an anthropologist at the University of Maryland at College Park who studies social service outreach by churches.

"It's usually very theologically based," she said. "For Jews and Muslims, there's a responsibility for community that's codified into the religion." For Protestants, there is a motivation to be Christ-like, she said: "The service is the theology."

Christ-like is not the description that springs to mind when Raymond Barron gets to talking about his past. "I was just more violent than anything," Barron said, hunched in the back of a car heading to a notorious gang gathering spot. "I didn't have any problem shooting anybody. I didn't have any problem stabbing anybody. I was sort of the enforcer."

Barron is an imposing figure, a muscular guy with wrap-around shades, a goatee and slicked-back hair. One arm is stamped with a tattoo that says "Christian."

That's the new Raymond Barron, the one who gave up a good construction job so he could be his own boss and have more control over the hours he spends as a Rock volunteer. Barron helped launch the Rock's gang outreach ministry, which is still finding its feet. He sees an urgency to the work, which isn't just about saving souls but about saving lives.

The core of the gang ministry is a bunch of guys like Barron, former gang members who say, almost to a man, that they reached a point at which they were just tired of life on the streets.

Now they go out in search of people like their old selves. Sometimes, they say, it goes well; they make connections, and the pews on subsequent Sundays may contain some newcomers with interesting neck tattoos.

Other times, their efforts are more hapless, like the evening they spent looking for gang members but found only fellow Christians.

"You seen this?" Rock volunteer Steve Daigle said to one young man lounging in front of a music store with a group of other teens. Daigle showed him a copy of a McPherson book, "21 Jump-Start."

"I got a copy of it," the young man said. When Daigle looked surprised, the teenager gestured toward the music store. "Dude," he said, "this is a Christian music academy."

The gang ministry is one of the efforts that the Rock lists in its "mayor's hours," ostensibly in support of the Police Department. Some of the projects listed are clearly not for the benefit of city government; foster care programs, for instance, would benefit San Diego County, prison programs would benefit the state.

Rachel Lang, a spokeswoman for the mayor, said the Rock is just one of many congregations helping Sanders in his goal of "making San Diego a safe and enjoyable place to live."

On Saturdays, Estreanda Fulford oversees the Rock's Church Without Walls, which attracts a congregation of largely homeless people who attend for prayer and free food and coffee.

Superficially, Fulford would appear to have nothing in common with Dollar Bill, the homeless man she is trying to help. She is 24; he is 53. She is black; he is white. She is college educated and employed; he is neither one.

But Fulford, like so many Rock volunteers, has a personal connection to this work. Her parents, she recounted, were drug addicts who became homeless, spending years on L.A.'s skid row while Estreanda was raised by a grandmother. She has a childhood memory of making food with her grandmother, then going out onto the streets to give it to her parents.

When she began working with the homeless in San Diego, "I didn't see a homeless person," she said. "I saw my mother and my father."

As she spoke, rain splashed through the boughs of an overarching tree. The Church Without Walls service had just ended. People were milling about, eating sandwiches and pastries, talking about the sermon delivered by Rock volunteer Mike McNeil, who also leads a food ministry called Heavenly Kitchen.

"There's no judging out here," Fulford was saying. "If you fall down, there's no pointing fingers. You can pray for me too -- I'm not better than you are. We minister to each other."

Dollar Bill, whose real name is William E. Hinton Jr., wandered over. He told Fulford he had grown tired of the streets. They began talking about what to do.

They went back and forth, Dollar Bill worrying about how he could pay for rent and food, Fulford telling him it could be done. "You don't need to worry about anything else, you just need to get your place," she said. "Next week, we're going to get together and come up with a game plan."

"OK, sweetheart, we'll do it," Dollar Bill said finally.

That would be the perfect ending, but life isn't so neat. Weeks later, the weather was better and Dollar Bill was still on the streets. "He's still not ready to make that transition," Fulford said. She was there, though, ready to help, if and when he wanted it.

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