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Spreading the Pentecostal spirit

Religion and BeliefPoliticsImmigrationEl SalvadorChristianityRoman CatholicismGuatemala

"Dios es bueno!" (God is good!)

Pastor Rene Molina moved among the sea of believers, bestowing blessings with his touch. He placed a hand on one worshiper's head, sparking such emotion that the man fell to the floor.

"Jesus was an immigrant and outsider too," Molina said, speaking in the Spanish of his native El Salvador. "God is here in Los Angeles as you struggle. God is there with your family, in Mexico and Guatemala.... Don't doubt your value, no matter what society says."

This is Sunday morning service at Restauracion Los Angeles, emblematic of how the practice of Christianity here is being reshaped.

Latino Pentecostals have become an integral part of L.A.'s religious fabric over the last two decades. New arrivals, from countries such as Guatemala and El Salvador, already were believers. Others grew up Catholic but were attracted to the more intimate Pentecostal experience, finding comfort there after leaving family and friends behind.

Now, with storefront churches dotting street corners and larger congregations beginning to take flight, an American-born generation is bringing fresh energy and expectations to the faith.

Stout, toffee-skinned and wavy-haired, Molina is one of the movement's most intriguing leaders. When he began preaching in Los Angeles, there were 30 believers in his pews. Now he leads a mega-church with a membership of roughly 3,000 in a renovated movie house in South L.A.'s Crenshaw district — the longtime heart of black Los Angeles.

"The special sauce here is the Holy Spirit," he said, noting that speaking in tongues and faith healing are central to his church.

Just as important is Molina's message. "He has a clear emphasis," said Juan Martinez, a vice provost at Pasadena's Fuller Seminary who is overseeing the pastor's pursuit of a master's degree in divinity. "Society may have you in the shadows because of your immigration status or your economic status. But this is a church that says, in God's economy, you have total worth."

Restauracion is made up almost entirely of recent immigrants — restaurant and construction workers, janitors and nannies — or their sons, daughters and grandchildren. Most are either in the country illegally or started out that way, said Molina, who once sneaked across the border himself.

"In the crowd here you see the faces of Los Angeles," Molina, 51, said. "You see the reality of today."

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Ricardo Romero is part of that reality.

Born in El Salvador, he came to the United States during the 1980s, using fake documents to make it through customs.

He scraped by on low-paying jobs, working at Burger King and as a janitor. But the loneliness that came from being far from home led to a drinking problem and depression. Romero was raised Catholic but had tired of religion. Out of desperation, he visited Restauracion.

"It changed my life," said Romero, 45, who met his wife at the church and is now a legal resident and an account manager at a janitorial firm. "There was a warmth, a spirit and ease that I had not encountered in church before. And the pastor was urging us to love God and improve ourselves.... It was not about wealth or becoming rich. It was about becoming the best student, the best father, the best person and citizen we could be."

Romero's narrative is a common one at Restauracion, where most of the membership was raised Catholic. So is the story of Eneida and Abelardo Alvarez.

Sweethearts growing up in Guatemala, they came to Los Angeles in the mid-1990s. America has been full of opportunity, they said, but life is a daily struggle. Eneida, 37, works as a nanny. Her husband is a plumber. They live in South L.A., supporting three children.

The church gives them strength.

The Alvarezes attend services three days a week. On a fourth night they host a Bible study in their home, one of about 110 meetings held by church members every week.

Pentecostalism — which spread globally after the success in 1906 of the Azusa Street Revival meeting in downtown Los Angeles — long has been known for its inward orientation. Members typically close themselves off from the affairs of a sinful world, shunning politics and social issues.

But Molina pushes his members to engage. If they are citizens, he says it's their duty to vote. If they can't vote, he says they should go on marches seeking to change immigration laws. The Alvarez family regularly joins the church's street-cleaning crews in the Crenshaw district and helps feed the poor on skid row.

"We stay connected here with society, with our neighborhood," says Abelardo, 42. "This gives the feeling that we belong."

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Part of Molina's draw is his manner. He can be fiery and piercing from the pulpit, but also welcoming and humble. Just as appealing to congregants is his immigration tale.

"I have crossed the border and felt the cold handcuffs," he said, relying for translation on his son, 22-year-old Rene Jr., because the pastor is a bit uncomfortable with English. "My journey permits me to have empathy, to understand."

Molina came into adulthood in war-torn El Salvador in the 1970s. He ended up abandoning Catholicism and joining Mision Elim Internacional, a Pentecostal church with a membership of at least 60,000 that trained him to become a minister.

Eventually he headed for the United States, crossing the border on foot. After being caught by immigration police, he was jailed and returned to El Salvador. When he finally received a temporary visa and settled in Los Angeles, he slept in a cramped apartment and worked in a taco truck.

With El Salvador's Elim taking root here, Molina started a congregation in the rented sanctuary of a Baptist church. By the late '80s — at a time when Latino immigration was thriving — the number of his congregants was on the rise. "We went from 30 [members] to 70 to 200 … to 500 and then to 700," he said. "We were ready, finally, to go big."

By 2000, Molina had become a citizen and his congregation had saved enough money to purchase an abandoned movie theater on Adams Boulevard. Restauracion's members, many of them in the construction trades, created a simply adorned church with beige walls, concrete floors and an expansive stage for sermons.

Molina has become one the most important figures in the Elim church, presiding over the creation of dozens of "daughter churches" throughout the country. "Wherever immigrants were going," he said — be it Portland, Chicago, New York — "we were there."

That kind of growth is an example of the way Pentecostalism is spreading, said USC religion professor Donald Miller. "It used to be that the movement was almost always from the West to other parts of the globe. Now there's a sort of reverse missionization, particularly people coming from the Southern hemisphere to America, building networks for believers here.

"In a very real way," Miller said, "these churches are revitalizing Christianity here with their vibrancy."

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Restauracion reached an apex about seven years ago, when its membership hit 5,000. Still, Molina was concerned that the congregation was aging and had become too comfortable. He looked at his own children and saw that the old ways would need tweaking if the message was to remain relevant.

Seating at the church long had been segregated by sex. Many of the men wore coats and ties; the women dressed modestly. The preaching, restricted to men only, focused on warnings to follow the Bible's rules.

Molina tossed it all out, starting with the dress code and gender separation. His wife, Hanelory, and other women began preaching. The band that once played Central American hymns moved to Christian rock. The sermons became less focused on castigating imperfection and more on the way God's love has sweeping power to change.

Molina also engaged with the outside world. He gave a speech at a celebration honoring former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and teamed with one of the Crenshaw area's most powerful religious leaders — Bishop Charles Blake, who leads an African American mega-church — in worship services focusing on racial unity.

The changes caused a wave of defections. For a while on Sundays, Restauracion's auditorium seemed half-full.

But the church is again on the rise, Molina said. Services are packed, and the church hums with an electrified energy.

"We've made the turn," said Rene Jr., who aspires to one day take over his father's flock. "The church was living … on traditions that the new generation here could not relate to."

Part of the rebound, according to the pastor and his son, is because of teenagers, twentysomethings and young families.

Rene Jr., born and raised in L.A., runs a ministry for the younger set that attracts about 200 each Tuesday. Dressed in skinny jeans and black, thick-framed glasses, he addresses his congregation in English, riffing on traffic jams and Kobe Bryant, on the perils of premarital sex and what it means for his generation to follow Jesus.

On a recent night, he told them it was their responsibility to shape Los Angeles, to make it cool but also closer to God. "If you trust in Jesus, you are completely perfect, just the way you are … right here, right now."

The audience responded with hands raised and shouts of "Hallelujah." Yes, they sang, "right here … this is our home!"

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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Religion and BeliefPoliticsImmigrationEl SalvadorChristianityRoman CatholicismGuatemala
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