Keeping the Faith : Religion: Pastor Christian Pedersen remembers being far from home, pursued and hungry. His ministry now helps immigrants who have traveled the same road to America.


There are no day jobs to be found by Carlos Martinez on the streets of Capistrano Beach this morning.

So the homeless man prepares to endure another day of boredom and poverty, with nothing to do and nowhere to go, when Pastor Christian Pedersen comes along.

"Hey, haven't seen you guys in a while. Have you been eating OK? Where you been keeping your faith lately?" Pedersen asks Martinez and three other homeless Latino men who are passing time on a busy street corner in this threadbare neighborhood of old houses, stores and warehouses.

Martinez digs a hand into his faded blue jeans, pulls out a gold cross and says, "Look, father, I keep Jesus in my pocket."

Pedersen smiles and touches the cross. "Very good. Use that to keep your spirits up."

He knows what it is like to sleep on the dirt with no blanket for protection against the cold. He has felt the chest-ripping fear of being chased, caught and deported by immigration agents. And like many of the people whose suffering he eases, he has walked and hitchhiked thousands of miles from his homeland to find the shimmering American Dream.

Eighteen years ago, the 42-year-old Latino pastor from Peru was as lonely, penniless and hungry as any homeless person. Today, he has a family, a small church in Dana Point and a burning need to show homeless immigrants that through faith, anything can be accomplished. He became an American citizen six years ago.

To spread his message, Pedersen walks along the streets and through the brush of Dana Point and San Clemente to find where homeless Latinos, mostly men, gather and sleep.

He wears no collar or robes. In his hand is a Bible, "Dios Habla Hoy"--which means "God Speaks Today." To the homeless Pedersen meets, he preaches in Spanish, giving words of comfort to people who live in a strange country, far from their families and churches back home.

"I see these people on the street, and the street becomes my church," Pedersen said. "Right there, we stop and pray. You don't need a big building. Even if it is just one homeless guy and me, that is the church.

"These people are so hungry for spiritual guidance," he said. "I don't see these guys as illegals. I see them as human beings who are hurting inside and need the word of God, and I cannot deny them."

Pedersen is an elder at Calvary Chapel, a nondenominational church in Capistrano Beach. Last year, Calvary Chapel rented Pedersen a small building in Dana Point to minister to the fast-growing Latino population in the seaside community.

Only 40 seats fit inside the tiny church. On Sundays, people stand against the walls, sit on the floor or crowd at the entrance, bending their heads around the doorway to hear Pedersen's sermon.

For the low-income, Spanish-speaking community here, Pedersen fills all the traditional roles of a priest. He counsels shaky marriages, performs baptisms and talks to youths involved in gangs. His door is open 24 hours and late-night phone calls at home from troubled parishioners are common.

All this on top of his full-time job of running an auto repair shop in San Juan Capistrano, a business he yearns to sell so he can devote all his time to the church.

"He's an incredible individual," said Craig Whitaker, executive pastor at Calvary Chapel. "His church could draw 200 people or more if we only had a larger building. He speaks the language, but mostly what I see in Christian Pedersen is a love for the people and an amazing strength in his faith.

"There's no doubt that his drive is motivated and fueled by the hard life he lived" on the streets, Whitaker added. "He knows for a fact that regardless of your situation, you can find hope and strength for your life. That's what he communicates to the homeless."

As a young man in Peru in 1975, Pedersen heard tales of the good life in the United States and set out for California on foot.

Reaching the border, Pedersen remembers crawling on his belly through a dusty field for more than a mile to avoid being seen by an immigration agent.

With no friends or money, he struggled for several months in the San Pedro harbor area. At night, he would sneak aboard empty boats to sleep. For food, he depended on handouts from Latino workers on the docks.

"America was not the green pasture I thought it was," Pedersen said. "When I got here, I saw that the fields were dry and brown."

Just as Pedersen got established with a job and an apartment about a year after arriving in the United States, immigration agents raided his workplace and put him on a plane back to Peru. Desperate to escape, he fled from the jet during a stopover in Guatemala and hitchhiked thousands of miles back to the U.S. border.

Pedersen drifted through California, ending up in Montreal where he married and found a stable life for the first time in North America. It didn't last. When his marriage crumbled, Pedersen moved to South County in 1980. To ease the pain of divorce, he says he drank heavily and soon married again to fill the void in his life.

When that marriage ended quickly in divorce, Pedersen started looking for answers and found Calvary Chapel in 1982.

"I was hurting so bad inside," he said. One day, a car-repair client took him to church. "I knew right away this is where I belong."

Calvary Chapel had begun feeding the homeless on Wednesdays. And church elders soon discovered that about 95% of their clients were homeless Latinos.

"They needed more than just food," Whitaker said. "We saw that they also needed someone to talk with them."

Pedersen volunteered, and that action opened a door for him that couldn't be closed by sermonizing just one day each week. Although he wasn't ordained until last year, Pedersen decided back then to commit himself to preaching the Gospel to the homeless whenever he had a few hours to spare.

"I was ministering to people who had nothing, absolutely nothing," he said. "They were so lonely and needed so much, it broke my heart."

Pedersen saw that their depression often led to drug and alcohol abuse, a cycle he became determined to break.

"My first time in the bushes, I come to a bunch of these guys just sitting on some broken pallets with a 12-pack of beer," he said. "They offered me a beer and I said, 'No, thank you.' They put down their beers and didn't drink when I was there, maybe two or three hours.

"It was then I thought maybe if you give them something else to fill their lives, some will put down their beer and their drugs all the time," Pedersen said. "Sometimes I can get Jesus into their lives, but so many of them are just here for a short time, then they move on looking for work."

There is a curve in the railroad tracks in Capistrano Beach where trains must slow down. During the summer, dozens of Latinos ride boxcars from San Diego, and many jump off the train in Capistrano Beach, then disappear into the bushes to find shelter.

It was among the thick underbrush near San Juan Creek that Ramon, a 23-year-old from El Salvador who asked that his last name not to be used, met Pedersen.

"I lived here for a month and I started hearing about this man who helps people who sleep out here," Ramon said. "I needed all kinds of things, a blanket, a jacket. I met Christian, and the first thing he asked me is what I need, how can he help me. He prays for us, and nobody else does that here."

The exact number of homeless is in the area is unknown, but at a recent homeless feeding at Calvary Chapel, about 45 men with a sprinkling of women and children showed up.

Before eating, Pedersen spoke to the group for a few minutes. Eloquent but slightly hesitant in English, his second language, Pedersen's voice grew confident and strong when preaching in Spanish.

A steaming platter of ham, and another of pan-fried potatoes arrived, distracting a few. But most of their eyes remained riveted on the pastor, even those of a few Caucasian men who couldn't understand the words.

But the message was clear.

"I know your life is hard, but there is comfort in the word of God," Pedersen said. "I was once homeless and hungry like you. If I can make it, any of you can too."

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