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Fund Drive for $2 Million Starts With Single Step

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Over the last three weeks, the Rev. Tommy Barnett performed a baptism with a bottle of Evian, prayed with boxer Evander Holyfield, and discovered that his true shoe size is not 9 1/2 but 11--all while running from Phoenix to Los Angeles.

Barnett, an Assembly of God minister based in Phoenix, celebrated his 60th birthday by living his lifelong dream of seeing more of the country.

At the same time, he hopes that his 400-mile trek will raise the money needed to keep the church’s Los Angeles International Center in Echo Park from closing.

Barnett and other Assembly of God leaders started the center three years ago at the old Queen of Angels Hospital, offering programs to help single mothers, the homeless, gang members, runaways and people battling drug addictions. The center, which is run by Barnett’s 23-year-old son, Matthew, is staffed by 200 volunteers and provides housing, food, job counseling and religious services.

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Los Angeles city officials said the program, also known as the Dream Center, must close unless the landmark 1,400-room building is brought up to code by early 1998. The church needs to install alarm systems and sprinklers, remove remaining asbestos, and replaster walls--at a cost of about $2 million.

Barnett heard the news in August and decided to turn his upcoming birthday trek into a fund-raiser.

“I announced to my church that if they gave me three weeks, I could do it,” said Barnett, who is tall and slim with traces of auburn in his whitening hair.

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Using his well-known gift for motivating church members, Barnett pitched his plan: He would run from Phoenix to the Dream Center, which he calculated would take 700,000 steps.

He asked supporters to donate $3 a step for portions of his trip. Barnett hoped that would bring in enough money to refurbish the building and ensure that the 500 people who live at the center could stay.

Barnett said he has longed for a cross-country run since growing up as a pastor’s son in the Midwest. “I used to think about running across America, although no one was doing it at the time. To do it now made perfect sense. And then we got the call.”

The minister’s journey began Oct. 26, his birthday, at his Phoenix parish.

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“They played ‘Rocky’ for me,” he said.

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Barnett battled cramps, blisters, and a couple of lost toenails the first few days. He alternately walked and ran seven to 30 miles a day, with an Assembly of God member following in a car. He spent nights in inexpensive hotels. “There were some real rat traps along the way,” he said.

His favorite stretch was Death Valley. “It was just beautiful; that’s when I had the best time.”

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That’s also where he met a man in a pickup truck who offered a ride. “He came up and asked where I was going. I said L.A., and he said, ‘You gotta be kidding.’ Then I told him why I was running and about the center. By the time I was done, he had tears in his eyes and told me he was an alcoholic and asked for help. We had a conversion right there.”

With a bottle of water that his Assembly of God companion had brought along, Barnett performed the roadside baptism and continued running.

Along the way, he stopped at four Pentecostal churches that hosted rallies to cheer him on. He made another pit stop in Las Vegas to pray with Holyfield. His last stopover was the Church of the Good Shepherd in Rialto.

“I was really excited when I found out he was coming our way,” said Paul Grasser, the church’s pastor. “When I found out what he was doing, I thought this would give us a chance to be part of what’s happening in L.A. and support Tommy too.

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“After all, he’s going 400 miles and we’re not.”

Grasser called Barnett a “gifted motivator,” who has a talent for drawing worshipers to the Assembly of God. Barnett is known for his seminars for ministers, a weekly television show in Phoenix, and a fleet of Sunday school buses that bring inner-city children to Assembly of God churches throughout the country.

“He’s done a fantastic job,” Grasser said. “And he’s a real original.”

Barnett arrived Thursday afternoon at Mann’s Chinese Theatre, where he was met by Dream Center staff and a coterie of celebrities. His final stop was the Echo Park Center.

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His run raised more than $750,000, and the church will continue the fund-raising drive until Dec. 31.

“I’m a very practical guy. I’m not a spooky guy spiritually,” Barnett said. “I believe that he will provide, but I’m a strong believer that we have to give a little help.”


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