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Part of Powerball Windfall to Benefit Tiny Torrance Church

Times Staff Writer

One of the first people Andrew “Jack” Whittaker called after winning the record $314.9-million Powerball lottery last week was a pastor in Torrance.

“Jack didn’t tell me exactly what he would do with the money. All he told me was that he had won and to pray for him,” Pastor Gerald Abreu recalled Sunday.

But now, a $334,000 check is in the mail to Abreu, and Whittaker said at least $3 million more will soon be on the way.

Whittaker, who decided to take his Powerball winnings in one lump sum and will receive $111.7 million after taxes from the lottery, said it’s part of his pledge to tithe 10% of his winnings to the church. He plans to divide about $11.3 million among three pastors, including Abreu.

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Abreu, who is now pastor of Abundant Life Church of God, was the minister of a church Whitaker attended in Hurricane, W.Va., for 10 years before moving to Torrance in September.

On Sunday, Abreu and his small flock of about 50 were still grappling with what the money might mean for their lives and church, a small stucco and brick two-story building in a working-class neighborhood.

“It will certainly expand the opportunities we have to help people here,” said Abreu, 43. “One of the things our church does is we have a small food bank to help a few families here in Torrance. This money will allow us to keep doing that and maybe expand it.”

Abreu met Whittaker when he was the pastor of the Tabernacle of Praise church in Hurricane. Whittaker, now 55, was ill with pancreatitis for much of the time, and Abreu spent many days and nights at the hospital with his parishioner.

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“He was here for 10 years, and I probably had 16 major operations,” Whittaker said in a telephone interview. “Abreu was at the hospital the whole time, and he looked after my family when I was sick.”

Two other pastors in West Virginia who were ministers of churches Whittaker attended will get the same amount as Abreu.

“I’m Christian, and a Christian is supposed to tithe 10% of what they get,” Whittaker said from his home in Scott Depot, W.Va. “I’ve been doing that my whole life. The Abreus have three children, they’ve had hard times their whole life and preaching isn’t the highest paying job in the whole world.

“I want them to get the maximum that I can give them. I’ve got two tax lawyers and three CPAs working on it right now.”

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At the same time that Whittaker was suffering from his illness, Abreu and his wife, Karla, had their own misfortune. In 1996, their 5-day-old son died of a rare heart ailment. Whittaker paid for the burial.

The Abreus have experienced other tragedies. As a 12-year-old, Gerald Abreu lost his father, brother and sister when the car they were in was struck by a drunk driver. Karla Abreu’s mother, father and two sisters also were killed by a drunk motorist when she was 10.

The Abreus have three children, ages 2, 12 and 17, but money has always seemed to be in short supply. That wasn’t the case for Whittaker, who owns three construction-related firms in West Virginia and describes himself as a “self-made millionaire.”

Nevertheless, Whittaker has played the lotto for years, but only when the jackpot climbed over $100 million. “I figured if I happened to win, there would be plenty to do with the money,” he said. He usually bought 100 tickets, but the most he had ever won was $24. Then came Thursday morning, when he learned that his luck had changed.

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If possible, Whittaker is trying to give the money directly to the three pastors and to a specific church. For one thing, he hopes the Abreus can buy their own home. They now live in a church-owned home in Torrance.

But Whittaker also said the money is coming with a stipulation attached: The pastors must use the bulk of the funds to help people.

The Abreus are reluctant to say how they might spend money they don’t yet have. But when pressed they said they could see sprucing up the congregation’s church building and perhaps supplementing the small salary that Gerald draws from the parish.

At the tidy but no-frills church, about 20 people attended evening services Sunday, where Abreu’s sermon was devoted to the theme that a person’s worth is determined by their faith.

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On a bulletin board near the building’s entrance was a small sign built to resemble a thermometer to show the progress of a youth ministry fund-raising drive. As of Sunday night, $100 of the $800 goal had been raised.

“All this is so strange that I have to think God has his hands in all of this,” said Karla Abreu before the evening’s services. “I can’t help but believe that of all the people who play the lottery, this isn’t a fluke. Not at all.”

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Times staff writer Daniel Hernandez contributed to this report.

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