Just days after former Bell Councilman Luis Artiga was exonerated of 12 counts of misappropriation of public funds, his church congregation whooped and hollered at the mention of the trial’s end.
Despite the reversal of fortune for Artiga, the Bell Community Church pastor reminded the church that Sunday’s service was not about him, but about keeping faith in God, through whose powers the church was now cleansed of ridicule and criticism.
Before he stepped into the pulpit, children in the congregation presented a special prayer they had prepared for their pastor.
“Thank you, Lord, you took care of him and sent him angels,” one boy said, holding one hand over Artiga’s head. “You liberated him.”
At the end of the service, Artiga expressed his gratitude to the more than 60 people seated in the modest building, where water damage mars the ceiling and the rough seams of the mulberry-colored carpet meet a tarnished wood floor.
“I want to thank everyone for their support. Thank you for the food you provided, for the financial aid, for all those brothers who called, cried and laughed with me,” he said in Spanish.
Some members saw the end of the trial as a new chapter for the tiny church on Gage Avenue. “The truth came out and the whole world heard it,” said Miguel Vasquez, 49, who began attending the church 10 years ago.
Artiga called his time as an accused criminal “a great, humbling experience.” Some parishioners left. Residents approached him on the street just to call him a thief. Once a man spit on him in an alley.
The grinding trial left him mentally and emotionally exhausted, and he took a monthlong break from preaching. The 52-year-old remains wary of reporters, who he said often failed to provide a balanced story.
“They can destroy people’s life in an instant,” he said. “A pastor stealing is big news for them.”
But, he added, “I cannot hold grudges. I have no hard feelings to nobody.”
Standing outside his church Sunday with his wife by his side, Artiga said he plans to delve deeper into community work. Part of that includes relaunching the food bank that closed after the salary scandal broke. “I’m just a man that wants to serve his community that was in the wrong place at the wrong time. My intention was always to help the community, never to hurt it.”
He plans to write a book about his experiences. The working title: “In the Lion’s Den.”
Artiga said he now regrets ever joining the council and will steer clear of even expressing an opinion about civics and government.
“Big lesson in all of this,” he said, “politics are for politicians; pastors are to serve.”