He did not introduce himself to the crowd.
They all knew who he was.
The moment we pulled up to the church building I noticed the strangest thing.
The building showed no sign of being a church. By the main entrance, the west and south walls were adorned with prominent Stars of David. Even more conspicuous was a large Israeli flag mounted on a towering flagpole near the entrance. My Christian friend David, who accompanied me today, thought the place was a synagogue.
I first heard about the church from my gardener who was a devout follower. This church was in the heart of a Mexican neighborhood and it catered to the spiritual needs of the working class Mexicans who lived in the area. Its congregants were gardeners, construction laborers, and field workers.
A Jewish Church?
Because we arrived early for the Sunday service we found the doors locked. So we drifted across the street to inspect a yard sale on a large lawn in front of a house. We stopped at the yard sale and initiated a conversation with a pleasant fellow who was selling his wares. It turned out that he was a member of the church. His name was Miguel.
Like the church building, Miguel was a study in contrasts. He was clearly from Mexico and he spoke only Spanish. Yet a kippah (skullcap) covered much of his black hair. He gently removed the kippah to reveal a balding top and an unmistakable pair of sidelocks (payot) at his temples. He apologized, “I have trouble growing any hair. I don’t even have to shave.” I could see he was proud of his success in sprouting the lengthy sidelocks and he twirled them admiringly for us. A smile appeared beneath his dark eyes.
After a while I noticed that four strands of white cords—Tzitziyot– had snuck out from under his shirt and rested on his pants. Later I saw that the other men in the congregation also sported Tzitziyot under their shirts.
Miguel was running the church yard sale on the large lawn in front of the house across the street. That house was home to the church’s television station and another house across the way held the radio station.
The doors to the church opened. David and I ventured in. Inside, a large hall was filled with rows of empty pews.
Like the building’s exterior, there was no sign anywhere of Christianity. No crosses of any kind, no stained glass windows with images of the Stations of the Cross, no statues of the virgin and child. Instead I noticed two large gold menorahs planted prominently on the stage.
Two cloth-bound blue books rested on each of the many benches. The front cover was embossed in gold with the word “Torah” written in large Hebrew letters. Under it the word Torah repeated itself in the Roman alphabet, but with smaller letters.
David and I waited.
Moses Leads His People
Slowly but persistently the pews began to fill with people. The children—they were of all ages—gravitated to the pews directly in front of us. This must be the children’s section, I thought. They sat quietly, patiently, with hardly a squirm among them. All the little boys sported a kippah and the same white Tzitziyot that we had seen on Miguel. Occasionally the children glanced at one another, and when they dared, their furtive eyes turned to glance at the two strange Americans seated behind them. None of them spoke.
Half an hour past starting time the hall was half-filled with bodies, waiting. Suddenly a tall, imposing figure of a man appeared at the front of the stage as if out of nowhere. He looked the way I imagined Moses looked as he led the Jewish people to the promised land of Israel. The lower half of his face was covered with a wispy, triangular white beard. He used a microphone, but he needn’t have, because his voice was loud, firm, yet comforting.
He did not introduce himself to the crowd. They all knew who he was: Pastor Manuel Salvador. I knew his voice from the many radio broadcasts I had heard over the years. It was hard to fit the voice I knew to the man standing in front of us. He seemed larger, stronger, bigger than the imaginary image I had attached to the radio voice.
The pastor began to speak to the assembled congregants. He immediately noticed us—the two newcomers—and engaged us in conversation.
“What are your names?”
The pastor had trouble saying my name so I explained that my name, Ray, is rey, like the word king in Spanish. He said, “Yes, Melech.” That is the Hebrew word for king. I said, “Yes, Melech.” During the rest of his lengthy presentation he gestured toward me repeatedly…and called me Melech. I thought to myself, “If I return to this church my name will be Melech. That is how everyone will know me.”
The pastor called me to the front of the congregation and then motioned for a number of congregants to come forward and embrace me. In turn, each looked me in the eye, “Shalom.” I answered each one, “Shalom. May God bless you.”
The pastor’s talk was a conversation with the congregants, rather than a speech. He started with me. I told him I was Jewish. He asked about my family and I told him about my parents’ survival in the Holocaust. He lit up. “Imagine this, my dear friends. Today we have a survivor among us.”
He patiently explained a few details about the Holocaust—the congregants already knew about it from the church’s extensive teachings on the topic. But the pastor reminded them about the evil of Holocaust denial and also about the terrible medical experiments—they removed the eyes of children. I was shocked he said this in front of the crowd of children in the pews at the front of the hall. Will they have nightmares? Will they believe that someday someone may come to take their eyes?
The pastor was eager to show me—and the rest of the crowd—the far reach of the church. He called a young man to bring a cell phone to him. On the phone’s screen he called up a digital map of the location of the church’s radio stations. He called out an endless stream of city names. They were in North and South America, Europe, even Asia and India—-Chicago, London, Brussels, even Hyderabad, India. As he did this, he showed me the telephone’s screen, to prove his point.
I wondered what he is about. Was he boasting about the church’s reach? Was this directed to the two newcomers? Or to the rest of the crowd? He was trying to convince someone of something.
Requests for Prayer
At the pastor’s orders, a congregant ran to him from the back of the hall. He handed the pastor three sheets of paper with handwritten text on both sides of each sheet. This was a list culled from phone calls made to the church’s radio station. The pastor read each name, the person’s town and a request for prayer.
“Maria Gonzales calls us from Bakersfield. She is having trouble with her two boys. They are rebellious and don’t mind her. She asks the congregation to heal the boys’ disobedience.” The pastor uses her story to lecture and admonish the congregants, with a special eye to the children.
“How many of you kids obey your parents? Raise your hand if you do.” The children obediently comply. Every one of them obeys his parents. “It is important to obey your parents and to stay out of trouble.”
This was the pattern with the many names and situations on the list. So-and-so is sick with diabetes. “Don’t make yourself sick by eating junk food,” advised the pastor. He talked about the seven foods of Israel: wheat, barley, grapes, figs, pomegranates, olives and dates. He recounted to his followers the health benefits of each biblical food.
“So and so has debts he can’t pay. Don’t buy things you don’t need. Use your money, not to spend, but to invest. That way when it comes time to retire you will have a nice pension.”
A teenage couple sat in a front pew. The boy was a regular and he had brought his new girlfriend to church today. The pastor advised, “Be careful with one another. Too many young couples rush into things. Don’t be among those who fornicate, who sin.”
The pastor appeared to know every person in the room, along with his family story. He called out the name of one congregant, “You’ve had problems with debt in your family.” He didn’t scold. He continued in the role of kindly father. But I wondered about his disregard for the family’s privacy. This congregation was one big family. There were no secrets.
The pastor advised his congregants about their jobs. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you. Be a good employee. Work hard.”
The list of callers who requested prayers went on and on. The callers’ stories triggered the pastor’s comments and his counsel about life’s difficulties: debt, marital fidelity, drug and alcohol addiction, gangs, inability to hold a job, health issues, maintaining a healthy diet, on and on. The presentation was impromptu but there was nothing lighthearted about this. The pastor never failed to be compassionate, involved, connected to his flock.
The Amazing Children
The pastor called the children to the front of the stage. “Everyone knows his place,” he announced excitedly. A quivering mass of youth assembled itself in front of the stage almost instantly. They seemed to come from nowhere. But suddenly, there they were, carefully sorted by height—the little ones in front.
I didn’t believe the pastor when he announced that the children will now sing the national anthem of Israel. But then it happened. Accompanied by a loud recording of Ha’Tikvah, the children began to sing—-in Hebrew! The melody was right. The words were right. Suddenly I appreciated the devotion of these people to everything Jewish. But why the devotion?
Having finished their performance, the children scattered. Accompanied by music, they ran wildly around the room in grand circles. On the stage, a cluster of girls joined hands in a circle and danced. Miguel commandeered a corner near the stage. Outside he had been shy. But now he unhinged with a joyous dance, arms akimbo and Tzitziyot turned to pendulums gone mad.
Surely this must be the finale to a lengthy service. But it was not.
A Story and a Parting Gift
A dark man appeared and mounted the stage. Everything about him was dark, intense. His clothes were black, as were his beard and mustache. His eyes were deep set and dark. Like the boys and the other men, strings of white Tzitziyot dangled from the bottom of his shirt. He set up a slide projector and donned a mike. He had arrived to deliver a sermon. As he began to speak, his voice ignited the room and he seemed lighter, less foreboding than at first. This was a story from the Old Testament, one unfamiliar to me.
The patriarch lay on his death bed. He did not know the whereabouts of his son. He was anguished. When the time comes who will be there to say the Kaddish prayer for him? It took several moments for me to understand this was a story about a son’s Kaddish, because the speaker pronounced the word so oddly that I did not recognize it at first.
The speaker’s error was mirrored by the pastor. They used the words, customs and imagery of Judaism. But, having borrowed all this, they were off by just a beat. Thus, the mispronounced word: their K’dish was Kaddish, the memorial prayer for the dead.
Like the Christian-free exterior of the building, the service held no mention of Jesus or any of the traditional Christian characters or themes. Was this an oversight? Was the pastor editing the service because I, a Jewish person, was in attendance? Or was this the norm in this church?
My friend turned to me to say he will be late for an appointment. We agreed to leave. As he snuck out the back of the hall, I went to the front where the pastor was seated on the sidelines, listening quietly to the story of the patriarch and his son. I explained that we must leave.
“Please forgive us. And thank you for your wonderful hospitality.” The pastor’s head fell slightly forward as if to agree that it was time for us to leave.
Earlier, the pastor had offered my friend and me a gift: two blue cloth-bound Torah books, duplicates of those we found resting in the pews when we arrived—-only fresh and new.
I made sure to leave the two Torah books behind on the bench.
Out in the street, as David and I approached his car for the trip home, a young boy from the congregation appeared. Again I noticed his kippah, payot and Tzitziyot. The pastor had sent him because he believed we forgot to take his gift of the two Torah volumes. I made the boy promise to explain to the pastor that we declined the gift because we have our own Torah books at home. “But please thank the pastor for his generosity.”
The boy promised to deliver my message. I wondered if he would.