Some Californians turn to church in troubled times


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    Sunrise Church Senior Pastor Jay Pankratz preaches two sermons every Sunday flanked by an electric gospel band and huge video screens. In an adjacent auditorium, Spanish-language services are held.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    Sunrise Church in Rialto has boomed in recent decades as the city’s black and Hispanic population expanded. It now has 5,000 members and occupies a 13-acre campus including two large auditoriums, classrooms, offices, and playing fields.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    Every Sunday, Sunrise Church holds simultaneous Spanish-language and English-language services in adjacent auditoriums.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    The collection buckets come out at the end or the pastor's sermon at Sunrise Church. Members are asked to give a tithe (10% of income every year) as well as contribute to an assistance fund for needy families.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    Sunrise Mission is located in a poor neighborhood in Rialto. It houses the church's relief distribution center.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    Several miles from Sunrise Church, in a poor section of Rialto, is the Sunrise Mission. Church members volunteer to give out donated food and clothing to the needy on Sundays.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    Sunrise Church member Albert Grigsby, who is retired from the military, supervises food distribution at the relief mission.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    Downtown Rialto is a patchwork of shuttered shops and those still hanging on.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    A sign in downtown Rialto announces new homes but few are being built right now. Two planned developments are being stretched out over the next 10 to 20 years.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    Entering the struggling city of Rialto, population 100,000, along Route 66 from San Bernardino, its depressed neighbor to the east. Rialto’s population—which is predominantly Hispanic—grew 36 percent from 1990-2010.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    The city of Rialto just turned 100 this month, but it’s not in a celebratory mood. Unemployment is over 16 percent, home prices have fallen by 65 percent and sales tax revenues have fallen, causing the city to trim its workforce by approximately 20 percent since the recession began.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    In the Inland Empire, 45 percent of homes are underwater. Home prices fell 6.3 percent in the latest year (September 2010-2011), the 4th-largest drop for a large metro area. The region has had the third-most foreclosures in the nation (after Phoenix and Atlanta) since 2005.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    Rialto assistant city administrator Robb Steel says the city has tried hard to attract industrial jobs and employers, including logistics facilities that truck and warehouse imports from the Ports of Los Angeles to discount stores and malls nationwide.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

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    Unskilled workers—many of them undocumented—offer themselves as day-laborers outside a Home Depot in Riverside. Many low-wage workers laid off from warehousing and construction have moved into day-labor during the recession.

    - Mitchell Hartman/Marketplace

Several miles from Sunrise Church, in a poor section of Rialto, is the Sunrise Mission. Church members volunteer to give out donated food and clothing to the needy on Sundays.

Kai Ryssdal: Yesterday on the broadcast, Mitchell Hartman took us out east of Los Angeles to a place called the Inland Empire -- Riverside and San Bernadino Counties. For decades, it was a place where people went to find their way into the middle class. They went for the cheap housing and stayed for the good jobs. Back in the day, unemployment wasn't an issue.

Now, though, it tops every major metropolitan area in the country except Las Vegas. In the struggling city of Rialto, people have been hit especially hard by the double crash in housing and jobs.

Today, Mitchell tells us where they're finding shelter.


Patio West Deli Cashier: You want something to drink? You want a cup of coffee? There we go.

Mitchell Hartman: Patio West Deli has served up sandwiches and salads on Rialto's main drag for 30 years -- including their signature sandwich.

Patio West Deli Cashier: Egg salad with crispy pastrami, and add avocado to it, your cheese, lettuce, tomato and sprouts. It's pretty doggone awesome.

Well, not on my diet but co-owner Gloria Miller says it's a huge hit with her lunch crowd, which unfortunately is smaller than ever. Many stores nearby are boarded up.

Miller: We have a lot of regular people that are very loyal to us, but they've cut back on the number of times they can come in a week or a month or whatever.

Same goes for restaurants and strip malls along Route 66 a couple miles from downtown. So where is everybody? Seems like they all went to church.

Sunrise Church in Rialto is a sprawling evangelical center surrounded by suburban tract housing. Every Sunday, families fill the huge parking lot. They arrive in late-model SUV's and rusty old sedans -- but all in their Sunday best to get their spiritual fill.

Jay Pankratz: Matthew 6:19-21, "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy or thieves break in and steal."

In the huge main sanctuary, the preacher's sermon is projected on oversized video screens. In a second auditorium the Spanish service is in full sway.

Sunrise Church Pastor: Gracias senor, gracias porque tu eres sancti.

The senior pastor is Jay Pankratz. Thin, white-haired, and intense, he's built this church from a few hundred mostly white, upper-middle-class members a few decades ago, to more than 5,000 today. He did it by embracing the wave of black and Hispanic families migrating here for cheap housing and blue-collar jobs. Now that his church serves the high and the low, economic trouble has come knocking.

Pankratz: Every week there are people who come to me in tears, families that have lost houses or are about to, have lost jobs. Just like this last weekend, I got a note again, "please pray for us," you know, with about four exclamation points at the end.

Pankratz isn't just praying. The church regularly holds financial literacy classes. There's a men's group on work-readiness and job-hunting. And after services, congregants head over to the church's new relief mission on the poor side of town.

Woman: Thank you so much.

Sunrise Church Mission Volunteer: No problem, God Bless you. Make sure you bring the box back.

Retiree Albert Grigsby and truck mechanic Mario Rojas hand out 60 boxes of donated food and clothing every Sunday.

Albert Grigsby: There's times we've knocked on doors in neighborhoods we've went in, and I've had people that walked out and hugged me and started crying, because they didn't have any food in their house.

Mario Rojas: What we're trying to do is provide people with some physical food, but not only that, also spiritual food.

As we head back to the mother church keep that thought in mind because providing succor for people's material troubles goes hand in hand with providing spiritual succor to save their souls. Pastor Pankratz gathers those souls in with a message of moderation and frugality.

Pankratz: Jesus goes on to say, "You cannot serve both God and money." It's O.K. to drive a generic car. It's O.K. to live in a 60-year-old house -- I do. The heroes are the ones who are content with what they have so they can invest in the lives of others.

And then the collection buckets come out, and people stuff wads of 10s, 20s, even 100s, inside. Which helps the church fund its relief work and keep opening branches in neighboring towns. It also helps that wealthier members give a tithe -- 10 percent of income every year. For some, though, it's getting harder to answer that call.

Jerry Yearta: So I've been through like three recessions but I've never been through one like this one. It usually comes back, and it's not coming back at all.

Jerry Yearta is pushing 60. He's a small-business owner and pillar of the church. But for the first time in 39 years, he and his wife just missed a house payment. Seems he'd be in line for some of that Christian charity the church offers. Except...

Yearta: I probably would never ask them for money. I mean 'cause I've always been one that helps give the money and give the tithe, and it would probably be really hard for me to ask for help.

So who's going help Jerry Yearta save his house and his business? Looks like it'll have to be the economy itself. And so far that hasn't been working out so well in the Inland Empire.

I'm Mitchell Hartman for Marketplace.


Ryssdal:We've got pictures from the pulpit and that charity mission. Also, maps that let you see how much better unemployment is where you live than it is in the Inland Empire -- by state or metro area. Finally, check out the other stories in this series to see how the recession has hit Rialto and the housing bubble in the Inland Empire.

About the author

Mitchell Hartman is the senior reporter for Marketplace’s Entrepreneurship Desk and also covers employment.

Several miles from Sunrise Church, in a poor section of Rialto, is the Sunrise Mission. Church members volunteer to give out donated food and clothing to the needy on Sundays.

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