American Dream turns to economic nightmare

Some Californians turn to church in troubled times

Mitchell Hartman Nov 22, 2011

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.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.