By ANRICA DEB
Pastors rarely welcome visitors with “shalom,” the Hebrew greeting meaning “peace,” particularly when the service is conducted in Spanish. But Miguel Castro does. He and his tiny Valencia Street congregation move to the beat of their own drummer, not to mention the flute and tambourine players.
Castro has been a pastor at El Santo de Israel for about 14 years at its location near 21st Street. His multicultural congregation of some 50 worshippers—mostly from Mexico and Central America, but some from as far as the Philippines—practices an unusual, disorderly worship involving singing, electric guitar, free-form shouting, and stream-of-consciousness-style prayer.
However, the church shut the doors at its current location on Saturday because the of the rent, which was raised to match the other commercial renters. The sons of the elderly owner, Peggy Nuccitelli, also say co-tenants complain about the noise El Santo de Israel makes. Church members say they’ve only had a few complaints over the last 10 years, but Castro is not resisting moving on. It will, however, change a ritual that begins before dawn.
Hours before light creeps across Valencia Street, Castro opens the doors of his storefront church for those who want to squeeze in a quick prayer before work. His church is not the only one providing early morning worship in the Mission. It is one of more than a dozen small Pentecostal churches found here that seem like odd sanctuaries in the street’s line of bars and restaurants. Many, like El Santo de Israel, were started by individuals who have a personal and often dramatic relationship with religion.
Nonetheless, Castro’s small storefront does make a distinct impression, particularly before sunup. Ghostly blue fluorescent lights show off two menorahs and a flag of Israel in the window.
There’s no question about its being a Christian church, with “Jesus Christ Is Lord” printed in all caps across the top of the storefront. But the Jewish star above this statement does tend to confound the passerby.
“For the Lord Jesus Christ, there’s no Jews or Christians, they are all sons of Abraham,” says Castro, who was born in El Salvador as a Catholic but “born again” as a Christian Pentecostal some years after coming to the United States in 1966. Castro is passionate about Israel—the church is filled with pictures of the desert nation—and calls himself a Jew, explaining how persecution of Jews in Europe led his predecessors to lose their Jewish identity. “The foundation of the church is all Jews,” he insists.
Like many born-again Christians, Castro is a staunch supporter of Israel and sends money to a “brother” church there. He says the Palestinians “should be thankful that Israel let them stay there,” in Gaza, and “that land belongs to Israel.”
Castro has a warm, broad face with a graying beard. He wears simple clothes—a corduroy shirt with a pen in the pocket. Now on disability for an arm injury and awaiting surgery, he used to work days at a recycling plant. His wife Irma is also a pastor but cleans houses during the day.
The Castros left Catholicism and were converted in a Baptist church after being introduced to the faith by friends. However, when they revisited El Salvador, they found an affinity with the Pentecostal church. “I was thinking that I was a real Christian, but I was not,” Miguel Castro says. “The real church is the one sealed by the Holy Spirit.”
After returning to San Francisco, Castro continued to follow his newly acquired method of worship, but his old church, Portola Baptist, was unhappy with him. “I wouldn’t stop [making noises]. It was in me.” The church told him he had to stop interrupting the service, so 15 years ago he left and began his own church. Such outbursts are common at his church where many of the members say they were “saved,” not merely in a figurative sense. They believe God came down and chose them.
Alfonso Larin is one. He says some years ago his wife had been jailed for immigration violations, and he was beside himself with despair. He prayed the whole night, and the next day a man approached him on the corner of 24th and Mission and asked him, “‘Are you Alfonso? God told me to come over to you.’”
The man, who he’s never seen since, told him God would help, but in exchange Larin would have to fulfill promises he made the night before in his prayers. A musician, Larin had promised to play only for God, to give up vices, and to go to church.
That day, he says, he went to El Santo de Israel and sat “in the same seat I’ve been sitting in tonight.” The man preaching talked about exactly what had been going through Larin’s mind, and Larin began crying.
Within days, Larin says, his wife was freed, even though the lawyer had said she would be deported. Then an old co-worker, since retired, phoned him and gave him the $11,000 he owed, saying God told her to do so.
Now he, his wife and their three children are loyal attendees.
One of the most austere worshippers is Castro’s son Angel, who ran away from home at 16, long before El Santo de Israel came into being. He returned years later, addicted to drugs and in dire straits.
“He almost died,” his father says, pointing to the left corner of the stage where Angel collapsed of a drug overdose. “Right there.”
“The Lord had mercy on me that night,” Angel adds, before launching into a monologue about prophesies, earthquakes and the end of days that he believes is approaching.
The elder Castro tones the conversation down and turns to the change of address that the church will be making. The Castros will continue to live upstairs, but the church can’t afford to stay. Everyone who works there has a day job, except Castro, who’s on disability.
“Not with sadness, but with joy, they know it’s the Lord taking us to go to another place,” Castro says. Until they find a new location, the Church of God of San Francisco on Church Street will provide a temporary worship space.
During one of the last services here, about 20 men and women gather and partake in a slow and off-key singalong to tambourine, electric guitar, drums, and Castro singing into a microphone. Some sway or clap in rapt attention. Others attend to a handful of children who have free rein to wander and climb on furniture. During less musical moments, those members who stand up and speak into a microphone—though the church isn’t so large that it requires amplification—avoid prepared sermons; they just preached “according to the Lord,” says Castro.
The service ends in a large circle with everyone praying out loud together—each his own prayer—in a chaotic buzz.
“Sometimes the preaching is soft,” Castro says. “Sometimes, hard.” It’s not quite anarchy, but “we give the freedom to the Holy Spirit.”
Pentecostal Christians are famous for speaking in tongues. Though no one did so in front of a Mission Local reporter, something was certainly moving the audience to shout at seemingly random moments or wave hands or bibles overhead.
“You can tell when someone is acting or faking,” says Castro. “The Holy Spirit gives us the discerning ability.”