The keyboard player leans toward the microphone to start the next verse. One man in a blue button-up shirt yells and jumps in place, his arms raised high above his head. Meanwhile, an elderly woman wearing thick-rimmed glasses approaches the stage and sways to the beat. The rest of the 50-person congregation sings, yells and cries out in Spanish as the song reaches its climax. Then the music stops. This is no rock concert.
Welcome to Jesucristo es el Señor, a storefront Pentecostal church at 2160 Mission St. where wails, hallelujahs and worshippers speaking in tongues fill the space between songs.
“The nonbelievers call us crazy fanatics,” says Pastor Santos Gómez. “But we know that this feeling comes from God, that’s why everyone’s here.”
The congregation is mostly Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants from the Mission and Excelsior districts. While those populations have dropped in the Mission, the churches remain strong, with more than a dozen still in the neighborhood.
Jesus, it turns out, is still in high demand in the Mission, says Pastor Bobby Singh, who is delivering the sermon this evening.
“This area needs a lot of prayer,” Singh says. “There’s a lot of drugs, it’s a tough place.”
Some members of Jesucristo are former drug addicts or victims of domestic violence. All of them are part of the Pentecostal community, the fastest growing branch of Christianity in the world. This church has been open for three months and already claims a strong following, says Gómez. Yet some neighbors wonder if there is a need for another Pentecostal church when there is already one less than a block away.
“Some people [in the neighborhood] are critical that we don’t produce anything,” Singh says. “But we’re working on getting a permit and we have every right to be here.”
Gómez chose the location because it’s close to the 16th and Mission BART station. The drug addicts and prostitutes who walk by each night need to be embraced, he says. But how will speaking in tongues cure a drug addict, or convince a prostitute to turn over a new leaf? Singh says it’s all about giving people a space to express themselves.
“Sometimes people say, ‘What are they screaming for?’” he admits. “You don’t want to stop that … we teach them to live a life full of joy and excitement.”
Food and culture also have unique roles in churches like this one. Each night a few of the women get together to prepare a home-cooked meal for everyone in attendance. Tonight it’s enchiladas. While the sermon winds down and boxes of Kleenex are passed out, Dilcia Sánchez, 30, is deep-frying tortillas and chopping up the last few carrots in a back room.
“We’re here for the less fortunate,” says Sánchez, 30, cradling her baby in one arm while flipping a tortilla in a pan full of oil.
“People come here empty and they leave full of love,” adds her friend Ana Hernández, 35, while feeding her baby girl a few hot Cheetos.
As chairs are stacked at the end of the night and one woman vacuums up bits of meat and cheese from the carpet, Sanchez finally sits down to enjoy the enchiladas she helped prepare. In the end it all comes down to community, she says.
“This is a family, we’re all brothers and sisters here,” she says with her mouth full.