San Bernardino Thrives in Midst of ‘Bad Times’
by John Docter
Nestled at the foot of the mountains that share its name, the city of San Bernardino experiences many of the same problems as urban areas across the state. Unemployment, crime and poverty have taken their toll on the city’s 187,000 residents.
San Bernardino seems to have had more than its share of bad breaks. In 1992, defense cutbacks forced the closure of Norton Air Force Base, one of city’s main employers. In recent years, additional industries have also pulled out of the area, taking thousands of jobs with them.
This job exodus has driven San Bernardino’s unemployment rate to nearly 9 percent. Thirty-two percent of residents receive welfare assistance. The city’s murder rate ranks among the highest in the state.
Yet, in the middle of this urban blight–literally–Majors Russell and Jacqué Fritz, San Bernardino corps officers, shepherd a congregation that seems to multiply before their eyes.
In just two years it has grown from a handful of people on Sundays–15 on a good week–to a crowd as large as 175. Often, many of the congregation have to stand against the walls “because the hall only seats 85, legally,” says Major Jacqué Fritz.
Sunday school attendance has grown in a similar fashion. An average of 80-95 people–mostly kids sporting bright red Sunday school T-shirts–can be found singing songs and listening to Bible lessons every week.
“On arriving in San Bernardino Majors Russell and Jacqué Fritz…immediately recognized the need [of the city],” says Major Don Bell, Sierra Del Mar divisional commander. “Through spiritual gifts and hard work [they] have set about winning the lost to Christ and the Army, building a successful ministry through the social service programs and soldiers.”
The 50-year-old corps building, with its recent paint job and minor exterior renovations, stands out against the run-down motels, apartments, and vacated homes and businesses that surround it. A narrow strip of land that sits next to the corps parking lot will soon be converted into the neighborhood’s only playground, once county grants are finalized.
The Fritzes insist that the San Bernardino Corps is not that different from other corps. They offer a simple explanation for their surge in numbers. Basically, people are “getting filled with the Spirit and telling others about it,” says Jacqué Fritz. That’s exactly how Mike Muller, 42, discovered the corps seven months ago. “My neighbor invited me,” he says.
When the Fritzes came to San Bernardino just over two years ago, one of their main goals was to go out into the community and bring people in. Along with a group of soldiers, they’ve posted countless flyers in the neighborhood, and try to visit every home within five or six blocks of the corps at least twice per month. Every Sunday evening, about 30 to 40 members will minister to, and then feed, an open air crowd of about 160 people at the nearby Hospitality House, the Army’s homeless shelter.
The congregation consists mostly of people and families from the neighborhood, some current residents and graduates of the San Bernardino Adult Rehabilitation Center and even a few from the Hospitality House. “Everyone’s on the same level here,” Jacqué Fritz says. “You come as you are. The only thing that matters is that you come to worship.”
Like the early days of the Army, and like inner city ministries everywhere, “we’re not witnessing to the saints,” says Jacqué, who estimates that half of the those who attend have been through recovery in the past 20 years. During the emotion-filled testimony period that takes up about half of each Holiness meeting, nearly everyone can relate. “They’ve all ‘been there, done that,'” she says. “Some have been clean for years, but they remember.”
The prostitutes that walk along 5th street, where the building sits, will often “drop in [to the meetings], cry their eyes out at the altar and then go back out on the street,” Major Russell Fritz says. “They drop in and out, but you never know when the spirit will take hold,” adds Jacqué.
The worship in the Holiness meetings is cooperative and “is focused on prayer and praise,” according to Russell. During testimony times, people share specific prayer requests, which are then immediately offered to God by another person. And when seekers are invited to the altar, it never takes long for the place of prayer to overflow.
The San Bernardino Corps operates several social services programs, including a homeless shelter and a feeding program that serves up 250-300 meals a day. The corps also runs a payee program where they pay bills and set up personal budgets for 257 mostly disabled clients using those individual’s Social Security checks. Alcoholics Anonymous and Overcomers Anonymous groups also meet at the corps.
Other activities include Home League, Women’s Auxiliary, Men’s Fellowship, and a weekly Bible study that tries “to get through a book a week,” Russell Fritz explains. There’s also a weekly youth night, complete with Sunbeams, Girl Guards and Adventure Corps. A number of the kids who participate are high risk kids. They’re victims of abuse or have a parent (or parents) addicted to drugs or alcohol. “We’re trying to meet the need at the point of need, which is what the Army was designed to do,” Jacqué Fritz says. “We could stay here until we retire.”