Nan: A quick drive across Fresno, and it’s easy to see the difference from one end to the other.
Karen: And people say there’s nothing to do here. That’s not true.
Nan: To many, it’s the home of California’s thriving agriculture industry. To others, it’s a big city struggling with a rising crime rate and a less than desirable reputation.
[Video – Source: Youtube.com.ABCNews]
Female News Anchor: It’s been a violent week in Fresno.
[Video – Source: Youtube.com.ABCNews]
Dispatch: We just got another call in with six shots fired.
[Video – Source: Youtube.com.ABCNews]
Female News Anchor: Shaking the city of Fresno to its core.
Ben: This neighborhood is not the greatest of neighborhoods. They used to be 25 years ago. It used to be a great neighborhood.
Nan: But despite all of that, what is it that makes this place home to so many?
Raman: Fresno has I believe over 500,000 people, and that’s a lot of people in Fresno. We have so many people here that don’t know the truth.
Nan: I’m Nan Zapanta. As an industrial designer, I spent years admiring the great designs of products, vehicles, and architecture from all over the world. But I’ve found architecture to be the most captivating. I love learning about each building, discovering the characteristics that make it unique, and understanding the purpose behind its design. Most of all, I love hearing the stories behind each structure and seeing God’s plan and putting it all together. Join us as we discover the blueprints of the buildings and structures inside the Iglesia Ni Cristo.
Nan: Before the trip here, I really wanted to research more about Fresno. I kinda want to know what is it that keeps them here? Because we are smack dab in the center of the state of California.
Nan: I figured the best place to stop by is a farmers market right in the middle of the city.
I met Karen De Souza, one of the longtime vendors at the vineyard farmers market.
Nan: What makes Fresno special?
Karen: Oh gosh, we’re just close to everything as far as going to Yosemite and Sequoia and the coast and [it’s] such a nice family location. Everybody knows each other. [Everyone] watches out for the little kids.
Nan: Right. Right.
Nan: Today, the Central Valley’s farming industry produces one-quarter of the United States food, including 40% of the country’s fruits, nuts, and other foods, earning it the nickname, “The land of a billion vegetables.”
Nan: But in the 1950s, this place represented only one thing too many who moved here, opportunity.
Robert: And I came over to the United States when I was like eight or nine.
Nan: During that time, thousands of farmworkers from Mexico had already begun migrating to the Central Valley. Among them was Robert’s parents, who were originally from Mexico City.
Robert: They thought that we have a better life here, you know because the economy is better here.
Nan: Just nine at the time, Robert imagined his new home to look much like the images of New York City that he had seen.
Robert: And then when I got up, we came in like in a bus and then we… you know, we passed through all these vineyards of grapes, and I’m thinking like, is this The United States, nothing but dirt?
Nan: As a kid, and you remember your dad working? Like at the grape vineyards and stuff? Did you realize like…
Robert: Because I really didn’t like it. I didn’t like working in the field. That’s why my father told me, “You better go to school and finish school. Otherwise, you’re gonna be stuck doing this.” And I thought, “Oh, no, I’m not gonna do this.”
Nan: You didn’t want to work at the vineyard?
Robert: It’s too hot. That’s why a lot of people are telling their kids to finish school.
Nan: While it wasn’t what he expected. The Central Valley had become home to Robert and his family.
Robert: And we weren’t rich or anything, but we had everything that we needed.
Robert: Yeah. Except the only thing [was] we didn’t have was God.
Nan: In 1965, the U.S. passed the Immigration and Naturalization Act, which abolished an earlier quota system based on national origin and established a new immigration policy, attracting skilled labor to the United States. Among those that would come to the U.S. were teachers from the Philippines, including Anacleta Soriano or Lety for short.
Lety: I was teaching in Quezon city before, and then somebody just told me that I cannot teach in America, so I was challenged. So I went to the embassy– U.S. Embassy.
Nan: Her visa was immediately approved. However, as it turns out, that was the easy part.
Lety: The people here were saying, “Why did she get that job?” And I said, “I don’t know.” [They said,] “Why do you make more money than I do?” I said, “I don’t know; I did not hire myself.” It was prejudism. [They said] “Why did they hire that Filipina? Does she know how to speak English?”
Nan: Lety’s fiery determination helped her not only as she struggled in her career, but in holding on to her faith as a member of the Church of Christ.
Lety: If there is no worship service, I did not come here [to the U.S.]. But there is a worship service. So I don’t want to miss any worship service because I…we do not miss worship service. If we don’t have my money over in the Philippines before, we walk[ed to the worship services.] So that’s how it is.
Nan: In 1969, the Iglesia Ni Cristo only had a handful of worship services in California, including San Francisco and Los Angeles.
Nan: From Fresno to Stockton to San Francisco for worship service. How long is that drive about?
Lety: Around four hours, [during] that time.
Nan: One way?
Lety: One way, yes.
Nan: She would continue to make the drive with her family after they followed her to the U.S.
With the combination of thick valley fog and scantily lit roads, driving in the Central Valley can make any drive difficult. So I can’t even imagine what it must have been like to do the four-hour drive weekly with a car full of kids. But not wanting to let that hinder their ability to attend worship services, Lety even considered moving her family closer and sought the advice of a Minister of the Gospel.
Lety: I asked him, “I can apply in San Francisco if that’s the problem.” And then he said, “No, stay there because that’s where some of the local[congregations] will come up.” And he was right.
Nan: So we’re here in Del Ray, which is actually about 10 to 15 miles outside of Fresno. This is a really special place because this is where the first place that the brethren of Fresno gathered to worship. It’s the house of the Soriano family. Actually, you can see it here.
It’s this orange house.
Nan: For five years, the small congregation would worship at this house until the Church of Christ purchased its first property in Fresno, a halfway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco. A fact that brought Greg Murray, a New York native to the city.
Greg: And we decided to get married. And we picked Fresno because my wife has both sides of the family. Sort of like the meeting point for everybody.
Nan: He and I met the very spot the first Fresno worship buildings stood.
Nan: I thought we were meeting at the chapel, but I don’t see a chapel.
Greg: Actually, this is formally the place where we had our chapel.
Nan: Oh, really? So this whole plot of land right here was where?
Greg: Well pretty much as far back with the buildings back there now actually, there used to be some apartments.
Nan: Brother Reuel del Rosario, a Minister of the Gospel with a background in engineering, was assigned to Fresno at the time.
This was when structural problems were discovered in the old worship building.
Brother Reuel: I would inspect the chapel grounds and the chapel, and we happen to go up into the attic area where we inspected the roof trusses to see if there were any damages or rotten wood or missing pieces of wood. And that’s when we discovered that there were cracked roof trusses and roof beams. And some were actually missing.
Nan: Roof trusses help hold up the roof of the building, as well as give the roof its shape.
Brother Reuel: And we were afraid at the time that being such an old building as it was and the wear and tear, eventually it would start to fail.
Nan: The situation forced the congregation to begin renting a hall for the meantime, while repairs to the chapel would be made.
Brother Reuel: We thought, how are we going to solve this? And how much money would it cost to repair or possibly replace whatever might be wrong with the chapel? And being an old chapel as it was, we did make canvases, and it was very expensive.
Nan: While this was a struggle for the congregation, looking back at it now, Brother Reuel sees it as preparation for what would come next for the congregation.
Brother Reuel: Because God has the best plan for the Church.
Nan: In 2011, the congregation received a notice that the city of Fresno would be taking over the property on Hamilton Street, forcing the congregation to move once again.
Greg: So, with that happening, then we went across the street here to Sequoia Middle School. It didn’t really feel like a really good place to have a worship service.
Nan: After some time searching, the congregation was able to find a new property to purchase, opening a new chapter for the congregation. Many like Greg, who had made a home in Fresno, witnessed as the city tore down the building that had come to mean so much to them.
Greg: It was kind of sad to see it, but then realize we are moving on. We’re not taking a step backward, [and] we’re taking positive steps forward.
Nan: Right, right. With the whole eminent domain, people would be like, they would kind of see that as a negative thing that might have happened.
Greg: Pretty much, that’s why I say it’s unfortunate, but we’re in a better place now because God showed us this place.
Nan: Before moving into the building on Palm Avenue. The building had to be brought up to code before it could undergo a complete renovation and redesign.
Francis: After measuring and getting all the data, I have to put it on the computer like a drawing. So I have a base drawing to work with.
Nan: Francis Villafria, a licensed architect and a member of the Fresno congregation got the chance to work with a principal architect of the building, and to help with bringing the aging building up to code.
What part is this one?
Francis: This is the one that’s over the choir loft. In the original design, the ceiling on the spot is lower.
Nan: I see. And so this was the challenging part.
Francis: Yeah, because in the beginning, there was a baptistry, and they’re all masonry concrete. So we have to remove it.
Nan: The baptistry was demolished, and the ceiling lifted about three feet to accommodate the dressing rooms behind what would be the choir loft. Once that was complete, a new choir loft was built and completed with a new podium area.
I noticed also on one side I think I remember seeing there’s a lift.
Francis: Oh, right here and again, that’s the building compliance again for the choir loft. And there’s a lift right there.
Nan: To transform the exterior of the building into an Iglesia Ni Cristo structure, a second tower was added, creating [an] asymmetrically designed building. Each tower was completed with the addition of spires, the tallest point of the entire structure. While the main entrance was preserved, an overhang was added to the facade. Traditional moldings were added, which were completed with the addition of the Iglesia Ni Cristo seal and a nameplate.
I met up later again with Greg this time at the new worship building in Fresno.
One thing I noticed is it’s huge. It’s like it’s a massive chapel, especially when you compare the pictures to the old the previous way we were.
Greg: Sure, it is.
Nan: Well, how many of the old houses of worship? Do you think you can fit into this new one?
Greg: Probably three or four, at least three or four.
Nan: This is beautiful.
Greg: If you turn around and look over your right shoulder, that’s heading towards the parking lot. That’s pretty much the same. Not too much changes too. But this is completely different. This is different. This is completely different.
Nan: Greg is now a deacon and can often be found spending his time helping care for the worship building.
Do you remember the first time that you walked in here like what was the feeling that you had?
Greg: I was just totally amazed to see it upon its completion.
Nan: The renovation completely transformed the interior of the building by adding the unique Iglesia Ni Cristo designed moldings and brand new pews. The building’s original windows were kept to allow for natural light to stream inside the building. Which coupled with the grand chandeliers and LED lights on the ceiling and choir loft area, complemented the bright sanctuary of the building. Once that was complete, a new three-row choir loft was built and completed with a new podium area.
Greg: Even until this day, sometimes I’ll just look up, and I’ll say, “Wow, look at this great blessing we have for such a big chapel.”
Nan: After months of renovation. The worship building was dedicated to God on December 28, 2013. In the worship service led by the executive minister, Brother Eduardo V. Manalo, the very first pastoral visit to Central California. Members from all parts of the country came to witness the day.
Greg: It was just running around doing a lot of things, but you know, come that day, everything was nice and calm. And it was really a great blessing for us that Brother Eduardo was here that day.
Nan: How does that make you feel knowing that you’re here in Fresno, which is a relatively smaller city compared to L.A., San Francisco. But even in this small corner of the world, you guys are part of such a big presence in the Church.
Robert: Yeah, it makes you feel good. You have the opportunity to try to invite people just to come and listen. And I’d like to show them around our chapel because it’s so beautiful.
Nan: The current house of worship is a far cry from when Robert was first introduced to the church in the late 1970s.
Robert: It was in their garage. They had some benches, and that was the Church.
Nan: As we drove around Fresno, we talked about the transformation of the city and the growth of the congregation. Seeing it from a sleepy farm town to a big city and what his hopes are now for the congregation and for their new community.
Robert: My mother-in-law and my wife say, “Well, sometimes God puts chapels in the poorest sections of the city because maybe that’s why the people are more likely to go or maybe they needed more.” And I thought, “Yeah, you’re right. Whatever God gives us, that’s good enough for us.”
Nan: It’s really cool that it shows there’s a lot of thought. They really did a lot of planning.
Robert: Like I said, it took about a year of construction.
Nan: but what does it mean to you? What does a house of worship mean to you?
Robert: It just strengthens me as I come to the worship service. So I look forward to coming to it every week.
Nan: And then looking around to see where it is now today. What does that make you feel?
Robert: We progressed a lot. We’ve come from a very small chapel into this huge chapel. And it really means that we’re really doing the work of God.
Nan: A few hours after the last of the police sirens are heard, just a few streets away, the neighborhood around palm Avenue is quiet, except for this.
Among them is Raman Rhandawa, a structural engineer who moved to Fresno from India when he was just ten years old.
Nan: You were able to see a lot of the growth of the congregation here in Fresno.
Introduced to the Church of Christ at a young age. Raman spent a good amount of his youth at the first worship building of the Church of Christ in Fresno,
Raman: The love from the brethren insists, and I don’t experience that in many parts of my life outside of the church. Some other brethren said, “hey, you need anything, you need help, you know, we’re here for you.” And also investing and taking the time, reading books with me when I first got here, and also learning hard work. I remember at the old chapel we would have general cleaning.
Raman: So as a kid you don’t like cleaning, but then you have to pull some weeds and things like that and that’s great. When you get to be an adult, there’s some other stuff you have to do, which is work.
Nan: You need to get a little dirty. And because of those great experiences has that shaped the way that you interact with people?
Raman: Everything I learned growing up kind of shaped the person I am. The teachings that we get from Bible studies, worship services, and they see that too– the way you conduct yourself, they see a difference that they don’t see.
Nan: What are your hopes for Fresno and the future of this congregation?
Raman: Fresno has, I believe, over 500,000 people to invite and share our faith because there’s a lot of people here that can be reached.
Nan: Standing at the corner of the residential area. The new worship building stands out, calling out to all those that pass by on the busy thoroughfare.
Justin: Coming down here, actually coming down the street my first time here, I’m like, “Is that ours? Is that the church? Is that the church we’re going to?” And then I see this big one I’m like, “Oh my gosh, that’s a big [chapel].”
Nan: Justin and Jomar Davis have not always been from Fresno, originally from St. Louis, Missouri. They had moved to California with hopes of living the California dream.
Justin: I thought it was gonna be like that L.A. kind of vibe. Nice wind, cool, the sunlight, the sun’s out. Obviously, it’s gonna be beautiful outside. I came, and it smelled like a desert. Like I thought, it was California.
Nan: But while they’re still working on that California dream, they found something in Fresno they didn’t expect, the Church of Christ.
Justin: Because I was–when I was in Missouri, I was just into the schooling, college, work– I moved here, and literally my life changed. Like it just flipped. It was for the better.
These brothers may look like your typical college students, managing part-time jobs, going to school, hanging out with their friends. But now on the top of their list is sharing their faith.
And even as a Bible student, I was invited to my friend’s house, I was like, “Oh come because I’m a Bible student, you should be a Bible student too.” And their first impression every time they come in, they’re like, “Wow, this, this place is pretty.”
Jomar: Like you see the outside, you see how big it is? Especially when you’re down this road?
That’s like one of the first things you see. And then I’m just like if you want to, you see the outside, you want to see the inside? Come on in.
Nan: And why is it important for you guys to do that?
Justin: But for me, it’s always been like a safe haven no matter what.
Jomar: There’s a lot of things that go around here. But when I’m in the chapel, I don’t feel like I’m in any danger. As soon as I’m in the parking lot, and I’m here serving our Almighty God, and it’s always been a place that feels like my whole self. That’s why we try so hard to share it so that people can learn, and then they can come in too. They get the same opportunity we got—the same chance to be saved.
Nan: You guys put it; you couldn’t have put it better. That’s awesome, both of you.
Fresno is currently a city in transition. And as it works to reinvent itself, the building on Palm Avenue is already helping make that change possible.
Ben: Honestly, it’s the change for the best.
Nan: Ben Lopez has seen the building transform since his family moved to the neighborhood in 1974.
Ben: I’ve seen this church change from a church [to a] funeral home to a church again.
Nan: What did you notice most as far as from the changes?
Ben: First thing I noticed that really stuck out was when they put up the fence. Oh, and I loved it.
Nan: Ever since we arrived in Fresno. The crew and I have talked about the fence around the perimeter of the chapel. But while we were looking at it from the inside, we didn’t realize its impact to those living around it until talking to Ben.
Ben: My brother was a retired detective. But all his coworkers, they would park right there in the parking lot and keep an eye on everything.
Nan: So that’s what they’re just gonna scope out the community?
Ben: And once the fence went up, it feels great not parking there no more.
Nan: Well, that’s what they said?
Ben: Yeah, because you don’t have to worry about people coming and doing burnouts. You don’t have to worry about people constantly trying to come through the parking lot because that was a big, big problem.
Nan: It kind of disrupts the functions that are going on inside.
Ben: It made the parishioners feel uncomfortable. This neighborhood is not the greatest of neighborhoods.
Nan: You hit it spot on everything that you said, even the one thing you said about pride. This being your neighborhood, having pride in your neighborhood, and we’re hoping that this can give you just a bit more pride. Hopefully, this is the beginning of the neighborhood on an upswing,
Ben: It is on an upswing; it just is taking time. Yeah, it’s taking time. That’s the thing. It does take time.
Nan: Going to a new place, looking it up online, it’s easy to be caught up with what we see on the surface. But meeting these individuals here in Fresno and learning about the journey they’ve taken in finding this worship building on Palm Avenue is proof of one thing. God’s plans are always better. We just have to be patient to see it.
Ben: I know it took almost two years if I’m right. And the final outcome is what we have now. I mean, I’m proud to have it in my neighborhood. People here take pride in it, and it’s a big thing.
Nan: It’s been another great trip here in Fresno. Thanks for joining us on this episode of Blueprint, wherein the end, everything is part of God’s plan.
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