Preaching Prosperity 

Acts Full Gospel has become the largest church in Oakland. But its parishioners have found more than God - they've found the suburbs.

Life in the residential blocks east of the corner of 66th Avenue and San Leandro Street moves to a slow, languid rhythm, the torpor of unemployment and dependency. The Coliseum Gardens project squats next to industrial lots where steam shovels pick at mounds of rubble and smashed boards; its windows are pockmarked with plywood. Across the street, a six-foot-high iron gate seals off the access road to the Lockwood Gardens project, stanching the crack trade but teaching a hard lesson to the children who grow up in its shadow. This is disputed territory; a turf war has broken out between the 65th Avenue gang and the 69th Avenue gang, and with 28 murders so far this year, Oakland's homicide rate has jumped far ahead of last year's rate at this time. When Acts Full Gospel Church of God in Christ bought the land that houses its headquarters and sanctuary eight years ago, the contractors recommended building a forty-foot-high Plexiglas shield to ward off stray bullets. After all, the church's altar abuts the Coliseum Gardens courtyard. But Pastor Bob Jackson would have none of it. If the last eighteen years are any indication, God has a plan for Acts Full Gospel, and it doesn't include Tec-9 rounds whizzing through Sunday service.

Back in 1994, the land that comprises Acts Full Gospel were occupied by a vast complex of warehouses that stored cotton until container ships hauled it to the ports of Asia. Jackson tore down all but one of the buildings, and now a sea of gray asphalt, interrupted by open-air irrigation culverts and medians of white and maroon pebbles, confronts visitors who drive through the chain-link fence. Come Sunday morning, every inch of this lot will be needed for an army of parishioners' cars and the special van ministry that picks up the church's homebound faithful. Every week, no fewer than six thousand people assemble in the last standing warehouse, which serves as the church sanctuary, to shout their joy in the Lord in two shifts of three thousand. The church has since commissioned blueprints for an even newer revival hall on this very site, with a capacity of five thousand.

Twenty years ago, there was no such church. Now, Acts Full Gospel has twice as many parishioners as Allen Temple, the traditional epicenter of Oakland's black social influence and political power. And just as Allen Temple's aging congregation embodies that church's waning influence, the youthful vigor of Acts Full Gospel speaks of a new era on Oakland's horizon -- one in which "Pastor Bob" will be first among equals in the city's black ministry. The church boasts City Councilmember Larry Reid and Republican celebrity politico Shannon Reeves among its worshipers, and recently received another sign that its time has finally come: a donation of twenty new computers, a check for $7,500, and a pool table from state Senator and local kingmaker Don Perata, who couldn't have made his intentions more clear if he sent flowers and candy.

But the church's cavernous sanctuary reflects none of its dominance. Acts Full Gospel comes out of the Pentecostal tradition, and the warehouse has all the trappings of a revival movement -- which is to say, no trappings at all. No saints or hieratic mosaics adorn the walls, and you won't find a single cross in the building. A different type of stagecraft characterizes Bob Jackson's ministry: the miracle of the soundboard and the spotlight, the speakers that hang from the pillars, and the movie screens that flash his oversized image on either side of the pulpit. It's the only way to reach the back seats, and as the band warmed up one recent Sunday morning, it was clear that each one of those seats would soon have a soul straining to glimpse the Lord's majesty.

"Hallelujah, this is our call to worship Jesus!" The band kicked into a gospel tune, and the first four hundred congregants rose to their feet and clapped in time as four choir members belted a song of greeting into the mikes. Along the aisles, female ushers wore black dresses, white gloves, and a frosty solemnity, pacing past the offertory's popcorn buckets and stacks of fans bearing ads for a black adoption service. Two keyboardists, a pair of sax players, and the drummer kept things tight while a sign-language interpreter gestured the hymn's pitch and cadence for the deaf parishioners to the side. As the song swelled to a conclusion, her arms undulated through the syllables with a music of their own. The crowd already had a lather on, and it was only a quarter to noon.

As one of Jackson's assistants began the morning's first prayer, the ushers moved to block the sanctuary's entrance. It's bad form to walk into church during the prayer, and hundreds of latecomers steadily assembled behind the ushers' bodies, sporting everything from African dashikis, to blue jeans and work boots, to electric blue suits complete with shoulder pads.

Perhaps you will forgive them their tardiness; after all, the commute must have been murder. In the first tenuous years of Acts Full Gospel's existence, its congregation was a small collection of hard-luck working stiffs, floating on and off welfare and struggling with all the social problems of persistent poverty. But over the last eighteen years, through a combination of hard work, a very demanding pastor, and an incrementally rising economic tide that finally has begun to give African Americans decent jobs, hundreds of them have built a new, middle-class life. They have scrimped and saved down payments, taken out mortgages, and become homeowners -- but not in Oakland. Pastor Bob Jackson now estimates that fully half of his congregation lives in homes they own themselves in the tract subdivisions of Hayward, Antioch, or even Sacramento.

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