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Barnett and his father, Tommy Barnett of the influential Phoenix (Arizona) First Assembly of God, have long performed illustrated sermons and served the poor and castaway with innovative outreach programs. Tommy Barnett even designed his 20,000-member Phoenix church to resemble Angelus Temple with its two balconies.
Whether behind the pulpit or behind his modest desk in an office overlooking the Dream Center campus, Matthew Barnett is relaxed, fun-loving and focused. He has earned the respect of the people in his neighborhood. (They hug him and call him "Pastor.")
But it wasn't always this way.
Eight years ago he came to Los Angeles to pastor the first AG church born of the Azusa Street revival of the early 1900s. The congregation had dwindled to two dozen elderly Filipinos. For a year Barnett, then 20, tried to start programs designed for suburban churches like those he'd seen succeed in Phoenix, but every effort failed.
The team of people who initially came to help him left in discouragement. Barnett didn't speak Spanish and couldn't communicate with people in the neighborhoods, and hard-edged city life was nothing like his upbringing in Arizona.
He slogged through one more Sunday night service with an attendance of two, then went home and buried his face in his pillow. He was too proud to throw in the towel and too confused to do anything but cry.
That night God reawakened a dream Barnett had had as a boy for a "24-hour church" serving the inner city. He says the Holy Spirit led him on a walk through Echo Park, where he saw gang members in handcuffs, homeless people and pregnant teens. That night he gave up the idea of building a megachurch and committed himself to building a church comprising people from the lowest social rung.
The new approach showed fruit almost immediately, and the congregation outgrew the building. That led to the purchase of the former Queen of Angels Hospital, a dilapidated 14-story building on a 9-acre campus that, through hard work and tireless fund raising, was transformed into a headquarters for more than 200 inner-city ministries.
The Dream Center has helped to revolutionize the Pentecostal movement by pairing a gospel of social action with Spirit-empowered solutions to the problems of drugs, crime and homelessness.
There are now 130 independent Dream Centers in America and dozens more overseas. The original Dream Center's full impact is much greater, considering the numerous churches that have followed the example and added feeding programs, AIDS hospices, thrift stores, and legal and medical counseling.
"For years churches have fled the inner city," Barnett says. "Now they're going back and buying adult bookstores, dance clubs, and having tutoring and counseling, and all these programs.
"A great portion of the church is reshaping their thinking about being relevant to the culture. Even secular people don't disagree that it's right to give to someone in need.
"With that agenda in the church it'll give us a voice to speak on a lot of other issues that before we weren't capable of speaking to. Like Mother Teresa, you earn the right to be heard."
Rolf McPherson, 89, Aimee McPherson's son, is one of Barnett's biggest boosters and says the mantle of ministry on his mother has been passed to Barnett (see related article on page 64).
"We love the way Matthew loves the neighborhood, how they visit people in their homes," McPherson told Charisma when Barnett was named the new pastor. "It reminds me of my mother's ministry because of her love for people. She didn't care where they came from. If the city needed this when my mother was alive, it needs it 10 times as much now."
McPherson has faithfully attended services, sitting on the front row, since Barnett came in November 2001. Longtime members of the Temple agree that their church is on the upturn. Neil McClaflin, 65, attended LIFE Bible college, as did his parents, and he has attended the Temple throughout his life.
"The wonderful thing to me is that Matthew's vision is like the original vision of the Temple, to reach the community," he says. "Sister McPherson went to bars, witnessed to prostitutes. Everyone I know is happy to have Matthew here. We feel this is going back to the roots. Matthew has a special anointing, a drive and a gifting to do the things Sister did."
McClaflin says that age divisions have been erased as the Dream Center crowd blended with Angelus Temple folks.
"One person said to me, 'How can you have a pastor who's 28 years old?' But age is not a factor to me," McClaflin says. "It's wonderful to see people in their 90s and teens enjoying a service.
"I told someone that if I had hair I'd wear it spiked and purple. But the really exciting thing is watching the altar calls, which are so spectacular. People respond to the message and the need to repent."
Paul Risser, president of the ICFG, says the emphasis on compassionate service has been "contagious."
"Through the ministry of Matthew Barnett, Angelus Temple will continue to be a center of a worldwide movement until the return of Jesus Christ," Risser says. "In the days ahead, [Barnett's] philosophy of ministry will be a model which can be reproduced or adapted throughout the Foursquare Church around the world."
On Sunday morning at the Temple, Barnett's sermon, which has kept the place roaring with laughter for the last 25 minutes, draws to a close and with a final prayer a hundred or more people stream to the altar, most of them to experience salvation. Some wear baggy pants, some Dockers, some miniskirts, some dirty overalls. Some wear high heels, tennis shoes or $2 sandals. The band plays "Turn Your Eyes Upon Jesus," and men and women weep openly.
For those who've been here from the start--like Rolf McPherson, praying earnestly on the front row--and to those visiting for the first time, it's a dream come true: the rebirth of a life-giving oasis in a spiritually dry place.
Joel Kilpatrick is a Los Angeles-based writer and a frequent contributor to Charisma.
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