Pastor Misael Zaragoza was a Navy Seal in the Vietnam War, and it was his idea to hold a patriotic celebration service, which bore a strong military emphasis. But it opened with straightforward praise: Eddie Zellars and the band (two keyboards, bass, drums, bongos) booming at top volume from the get-go. Often, the backup chorus -- five women and one man -- carried the melody while Zellars surrounded their voices with blasts of song. "GREAT GOD AL-MIGHTY... God Al-mighty... HE IS THE LORD OF GLORY... Lord of Glory... AND I'M SO GLAD TO KNOW...that you have called me friend." Half an hour in, assistant pastor James Herrera took the podium and urged the congregation to lift their hands to God. "If you are free indeed, if you have God's spirit, go ahead. Don't look around, look up!" Then he said, "Today we're celebrating...men and women...who have given their lives for this thing we call freedom. But I'll tell you one thing: unless God has set you free on the inside, then there is something binding you. Today, you are in the best place because the greatest liberator is here. The word of God says if you are free in Him, you are free indeed."
Co-pastor Ezekiel Rodriguez stepped up and told the congregation, "I received an e-mail from an evangelist in China, and they had to hide in a basement so that 50 people could have the liberty to worship God. We're here to celebrate that we live in a country where we have the liberty to lift our hands to the Lord!"
Five graying men in olive uniforms and burgundy berets marched in half-step down the aisle. Two bore rifles, one an American flag, one the flag of the Airborne Honor Guard. The fifth man marched behind and carried a bugle. At the head of the aisle, the honor guard turned, faced the congregation, and presented arms. A children's choir -- about 40 strong and dressed in various combinations of red, white, and blue -- filed onto the stage and sang the National Anthem.
The guard parted, and two drill sergeants marched up the aisle, carrying the flags of the U.S. and California. One led the congregation in the Pledge of Allegiance, the other in the Pledge of Christian Allegiance: "I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands, one Savior, crucified, risen, and coming again, with life and liberty to all who believe."
The choir departed, and as the bugler played taps, a sailor in dress whites carried a red, white, and blue wreath up to the stage. Behind him processed three women, two of them carrying flags in triangular cases. The sailor prayed: "When all the answers we are offered fail the questions that death asks each of us, we believe that you will provide for us.... 'Blessed are those who are mourning, for they are comforted.' Lord God, hold our troops in your loving arms.... Bless them and their families for the selfless act they perform for us in a time of need." After the guard marched back down the aisle, a slideshow displayed images of soldiers from the congregation, past and present.
A younger man offered a prayer that thanked God for the Founding Fathers' fear of the Lord, apologized for national sins (racial prejudices, gender biases), thanked God for earthly blessings and the Pentecostal movement, and promised to fight against "the degeneration of society through worldly practices and selfish ambitions.... We choose one nation, under God, with liberty and justice for all. Let Thy will be done in America as it is in heaven."
Pastor Zaragoza's sermon praised "unknown heroes" -- military and otherwise, religious and otherwise -- that we often "neglect to mention." He mentioned them, and the congregation applauded as he did so. "I believe God is raising up America to be a light among the nations," he proclaimed, "because we were founded on biblical principles, and we still believe in God Almighty. God will always bless this country, as long as we don't deviate from the principles. He has given us the Bible, the book of truth." And he exhorted the young: "Who will be the heroes of tomorrow?... I want a free country for my children! I want my grandkids to be able to preach the Gospel!"
What happens when we die?
"When you die, you are responsible for your choices," says Zaragoza. "God made man to have a relationship with Him," but also, "he gave him the privilege of choice. You either receive the blessings of your choices or the consequence of your choices. We are on this earth to choose one of two things: to live eternally or not to live eternally. Jesus said, 'He that believeth in me, though he dies, he shall live, for I am the way, the life, and the resurrection.'"
125 Palm Avenue, National City
Founded locally: 1961
Senior pastor: Misael Zaragoza
Congregation size: 540
Staff size: 7
Sunday school enrollment: 225
Annual budget: $700,000 -- covers church, charter school, and senior center
Weekly giving: around $13,500
Singles program: no
Dress: Dressy -- lots of suits and ties and dresses. Nearly all women wore mantillas, "as a symbol of respect."
Diversity: 80 percent Hispanic, some African-American, a smattering of others
Sunday worship: English service, 9 a.m.; Traditional service, 11:30 a.m.; Spanish service, 1:30 p.m.
Length of reviewed service: 2 hours, 15 minutes