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“A church for Ken-Tal,” read the glossy cardboard flyer that arrived in my mailbox. The usual photos of lovely, multiethnic churchgoers were accompanied by the less usual word “skeptical.” Ah. Going for the affluent intellectual sophisticates of Kensington and Talmadge. But, hello — services in the Hoover High School auditorium? That’s City Heights. What are these folks up to?

“Buenos dias,” said Pastor Edgardo Avila as he opened the (bilingual) service at Harbor Mid-City. “Good morning!” echoed Pastor Stephen Phelan. “Stand with me now as we move into God’s presence and worship a God who is here with us and has come to transform our hearts through praise.”

The band — drums, bongos, bass, keyboard, and a man on the woodwinds — busted into a rolling ’70s groove. “Your faithfulness is so great/ Your faithfulness is incomparable/ No one is like you, my blessed God.... Tu fidelidad es grande/ Tu fidelidad incomparable es/Nadie como tu, bendito Dios....”

The Spanish-speaking segment of the congregation filed out to hear the message in Spanish, and Phelan preached to those who remained. “This morning, we’re going to be in Luke, and we’re going to talk about one of the big sticking points — hell. People who are wrestling with the claims of Christianity say, ‘How can there be a loving God who would fling people into hell?’... The answer we’re going to get from our text is, ‘People end up in hell because they choose hell.’ I know that’s really counterintuitive, so let’s look at our text.” “Skeptical...”

The story was about Lazarus the beggar and the rich man. “The rich man doesn’t want anything to do with Lazarus.... He’s coming out of his extremely nice house and looking at a guy whom dogs are taking chunks out of. For him, to get involved meant that he would have to get into the mess of life. And let me just make a little aside: throughout Luke...the rich man misses the Gospel and the poor man gets the Gospel. Why? Because wealthy people can write a check for life.... The notion is, you don’t need God because you can make things happen.... Here at Harbor...we need the poor man in the parable to help us as a church to get the Gospel, to help us learn about who we are.... Those in the streets know that they’re broken, they’re weak, and they’re needy. That’s the fundamental condition that God wants us to be in. We’re seeking to be a bridge church, bringing together the rich and the poor.”

Getting back to his point, Phelan noted that the rich man, once he had died and gone to hell, didn’t ask to go to heaven. He asked to have Lazarus come down and bring him water. “He says, ‘Send that beggar to me!’ He thinks he’s still in charge.” To explain, Phelan quoted G.K. Chesterton: “Hell is God’s great compliment to the reality of human freedom.” There are people who reject God all their life, and at the end of their life, God says, ‘Thy will be done.’ God’s not going to force himself on people.”

But what about hellfire and torment? Phelan cited C.S. Lewis’s account of the way a sin — say, grumbling — becomes ingrained and eventually identified with a person, to the point where, in eternity, “‘there will be no you left...just the grumble itself, going on and on forever, like a machine.’ That’s what hell is — when those hellish character traits burn for the rest of our lives and become who we are. The rich man no longer exists as a person; he has become pride and arrogance embodied.”

Phelan called on the faithful to offer up the prayers of the faithful. For the church: “We pray that the church would be able to draw people closer to you, instead of repelling people, making them angry with you and with faith.” For San Diego, especially its college students: “For moral purity — the age is not friendly to Christianity.” For the world: “We ask that we would be able to reach to the homeless, to the hungry, to the drug addicts, to those we don’t want to reach out to. Christ never was a person to shy away from people.”

The Spanish-speaking contingent returned for the Lord’s Supper — “the gathering of God’s family.” Phelan encouraged those who had not committed themselves to Christ to refrain from receiving, “not because we want to exclude you...but because Jesus set this meal up as a way for His body to feed spiritually on Him.”

What happens when we die?

“There are people who want to be with Jesus,” said Phelan, “and they put their trust in Him, and their heart is aligned with Him, and so they spend eternity with Him. There are people who have rejected Jesus, and they don’t want to be with Him, and so they spend eternity apart from Him.”

Harbor Church Mid City
Denomination: Presbyterian Church USA
Address: 4474 El Cajon Boulevard, City Heights, 619-955-6718
Founded locally: September 2007
Senior pastor: Stephen Phelan/Edgardo Avila
Congregation size: 130
Staff size: 4
Sunday school enrollment: 40
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: singles community group
Dress: mostly casual, some semiformal
Diversity: very diverse
Sunday worship: 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Website: harbormidcity.org

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