EL CAJON – “We’re way different from any other church I’ve known of,” says Pastor Harold Brown of Christian Fellowship in El Cajon and CEO of the East County Transitional Living Center.
Separated by two non-profit statuses, the entities minister together to radically transform the lives of the formerly homeless in San Diego County.
“We house, feed and clothe 300 to 400 people every day,” Brown said. “My goal is not to build a big church. … We’ve put hundreds and hundreds of disciples in local churches in San Diego.”
What started in 1999 as a Set Free Ministries “biker church,” which added a homeless shelter – it was a mission of Western Hills Church in Poway – evolved over time to a place of refuge and rebirth for people ready to make a positive change by immersing themselves in God’s Word.
The church’s name changed in 2010 to Christian Fellowship – the bikers were gone by then – and East County Transitional Living Center – known as ECTLC – was founded by Brown in 2009.
“(ECTLC) is heaven meeting earth,” said Jim Garlow at the organization’s 10th anniversary, after telling the story of his son’s transformation as a result of his time at ECTLC.
Expressing anger over his mother’s terminal illness had led his son down a bad path, but because he’d gone to ECTLC, Garlow’s son instinctively knew to read the Bible to her during the last hours of her life, he said in one of several videos produced by Edward Anderson (available at facebook.com/ectlc).
David Olivas had been a drug addict for more than 20 years, and homeless, pushing a grocery cart, for half that time, he said, when he entered a year-long program with ECTLC that stretched to two years.
“This program and the pastors there allowed me to get to know God in a way I could understand,” Olivas said. “The pastors, deacons and Bible studies … taught me to shut up and listen for once. I owe God everything.”
John Berg was drawn to ECTLC’s “rural setting, where I could download and get rid of all this crap I had been going through, and just be still.
“Amazing; it’s just amazing ECTLC is there.”
ECTLC is not just for men. It’s also for women at a crossroads in their lives. Dee Dee Olivas had been on a downward slope ever since she was introduced to drugs at 13, she said.
She had tried unsuccessfully several times to clean herself up, and then she found ECTLC, where “I had nothing to worry about other than getting to know God, letting Him fix my problems,” Olivas said. “It was the spiritually most productive thing I ever could have done for myself.”
Christian Fellowship on Sunday mornings seems to be a typical Southern Baptist congregation that meets in a converted restaurant. Not so apparent is that all the leaders have recovered from addictions and home-lessness.
They each stayed for a time at the adjacent motel, the former Fabulous 7, which was converted in 2009 to the 101-unit housing center for ECTLC. But that’s just for phases 2, 3 and 4 of year-long programs for men, women and families, with each phase lasting 90 days.
First phase, three months at training center
The first phase takes place at “the training center,” 12 acres owned by San Diego Southern Baptist Association in the rural community of Dulzura, north of the Mexican border.
“This is where up to 80 men will spend their first three months in the program, free from the temptations of life,” according to www.ectlc.org. “They are taught to take responsibility for their poor choices and, through the leading of the Spirit of God, they can now say ‘No’ to these temptations. After three months the disciple is eligible to move into the Transitional Living Center in El Cajon.”
There is no cost for those without income. For those with income, “We require one-third program fee, a third into savings, and a third to tithe and personal needs,” Brown said.
ECTLC’s rules and requirements are stringent: no smoking anywhere on the property, and no leaving the property; plus no drinking, drugs, appointments of any kind or contact with anyone outside the program – not even telephone calls – for the first 90 days. All that’s allowed is Bible study – five or six classes a day on different aspects of biblical teaching – and work, such as clearing brush and chopping down trees.
Call it what you will – detox, healing, sweat therapy, biblical immersion – successful completion of the first 90 days leads to a move to ECTLC’s transitional living center, near downtown El Cajon, where programs are available for men, women and families.
“Our first goal is to introduce them to Christ; then we disciple them for a year or more,” Brown said. “Some families are with us for three years until they transition into life as productive members of the Kingdom of God and society.
“We are a Southern Baptist ministry and just to say that gives us credibility, gives us standing in the community,” the pastor/CEO continued. “My long-term goal is to help others in communities across the nation do what we do.”
Immersing in the Bible
Bible immersion remains a constant through each of the three 90-day phases of the year-long program at ECTLC.
“At the (rural) training center we have five or six, one-hour Bible training studies a day,” Brown said. “In three to four weeks, they’ve had 50 Bible studies, and make a decision if they want to be baptized.”
Christian Fellowship baptized 75 people last year, and 1,172 since 2005, according to their Annual Church Profile.
“These aren’t empty decisions,” Brown said. “We put people through weeks and weeks of Bible studies and then give them the opportunity to make a profession of faith in Christ. Only then do we baptize them.
“Our one-year program is equal to 20 years of Sunday school,” Brown continued. “Add it up: five to six Bible studies a day and three church services a week; its intensive Bible immersion and discipleship.”
In addition, during the last three phases each participant is required to read five chapters of the Bible each week, plus write a summary of the chapters and make personal application of the passage of scripture.
“We find out pretty quickly if they can read and write,” Brown said with a grin. “Our goal is not only to get them saved, baptized and walking in the Spirit; it’s also to get them working.”
To that end, GED study is provided in a partnership with the Foothills Adult Education Center and the Grossmont School District; and the East County Posse, a local non-profit, pays $140 for each person’s testing.
“We started the GED program about two years ago, and have graduated close to 50, all of whom got jobs or have gone on to continued education,” Brown said.
Second phase and third phase – street witnessing, evangelism and work
In addition to immersion in biblical studies, the second phase involves street witnessing, evangelism and odd jobs around the center. The third phase includes working concessions at a local stadium to get people used to dressing for work, dealing appropriately with customers and supervisors, and being responsible for their duties. Job search is the focus of the fourth phase.
“We are a work program,” Brown said. “If you come to us, you have to be able to work.” While Christian Fellowship does have a Monday evening worship service for the developmentally disabled, entry to its programs is not for people with mental illness or those unable for whatever reason to work.
ECTLC gives out 15 to 20 food boxes a week to low-income people in the community. Currently, 64 families and 90 children are onsite, plus 70 single men and 50 women, in addition to the 100 at the rural location. As part of its “works” program in partnership with city entities, streets stay clean, fire hazards are cleared, and those who are homeless are helped to find places to go that fit with their needs.
“It’s an amazing thing God has done here,” Brown said. “We feed over 300,000 meals a year. We have a budget of $1.5 million for three facilities. It’s really a lifesaving ministry, and we are really grassroots.”
“We’re way different from any other church I’ve known of,” says Pastor Harold Brown of Christian Fellowship in El Cajon and CEO of the East County Transitional Living Center.
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