Pastor Gary Mortara was aiming for a professional golf career when he got the call, and it wasn’t on his cell phone. He remembers the moment vividly.
“I was sitting in a house in Alameda with my four buddies, watching a Raiders game and, basically, partying,” Mortara recalled in a recent interview in his office above the main sanctuary at Foursquare Church in San Leandro.
“Something came over me and I said, ‘I need to leave. I need to go to church.’ And they looked at me and said, ‘Church? What are you saying?’”
Mortara was 22 years old, and though he had been raised in a devout Christian home, he had only been to church occasionally — “out of religious guilt,” he said — since age 16.
Athletic, good-looking and well-to-do, it seemed Mortara had everything he needed.
“On the outside everybody would say I was a pretty successful guy: I had cash, I had cars, I had ladies. But there was just an emptiness. And I knew it was God,” he said.
Mortara left that Monday night football gathering in the fall of 1980 and went straight to the All Nations Pentecostal Prayer Clinic, a small church in North Oakland where his father, a devout Christian, had worshipped. During the service, the pastor asked the attendees which of them wanted to give their lives to the Lord.
“And I walked down to the front and cried for like 20 minutes,” Mortara said. “And that was it. Guys don’t cry. But the love of God is a pretty powerful thing.”
Today, Mortara leads one of the largest churches in San Leandro, one whose rapid growth, thanks largely to Mortara’s charismatic leadership, has landed it in a with the city.
Since taking the reins nearly 18 years ago, Mortara, 52, has turned Faith Fellowship from a nearly bankrupt, neighborhood church with a shrinking 65-person congregation (over one-third of them children) into a 2,000-member strong, media-savvy megachurch.
Mortara’s reach stretches well beyond San Leandro: His sermons are broadcast on television and cable in the Bay Area, Chicago and Las Vegas, as well as on the Internet, with a viewership of between 200,000 and 300,000 people weekly, according to Mortara.
Just what is Mortara’s secret? A look at the man and his church sheds light on why Mortara's flock continues to grow, and why he’s willing to fight the city until he gets a new church.
Sunday Morning at Faith Fellowship
Keyboard chords and a rainmaker, a simple percussion instrument, set the scene for the opening prayer at a recent mid-Sunday morning service. The rest of the church band, which included an electric guitar player in a red Hawaiian shirt and musicians on keyboard, drum set, congas and violin, slowly picked up the tune.
As the beat quickened, song lyrics appeared on two large screens at the front of the sanctuary. A five-person choir led the audience, moving across the front stage and gesturing like pop stars as they sang into cordless microphones.
Audience members began to stand up and sway to the rhythm, some with moves and gusto more often associated with a Saturday night concert than a church service.
“When the spirit comes upon my heart, I will dance like David danced,” the crowd sang along. Unable to resist, a young boy started shyly clapping his hands and stomping his feet, head down.
The performance took up a good chunk of the hour- and 45-minute service. When the music ended, ushers sent trays piled with bits of crackers and thimble-sized shots of grape juice down the aisles for communion.
Faith Fellowship Foursquare, located just off of I-880 in the Washington Manor neighborhood, is a Charismatic/ Pentecostal denomination. It’s part of a network of more than 1,800 Foursquare churches scattered around the country, and some 60,000 churches and meeting places across the globe, according to the Foursquare website.
The first Foursquare Church was founded in the early 1920s by the revivalist preacher Aimee Semple McPherson. Its original home is the colossal Angelus Temple in Echo Park, Los Angeles, which seated 5,300 people at the time (its capacity has since been reduced) and purportedly filled up for dozens of services each week.
Today, the Foursquare Church espouses the absolute truth of the Bible, and preaches that those who are “born again” will experience a real transformation, while non-believers will go to hell.
The church also teaches that those who experience the Holy Spirit will speak in tongues, although Mortara said this is kept “very structured and ordered,” at Faith Fellowship.
After communion, Mortara asked churchgoers to pull out their Bibles and pens in preparation for the day’s lesson. One parishioner produced highlighters and florescent sticky notes, ready to mark up passages in his indexed and earmarked Bible.
Mortara uses an expository preaching style, elaborating at length on each Bible verse. The lesson this day was about Joseph’s resistance to the seductions of his master’s wife. Joseph’s restraint was made all the more heroic, Mortara said, because of his good looks.
“Ladies, he was fine,” Mortara said, eliciting giggles from the audience.
The pastor launched into a lecture about the pitfalls of seduction. He was alternately serious and funny, illustrating familiar scenarios that often lead to broken families.
“‘She makes me feel young again,’” Mortara said, mocking the cliche middle-age man enchanted by a younger woman. “All of a sudden the shirt’s open, bald hair blowing in the wind. Then he’s gluing on chest hair….”
The audience cracked up.
“Joseph, the stage is set, bro. Your destiny’s on the line,” Mortara said, tying the scenario back to the Old Testament verse.
“You can’t say the devil made me do it. God is giving you signs to get out. You have got to back away from the vehicle.”
Mortara’s sermon concluded with a five-point outline of the warning signs of impending sexual sin, printed in a large font on the overhead screens. “You can write this down,” he said. Many did.
Who is Gary Mortara?
Mortara was born and raised in Oakland, and now lives in Castro Valley. He has blue eyes, an easy smile and tanned skin from many hours spent golfing. He’s an avid hunter: a buck's head with a giant rack of antlers and a stuffed pheasant adorn the walls of the church's upstairs offices.
Mortara is married and has three children, the youngest going on 16. His wife, Tisha, is also active in the church.
In an interview with Patch, he was dressed in the kind of smart casual you might see among patrons of a Palm Springs resort — long-sleeved button-down shirt, left untucked, brown corduroys and stylish leather shoes.
He hasn’t given up his dreams of becoming a top pro golfer. At 50, Mortara had a shot at his first U.S. Senior Open. There were 70 players vying for two spots, Mortara explained. He missed a 4-foot putt on the first hole and finished third.
Currently, he’s attempting to qualify for three pro tournaments: the U.S. Open, U.S. Senior Open and the British Senior Open.
Meanwhile, Mortara has been very successful at growing his church. Faith Fellowship’s congregation has been on the rise since Mortara was invited to become its head pastor in September 1993, taking over from a man who, daunted by the church’s dwindling membership and bank account, resigned abruptly.
After the church outgrew its original building, it bought the adjacent property and built the current 650-seat sanctuary. Two thousand people showed up on opening day, Easter Sunday of 2003 according to Mortara.
“It backed up the freeway for 15 minutes,” he said. “It actually hurt us. People said, ‘If I have to go through this every Sunday, I’ll wait ‘til they find another place.’ ”
The church has “released” seven couples to take over or start their own churches, Mortara said, each taking some Faith Fellowship members with them. Still, Faith Fellowship has continued to grow.
“It’s like pruning a tree, it keeps growing back,” he said.
Currently, the church holds three worship services and two special youth services every Sunday to accommodate all of its members and visitors. The church held its two Easter Sunday services this year at Chabot College’s 1,400-seat performing arts center.
'Not Only a Church, It's Actually Fun'
It’s hard to imagine a sermon that includes the words “fine” and “bro” going over well with a majority white-haired congregation, or in certain parts of the country. Mortara’s preaching style is clearly aimed at a crowd young and cool enough to appreciate it.
“(Some) thought people weren’t going to like it,” Mortara said of early critics, who thought he “preached too long, and the music was too hip.”
“I said, ‘Well, it’s biblical and it’s what I know, and God asked me to take over this church,’ ” Mortara said.
The median age of Faith Fellowship members, Mortara said, is between 35 and 45, many of them with families. He prides himself on the church’s diversity.
“We have millionaires here and people on welfare. White, black, Hispanic, Asian and everything in between,” he said.
Looking around during the service, the crowd did seem diverse. There were many young families — of all shades — along with retirement-age African American women in sober Sunday dresses, and at least a handful of young, white, casually dressed hipsters.
That diversity attracted 26-year-old Michael French to Faith Fellowship.
“I’ve been to other churches before and there’s often one group: all white, or all black,” said French, who’s white and sported a goatee, stylish glasses, and dime-sized black earrings in each ear.
He said he’s been coming to the church for almost nine years, on and off.
“I feel so welcome here. That’s why it’s home,” he said before turning to chat with a group of young people huddled outside the church’s main doors.
Another churchgoer, 37-year-old Yema Lee, was introduced to Faith Fellowship through a drug rehab program in Hayward.
Lee, who’s African American, said she’d been coming to the church for about two months. “It’s cool,” she said. “The people are nice; teaching is good.”
She said she appreciated the abundance of church-sponsored activities aimed at keeping young people busy and off the streets.
“Not only is it a church, it’s actually fun,” she said.
She and others were also drawn by Mortara’s sermons.
“The message that Pastor Gary gives each week,” Lavern Haman-Dicko replied when asked why she's been coming for six years. “It’s so powerful,” said Haman-Dicko, a middle-age, African American nurse.
Faith Fellowship vs. City of San Leandro
To lighten the traffic impacts on the residential neighborhood around its San Leandro church, Faith Fellowship runs a Sunday shuttle service from the parking lot of a nearby post office.
Looking for a more permanent solution to the church’s space constraints, Mortara sought to relocate the church to a bigger lot five years ago. He found two adjacent properties for sale on Catalina Street in San Leandro’s industrial area. The property was 3½ acres with a 46,000-square-foot building that Mortara deemed a perfect new home for Faith Fellowship.
“As soon as I went and looked at it, I could see us in that building,” Mortara said.
But he ran into a snag: The city’s zoning laws prohibited "assembly uses" in the area, including religious gatherings. Upon the advice of city officials, Mortara applied for a change to the zoning code.
After a prolonged back and forth with the city, during which Mortara signed a purchase agreement for the properties and paid down nearly $54,000, the city ultimately decided not to rezone the area and denied the church’s use permit.
Instead, the city identified 196 other properties where assembly use could be permitted and encouraged the church to find a different building. The church’s Realtor examined all 196 properties and found them unsuitable because of size, configuration, safety concerns or their current uses, according to court documents.
The church sued, alleging the city violated its First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, along with a federal law, the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, designed to protect religious institutions from overly burdensome land use regulations.
Although a district court threw the case out in 2008, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in February of this year that the lawsuit could go forward. Just last week, on April 22, the appeals court from the city to reconsider its ruling.
Unless the parties settle, the city will either have to face the church in district court or appeal the decision to the Supreme Court.
In the meantime, Faith Fellowship sold its Catalina Street property last year, losing more than $2 million thanks to declining property values, according to Mortara. All told, the church has lost at least $3.7 million in the ordeal, he said.
Mortara said his reputation had also suffered because of the lawsuit. “We lost about 150 people, some of them very dear friends of mine who left because they thought I did wrong with God for getting into that building,” he said.
In legal costs, however, the church has spent nothing. Pacific Justice Institute, the conservative Christian legal group representing the church, is working on the case pro bono.
“So they’re not ringing a bill up to us, they’re ringing a bill up to the city,” Mortara said. “I could fight until Jesus comes back because it’s not costing me anything at this point.”
The pastor has said he doesn’t want to drain the city’s coffers (City Attorney Jayne Williams says the lawsuit has cost the city $450,000 so far), but he’s clearly not ready to accept defeat.
“I need a building,” Mortara said, deadpan. “God blessed me with this. I’m good at it. I just need a building.”
One of the two Easter morning services at Chabot College this year provides, perhaps, of glimpse of the pastor’s dream for his church’s future. More than 1,000 worshipers packed the auditorium while dozens of children attended Sunday school in a building next door.
The service included gospel songs led by a 35-person choir, two dance performances and a theatrical interpretation of a woman tempted by sin.
At the start of the service, Mortara announced the appeals court’s recent decision in favor of the church to thundering applause.
“Remember,” he said, “We never wanted to get into this fight with the city. We just need a building to house you all who keep coming to Faith Fellowship.”