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  • July 11, 2014 - Reflections

    By Jean S. Horner
    The other day while walking down a corridor in a public building, I saw what appeared to be someone walking toward me. On coming closer, I found it was my own reflection in a huge mirror. For a moment it frightened me. Somehow a full-length reflection of one’s self is a startling thing. ...

Bay Area Rebuilders

By John W. Kennedy

Feb. 21, 2010

Forrest Beiser Jr. says he sensed God’s tug at age 5 to become a missionary to Africa. At 30, Beiser and his wife, Christina, heeded that call and spent the next seven years planting churches in Côte d’Ivoire. By the end of their term in 1994 as Assemblies of God missionaries in the city of Abidjan, the Beisers had witnessed extensive growth in local churches.

The couple returned to their native Northern California to seek the Lord’s direction. They soon eyed a place where church growth appeared nonexistent: the tolerant polyglot of San Francisco. They transferred to AG U.S. Missions and became church planters.

In 2000, then District Superintendent Glen D. Cole asked Beiser if he would consider stepping in to fill the pulpit at the historic Glad Tidings Temple in the Golden Gate City.

Turning the flagship
Glad Tidings had a stellar history. Pioneers Robert and Mary Craig started the church in 1913, a year before the Assemblies of God began. Noted evangelists Aimee Semple McPherson, Donald Gee and Smith Wigglesworth preached at the church. The AG’s General Council met on the site in 1931, at a time when Sunday attendance topped 2,000. In 1949, Beiser’s father, Forrest Sr., graduated from the church’s adjacent Glad Tidings Bible Institute, the oldest AG training school.

But by the turn of the millennium, Glad Tidings seemed on the brink of closing. The Bible institute had relocated half a century earlier to Santa Cruz (and is now known as Bethany University), and the church demolished the six-story training center in 1982.

When Beiser took over the church, only 37 attendees remained. The predominantly older, white congregation hadn’t changed with the increasingly diverse neighborhood.

The few remaining in Glad Tidings’ congregation elected Beiser pastor. Fifty people from Living Hope, the church plant he pastored, merged with Glad Tidings. Living Hope had raised $100,000 in its building fund, having already moved five times. But with San Francisco’s exorbitant real estate market, that was only a beginning. Glad Tidings, on the other hand, covers a city block and is valued at $17 million.

Blending the congregations proved to be a challenge for the soft-spoken Beiser, whose family has been in the Assemblies of God for four generations.

“Part of us is classically Pentecostal — but we are Californians,” says Beiser, 51. “We have a huge respect for the Assemblies of God, yet we want to be progressive in how Pentecostalism is walked out.”

The remnant from Glad Tidings wanted to keep singing such traditional hymns as “Great Is Thy Faithfulness”; the newcomers had never seen a hymnal before.

For a couple of years, out of respect, Beiser followed the traditions of Glad Tidings. For the first time he wore a suit to preach, and the congregation sang only hymns.

But Beiser gradually began to realize the key to future growth in a diverse urban neighborhood might not be in upholding past traditions. He began to intentionally seek out different cultures represented in the area, which is on the dividing line between Hayes Valley and Japan Town.

With Beiser’s compassionate outreach to hurting, lonely and disenfranchised people, the church gradually started to add followers. In a city generally hostile to Christian beliefs — just 2 percent of San Franciscans identify themselves as evangelicals — Glad Tidings now attracts 700 people on Sunday morning, 70 percent of them single.

Today as lead pastor, Beiser is ministering not only to those of European backgrounds, but also to Africans, Hispanics, Asians and others. An exuberant Kenyan worships next to a reverent Laotian.

“People from 30 countries attend our church, along with people from every age group, educational level and financial situation,” Beiser says. “We are intentional about how diverse we staff the stage and the church.”

The Sunday morning service contains fast-paced segments that run together. A loudly amplified choir number exuberantly repeats the verse “All my past is gone.” The 200-voice choir is a demographic rainbow. A dentist stands next to a high school dropout. Beiser, clad in blue jeans, stops the number and exhorts the congregants to put all their energy into worship.

There are announcements, a number from the children’s choir and distribution of Krispy Kreme doughnuts to everyone sitting in the pews. Beiser’s 25-minute sermon is packed with vivid visuals, including two teens riding scooters through the sanctuary and another pair of youth racing around the church. After the message, Beiser bungee jumps in the parking lot.

Beiser, who is a sectional presbyter as well as chairman of the San Francisco Teen Challenge Board, says Wednesday night is a Pentecostal service for “firm believers.” In the past year, 100 people have been baptized in the Holy Spirit on Wednesday nights.

“Forrest has turned around the flagship church where the district started,” says Jim Braddy, superintendent of the Northern California-Nevada District. “Glad Tidings was dying, but now it’s a vibrant church in the community.”

In the past six months, 150 new people have started attending, many of them from rough, unchurched backgrounds.

“We have a huge emphasis on patience,” Beiser says. “People can’t have a microphone until they are living a holy life.”

Shavon Grayson, who only has been attending consistently for a year and a half, says Glad Tidings has transformed her life. Before, Grayson, who attended UCLA, worked most Sundays traveling in a high-salaried marketing and sales position; now she is a receptionist. Grayson, 30, is one of 25 people enrolled in the church’s new urban Bible training center, dubbed Glad Tidings Bible Institute. She says prayer and evangelism are now foremost in her daily life.

“Before, I was focused on work and making money,” says the articulate Grayson. “But I needed to make God my number one priority.”

Pascael Arceneaux and his wife of five months, Kandice Love-Arceneaux, also believe putting God ahead of career is wise. Both had success in the mainstream music business. Kandice, 33, had written songs for the likes of Sean Combs, Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce. Pascael, 40, worked as a composer and producer for such singers as Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie.

Now, among other endeavors, the couple operates Being Black Is Being Smart, a Saturday “mental gymnastics” academic training program for children. Kandice, who also is a high school English teacher, is a youth ministry leader and gospel choir director at Glad Tidings.

“I could easily have stayed in the hip-hop music world, but I want to glorify God,” says Kandice, who, along with her husband, is a graduate of the new Glad Tidings Bible Institute.

Pascael, a former staff scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, now leads the sound and recording ministry at Glad Tidings and is a youth and men’s ministry leader.

Mike Fondanova is Beiser’s administrative assistant. The graduate of the University of California-Santa Barbara walked away from a lucrative job as a Merrill Lynch financial adviser to become one of five interns living at the church.

“My lack of fulfillment and sense of emptiness drove me to seek out a place where I could reconnect with God,” says Fondanova, 28. “Glad Tidings Church provided me with the perfect environment to do just that, and the relationship I have found with God as a result has made me more than content.”

Family heritage
Beiser’s father, Forrest Sr., taught at Bethany University, served on the staff of several Northern California churches and headed the family music ministry. Forrest Sr. and his wife, Ollie, cut records. The parents with their children — two older daughters and sons Forrest Jr. and David — toured Europe as a singing group.

Both Forrest Sr. and Ollie died of cancer at age 55 in 1980, deaths that shook the faith of the sons. David was just 16.

“I was devastated when my parents died,” David says. “My faith didn’t seem to work anymore.”

But David worked through the brokenness and sensed God reaffirming the ministerial plans He had instilled in him as a boy. For the past four years he has been lead pastor of Sequoyah Community Church, half an hour away from his brother on the east side of the bay in Oakland.

Sequoyah Community Church is almost as old as Glad Tidings, having incorporated in 1918 as First Assembly of God. For 65 years the church was located on Oakland’s “flatlands” before moving and changing names in 1983.

The church is highly visible on six acres of the Oakland Hills, neutral ground between Oakland’s crime-ridden “killing zone” and multimillion-dollar homes. It’s difficult to target a typical churchgoer when one drives a luxury sedan and another lives in abject poverty.

As with his brother, the intense David stepped in at a tough time when many in the flock had fled to the suburbs. Attendance had dwindled to 110 (from a high of 350) and the church-operated preschool had just closed. Sequoyah’s pastorate had been vacant for 14 months.

When he arrived in 2006, the average age in the overwhelmingly white congregation was 65. Now 160 attend, and the average age is 40.

“I’m grateful for the older folks who have stuck around,” says Beiser, 46. “But the community is dramatically changing all around us, and we need to change with it.”

Beiser is trying to walk the middle ground. He has relinquished the suits and ties, but he wears a dress shirt and slacks. He includes a hymn as he sings from the keyboard during upbeat contemporary worship.

Like Glad Tidings, Sequoyah is a study in contrasts. During worship, a professionally dressed white woman stoically stands next to a casually attired African-American worshipping excitedly. A day laborer rubs shoulders with a man who holds a doctorate.

Subsequently, members are involved in a broad range of beyond-the-walls ministry, including tutoring kids at school, cleaning up parks and aiding sex-trafficked women. Wednesday night small group options are available to single moms, widows and men looking for sexual purity.

Eric and Shawana Myhre are youth pastors at Sequoyah and typify the multiethnic flavor. Eric, 31, is of Scandinavian ancestry and is a local Starbucks manager. Shawana, 33, is African-American and homeschools the couple’s two children.

“You walk in on Sunday, and there’s some of everybody here,” Shawana says.

“The church is a representation of the community,” Eric says. “On the same block you can have every age and every race. We as the staff have the privilege of being intentional to make everyone feel welcome.”

Regional impact
Clearly, both Forrest and David Beiser are following a formula that is yielding results. They are impacting hundreds of lives by relying on their Pentecostal past and modern methods as a means of changing a region for God.

Alicia Wong, a 29-year-old schoolteacher who also is interim children’s pastor, started attending Sequoyah when the only other Asians were relatives. That’s no longer the case.

“Pastor Dave isn’t afraid to pursue what God has for the community in spite of what might not be popular opinion,” Wong says.

Fondanova credits Forrest’s passionate and vibrant prayer life for the recent explosive growth at Glad Tidings.

“Pastor Forrest is sensitive to the Holy Spirit, and he has a heart of mercy,” Fondanova says. “He’s not afraid to learn from those who have gone before him — or to take risks.”

Forrest expresses a ministry theme for both brothers: “Our goal is to build a healthy, high-impact church that is genuine and honest about diversity and open in its attitude. No matter what a person’s social status or background, we want them to know God loves them.”

JOHN W. KENNEDY is news editor of the Pentecostal Evangel.

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