But now the tent is empty. Across the parking lot stands a gleaming new sanctuary outfitted with actual pews, a granite altar, chandeliers, bathrooms, air conditioning and heating. "I am very proud of this community. Even though they are poor, you have no idea how generous they really are," Lucas said, surveying a church that seemed impossibly luxurious compared with the tent. "In these hard economic times, when people think there isn't anything to be thankful for, we now have this."Our Lady of Guadalupe is the poorest Catholic congregation in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, and one of the poorest in the state, church officials said. It is made up largely of Latino farmworkers often living in ramshackle trailer parks dotting the eastern Coachella Valley. There is also a large contingent of Purepechas, indigenous people from the Mexican state of Michoacan, who attend.Despite the poverty, Lucas launched an ambitious fundraising effort two years ago for a new church.But in a place where annual incomes often fall under $10,000, where unemployment is rife and where Lucas says the average parishioner drops about $3 a week into the collection plate, the odds were against him.Then the money began trickling in. It arrived in crumpled envelopes: a dollar here, two dollars there, a fistful of change. In one case a woman brought in a bag of dates."She said, 'Father Lucas, I have no money. Sell these dates and use the money to build the church,' " Lucas said. "If she came with a bag of dates, then I will use the dates to build a church."That spirit soon infected others."Even though they say we are the poorest of the poor, we had the discipline to keep it up," said Gilbert Medrano, 40, as he helped hand out boxes of food to a steady stream of members coming through the door."I am an unemployed carpenter but I have given what I could, and some weeks that wasn't very much."In the notorious Duroville trailer park, which the U.S. government is trying to close because of health and safety concerns, Aron Felipe's family regularly contributed."We would give $5 or $10, but we gave every week even if it was very little," said Felipe, 18, who had just finished working in the fields.A few blocks away, Patricia Huente said the church dominated life in the park."I was surprised we could raise so much," she said. "It's a high poverty area, but little by little it became enough. If you give away more, you receive more back."Those who couldn't give money donated time. They worked weekends selling tacos or running garage sales and fiestas as church fundraisers.
The church raised nearly $300,000. Other Catholic parishes chipped in with large additional donations, along with the Diocese of San Bernardino. Ultimately about $1 million was collected.The new church consists of a large dome made of Kevlar-like material, causing some to dub it the "balloon church." In the years ahead, finances permitting, a more traditional wood and stone structure will replace it.Parishioners decorated the inside like any other Catholic church. They made the chandeliers themselves, hammering out metal rings and fitting each with 36 lights. Candlesticks and icons were donated. Altar chairs were bought at a local thrift store."These are things that seem out of place for Mecca -- chandeliers, stained glass, a granite altar top," Lucas said, noting that the granite was also donated.The priest seemed profoundly moved by it all. "We suffered two years of heat and cold, strong winds and dust," he said a few minutes before starting the evening Mass."It was a challenging situ- ation, but the people chose to stay and support the church."Bishop Gerald Barnes, who heads the diocese, came out to bless the church recently."Many of us have moved to a state of despair and hopelessness, and these people could have moved the same way," he said later. "But their community's resilience and trust in God shows."They never lost hope, and what a great blessing that is for those of us facing difficult times."