The church of Sac High

St. Hope vowed not to bring religion into the classroom. But on Sundays, the school’s auditorium becomes a house of God.

Pastor Johnny Murillo reaches out to his congregation from the stage in the Sacramento High School auditorium.

Pastor Johnny Murillo reaches out to his congregation from the stage in the Sacramento High School auditorium.

On the well-lit stage of the Sacramento High School auditorium, Johnny Murillo, pastor for the new Christian Worship Center, stood to address his congregation, sitting in the wooden seats of the darkened high-school auditorium.

“Get your Bibles up high,” Murillo called to them from the stage. And the members—a diverse group that included families with children, single men and even, according to the pastor, a same-sex couple trying to live the straight life—stood and raised their Bibles.

“This is my Bible,” Murillo said to the crowd. And they responded, “This is my Bible!”

“I am what it says I am,” he continued. And the crowd echoed him: “I am what it says I am!”

“I can have what it says I can have. … I can do what it says I can do.”

The congregation of about 60 people had straggled in through the first half-hour of the service, which was given over to modern gospel music played by a four-piece band.

After leading the congregation in a shared affirmation, Murillo, in a casual dark suit, was ready to start preaching. He launched into Bible readings and interpretations of those readings.

God wanted the congregation to renovate their environment, he said, cast out anything that honored death, including movies with poltergeists and symbols of witchcraft. Throw out the Ouija boards and American Indian dream catchers, no matter how cool they are, said Murillo. And let God come into your house and change those who do not believe.

With scripture playing across a video screen, Murillo warned the congregation not to be too judgmental if people in their own homes were not living Christian lives. God wanted to visit those homes in which he was needed the most.

Every once in a while, someone in the congregation offered up a quiet “Amen.”

The congregation, after hearing Murillo preach, went out to lunch on free burritos together at a makeshift cafe set up on the grounds of the once-embattled high school. Murillo was feeding the community in as many ways as he could think of: spiritually and physically. He was visiting the community that he thought needed him the most.

Sacramento High School, once a public school under the management of the Sacramento City Unified School District (SCUSD), was turned into a charter school by a school-board decision. It has been under the management of St. Hope Corp. since September 2003. One of the community’s main concerns during the fight over Sac High’s future was whether St. Hope would allow its Christian tradition to color the high-school curriculum. St. Hope founder Kevin Johnson often had mixed Christian worship into his general plan for revitalizing his Oak Park neighborhood.

But as the new charter school took shape, St. Hope administrators, including school Superintendent Margaret Fortune, promised the community that Sac High’s curriculum would not be religious.

“We’ve even had people who wanted to come and do religious activities in the school,” said Tony Kline, media contact for Sac High, “and we said no.”

The Christian Worship Center only meets at the auditorium on Sunday mornings, but when community members who fought a losing battle to preserve Sac High as a comprehensive public high school received door hangers that advertised the new church, and identified its new home as the Sac High auditorium, they immediately heard warning bells.

Linda Roberts, a member of Oak Park United against Slumlords (OPUS) who identified herself as an atheist, said that she and other community members were concerned about a church on school property. “I have always felt that the St. Hope SCUSD relationship is over the line in separation of church and state,” she said in an e-mail to SN&R.

Ken Adams, who recently ran for, but lost, an open seat on the SCUSD school board, also was uncomfortable. “I’m very nervous about publicly-paid-for places turning over their facilities to churches,” he said.

According to Deborah Herrmann of the California Department of Education, churches on school property are actually very common. “All public schools are able to do that, so it’s not anything different for a charter [school],” said Herrmann.

“Sac High is a valuable member of the local community, and we do offer our facilities to community groups for use during non-school hours,” wrote Fortune in a statement to SN&R. “We do this for a fair market rate, and this is a common practice among many public high schools.”

In an interview at what Murillo referred to as his office, though it’s really the Starbucks on Broadway and 35th, the reverend said that when he brought his family to Sacramento, he wanted to relocate to the community with the greatest need. He’d heard from other church leaders that it was difficult to find rentable space in the schools of SCUSD because they were always in use. Not even Sunday mornings were open. But when he walked up to the counter of the Sac High front office, Murillo said, he spoke with the facilities manager, signed a month-to-month lease for the auditorium and began paying the school $540 a week for four hours on Sundays.

Murillo looked a little nervous as he mentioned the amount. It wasn’t easy for the fledgling church with the growing congregation to come up with, he claimed, but God provided. Murillo said he had no relationship with St. Hope, had never met Fortune and had met Johnson only once.

“We’re not here to influence the school,” he said. “We’re just renting a building.”

Murillo considers his outreach-oriented church a ministry to the community meant to “win the city of Sacramento,” as one brochure indicated. He’s starting with school neighbors.

Victoria Jones, a brand-new congregation member who said she didn’t like the “underhanded” way St. Hope had taken over the high school and hadn’t supported the idea of a charter at Sac High, did say that she found the church a great use of school facilities.

To some, that might be considered a miracle.