Pastor John Candler builds a community by just being involved
by Eddie Rivera, News Editor
Arriving at the parking lot of the Sunland Foursquare Church and emerging from my car, Pastor John Candler, talking with a group of associates, notices me and bounds over, extending his hand, a huge grin taking over most of the real estate on his face. If he was a dog, his tail would be wagging like a turbine engine.
He’s that kind of guy. All arms and legs and toothy grin. He’s the guy you want to lead your membership drive for anything, the one in the back of the class who keeps waving his hand for class project suggestions, but in a good way.
Arriving to lead the Sunland Foursquare congregation in March of 2015, Candler has made a profound impression and a significant difference in a little neighborhood church that had been struggling to keep up, its numbers dwindling.
“My pastor at my previous church (Media City Church in Burbank) came to me one day and asked me, “Who could replace you?,” John recalled, sitting on a couch in the church’s main auditorium on a quiet weekday afternoon.
He said. “There is an opening at this little church in Sunland and I want to release you and send you and a team there,” his pastor continued. And so John and pastor wife Natasha, along with a team of twenty or so friends, came to Sunland. “I couldn’t do it by myself. I can’t do anything alone when it comes to doing what we are trying to do here,” Candler said.
When he arrived, the church had only fifteen or so members of the previous congregation remaining. Recalling his first two weeks, Candler said, “The two things I first noticed that were needed here were the need for connectivity and the need for empowering people to have their own ownership of their own neck of the woods where they live.”
Pastor Candler admitted that he was “flying blind” when he arrived into the politically active community, a situation that could either doom him or give him wings.
“I became very aware of the small town politics of the neighborhood right away,” he laughed. “This person doesn’t like this person and that person doesn’t like that person, and I had to be careful, and well, we just wanted to love everyone.”
Yes, he really talks like that.
“I saw a big need in the neighborhood for connectivity,” he continued. “So many people live here, but don’t work here, and they really don’t have much to do here, after the 9 to 5 is over. I also knew, as a pastor, that people didn’t invest in the local churches. They went elsewhere.
“There was always this sense, from people, of “Oh, that won’t work, or ‘We tried that already…’,” he continued, “but I was walking down Oro Vista one day, walking my dog, and noticing all the trash, and it occurred to me right then, ‘You need to unite your neighborhood, in just simple things, like cleaning up trash.’”
“We didn’t have a lot of money, and a lot of members, but we’re gonna try this, we’re gonna blast this on Facebook and everywhere else, and see who comes, and we’ll have donuts and coffee, and just provide a great environment for neighbors to connect.”
This was back in June and about ten people showed up. But at the beginning of this year, John joined the Sunland-Tujunga neighborhood council as a representative of the church, and people began showing up. Lots of them.
“People were showing up, and having a really life-giving experience serving, and what I love about our Neighborhood Initiative is that I see moms making play dates, kids cleaning the park together, things like that.”
Thus began the Church’s “Love The Neighborhood Initiative,” an 8 a.m. gathering on the first Saturday of each month for coffee, some donuts, some fellowship and then some cleaning up of nearby streets and alleys. Not a huge organized, contact-the-City-Council-office kind of thing, more like friends getting together to pick things up around here.
He mentions local activist Sandy Capps and explains how she met an older resident and from the conversation, put together that he was a victim of elder abuse, “and she put a whole case together for him! It’s that kind of thing!”
And that’s how a community grows. When the hugely successful Armenian Cultural Festival was proposed, his neighborhood church across from the park was among the first to get in line.
‘We’re all about getting the community together with whatever ideas they have,” Candler said last month, when asked about the church’s participation.
“That was such a great day, I couldn’t leave, I didn’t want to leave,” he said of the festival. My wife had to drag me away!” He smiled again, that big goofy grin.
And the theme behind his neighborhood activity? Though he won’t really preach, he quotes a scripture to me, saying, “Seek the welfare of the city where you have been sent, because if you do, both you and it will prosper.”
“That’s something tangible,” said Candler. “Picking up trash on the street is tangible, and my heart as a pastor is that I don’t want to do anything that someone who is not a church member can’t do with us.”
“It’s all the things that happen behind the scenes,” he explained, “while you’re cleaning Foothill, having neighbors who tell you that they walked new streets they had never walked before, or having people volunteer their services; a carpenter, a painter, people like that, people who are willing to volunteer some hours to you.”
And that is another reason why, even though he speaks fluent scripture, he would never say, “Jesus wants you to clean the streets.” That’s just not his way. “It’s really just about the community,” he says, unabashedly.
Then, Sunday morning, October 30, just before we went to press, Candler arrived at church early to find at least two bullets in his now-shattered front glass doors. Nonplussed, his reaction was what one might expect. He wished the subjects love on the Church’s Facebook page, and told The Record, as he waited for police to respond, “I’m not worried. These things happen. Maybe some kids with a pellet gun just thought it would be a fun idea to shoot at something. I’m not freaked out,” he laughed.
Of course he isn’t.
And it’s yet another reason why he finds the nonbelievers, and the atheists, and the faithful all in his congregation Saturday and Sunday mornings. Its the way the little church grows, and the community grows right alongside it.