Central Valley

Many 'Extreme Makeover' volunteers had religious ties

Did God lend a hand in helping to build the Fresno "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" house?

Absolutely, says the Rev. Scott Hansen, pastor of The Bridge Evangelical Free Church in central Fresno. And behind him comes a mighty "Amen!"

Dozens of members of the local religious community were among the more than 3,800 volunteers who helped build a new home for Mary Ann Riojas, 37, and her four teenage children in west-central Fresno. The goal was to make a wheelchair-accessible home for Riojas, who was born with no legs, one complete arm and a right one that ends at the elbow with stunted fingers.

In the process, members of the religious community say they felt a sense of spirituality - God at work - as they experienced a community coming together despite the bad economy. They say they also felt scriptural passages played out as volunteers laid the home's foundation, raised the framing and performed many other jobs.

"I had an overall sense of God speaking to people's hearts" and working through people, says Vickie Robinson, a member of The Bridge who volunteered in hospitality at the project's site.

Hansen says his understanding of the bottom line of ABC-TV reality show - to rally a community to provide a family with a home that better suits its needs - made it easier for him to feel God at work in the Fresno project.

"They imitate what God does," he says, adding that he regularly watches the TV show and, like so many other viewers, sobs a lot.

And what does God do?

Hansen believes God steps into people's lives who need help when they can't help themselves. The show has the same premise, he says.

Hansen says he learned through Jan. 5 media reports that "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" would help a family in the Fresno area. And his ears perked up. The Bridge challenges its members to put their "fingers into Fresno" - to reconnect with the city by getting involved in its needs.

Hansen says he wanted The Bridge to get involved. After the Riojas family was named Jan. 8 as the show's recipients, The Bridge began taking members in the church's van to the site. Hansen and others prayed over the neighborhood, and they talked with others.

When Hansen learned there was a movement for donations to pay off Riojas' existing mortgage, something pulled at his heart. "That's it," he said. He told officials from De Young Properties, who were overseeing the project, to put The Bridge down for $25,000.

Hansen informed the congregation at Sunday service the next day.

"He was sticking his neck out in faith," remembers Patty Behrens, who founded The Bridge's ministry, Care Connections. She volunteered collecting canned food at the "Extreme Makeover" site from people who took the shuttle bus from downtown to the site; the food was donated to the Community Food Bank.

Then the church raised $25,000.

"It's really God's story - God rallying this church," Hansen says, adding that he had some reservations after making the commitment. "I thought maybe we would raise half."

The day after the Riojas family viewed their new home, Hansen was part of a Jan. 16 ceremony in which many businesses and organizations showered the Riojases with gifts. Pelco, Inland Star Distribution Centers and Fashion Fair also made large financial donations that swelled the mortgage money to $125,000. The Bridge's contribution was the largest by a congregation.

Behrens says she was glad to see the The Bridge's generosity, which crossed denominational lines. The Riojas family are Jehovah's Witnesses.

Sometimes, churches stay inward-focused," she says. "But Jesus didn't say, 'I'm going to help those people - and not those.' Jesus helped everybody. It's about showing the love of Christ. I definitely saw God's hand in it."

Some members of the religious community say they felt a sense of spirituality - as spectators.

When more than 5,000 people jammed onto the street to see the Riojas family view the home for the first time Jan. 15, Jan Lakovich had a prime spot near the VIP tent. She attends a weekly Bible Study Fellowship program at New Covenant Community Church, and the "Extreme Makeover" home reminded her of the group's studies on Moses and the Tabernacle.

"When it was completed, Moses inspected it and pronounced it completed as the Lord has commanded," she says. "Fast-forward to today - and Moses would've said, 'Move that bus!'"

Lakovich says she felt God at work in the community effort, too.

"It takes a lot of commitment and accountability to do this," she says. "I think God is reflected in this, even though it's not faith-based."

Not far from Lakovich, 9-year-old Jacob Gonzalez of Merced stood across the street from the Riojas home behind a metal railing with his mother, Liz Gonzalez. They arrived at 7 a.m. - and waited nearly nine hours until the Riojases arrived in a white limousine.

They prayed together the previous night. After finishing, Jacob, a fourth-grader at Chenoweth Elementary School, said, "Mom, I feel something special is going to happen tomorrow." And it did.

The Riojases saw their new home - but not before a show designer, John Littlefield, picked Jacob out of the crowd and asked him to look at the bedroom of Mary Ann Riojas' son, Angel, 15. Littlefield wanted to know what Jacob thought. Mom came along, too.

"We got to see the whole house," she says. "And it was a blessing."