Visitors to Edwina Perez’s West Berkeley apartment are greeted by a sign that reads, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”
The sign is still appropriate for Perez, a self-made preacher and pastor of Berkeley’s New Birth Church, but thanks to what she sees as divine intervention, her house has returned to the service of her family.
On a recent Sunday, Perez, after nearly 14 years of preaching in a living room that would struggle to fit two sofas, christened her church’s new home: a 10-foot-by-22-foot nook on San Pablo Avenue. Her friends filled all 24 chairs they could squeeze into the building, fanning themselves, during the two-hour service.
“The training wheels are coming off,” she said. “To move from your house to your own building is every pastor’s dream.”
A former security guard at Bayer Pharmaceutical, Perez has overcome illness and long odds to lead a church of her own. Born in Cuba, she was raised in San Francisco as a Catholic, and when she moved to Berkeley with her two sons in 1979, she started attending mass at St. Joseph the Worker Church.
Then in 1991, at a time when an arthritic condition in her legs required her to use a wheelchair, Perez sensed that God was calling her to preach the Bible.
Since women can’t become priests, she talked about starting her own church with then St. Joseph Pastor Father Bill O’Donnell.
“I told him I felt this calling in my life and he blessed me to go try it,” she said. “Once I made the decision, there was this overwhelming peace that came over me.”
Perez was ordained in 1991 by an uncle, a Protestant Bishop in her native Cuba, and returned to Berkeley to lead her first independent service to a congregation of two people. Noticeably absent that first Sunday were Perez’s two sons, who chose to remain Catholic.
Homespun ministries are not uncommon across the country or in the East Bay, and Perez counts among her heroes local women who also started small churches. Ernestine Rheems, the founder of Center of Hope Church, started preaching in a flatbed truck, Perez said, and Cynthia James, a Bishop in the Church of God in Christ, started preaching on the bus on her way to work.
Perez’s ministry has always placed a focus on helping her immediate community near Ninth Street and Bancroft Way. When she first moved into her apartment in 1983, she said, she was disappointed to see the drug activity that induced her to leave her previous homes was just as prevalent in her new neighborhood.
She started her community outreach by heading up her neighborhood watch, but Perez, an expert at doing a lot of work in very little physical space, soon expanded from fighting crime to providing services. She held Saturday tutoring sessions in her building’s front parking lot, where Cal students helped local kids with their school work.
The parking lot has also hosted a twice-annual hot dog day, where police and community members, including known drug dealers, were welcomed to eat hot dogs cooked by Perez.
“I remember going to her apartment and being impressed that she really seemed to be going out of her way to help people,” said former Mayor Shirley Dean, who helped Perez hand out turkeys to families in need during the holidays.
As her church grew, Perez took in several families she said were shunned from their congregations because they had a family member on death row. She has led several prayer sessions from the hallway of San Quentin and has prayed at the bedside of sick people she didn’t know.
One of those who came to services on Sunday was Nancy Jonathans, who met Perez four years ago in a hospital room where Jonathans’ husband was in a coma after suffering a stroke. Perez dropped by the hospital room at the request of a friend to pray for him.
“She would visit just to make sure my husband had company,” Jonathans said.
Two year’s later, in 2003, Perez was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite a regular Sunday congregation of 35 people, she was too traumatized and disbanded the church.
“I had to worry about me,” she said. “Being a minister is lonely. We don’t have a safe place to talk about our problems.”
Perez joined an Oakland church, and after her second ten-week radiation treatment that ended last April, her cancer went into remission.
Given a clean bill of health, she didn’t plan on resuming her ministry until just January, when she received a call from Vera Baggett, an 87-year-old missionary getting ready to preach in Europe.
“She told me the Lord said you need to get off your chair and get back to work,” Perez said. Shortly thereafter, another friend, Henrietta Harper, offered her help in rebuilding her church.
“I just believed it was time for her to start up again,” Harper said.
Soon Perez was back to preaching in her living room. And, although the number of regular parishioners had shrunk to around 25 every Sunday, rents in West Berkeley had dropped as well—low enough that the church could afford a home of its own just two blocks from Perez’s apartment.
“I don’t just want this to be a building for prayer but a place where people can get their needs met as much as we can,” she said. Already she plans to revive the Saturday tutoring program and to begin a coffee sale to raise money for breast cancer research.
“I’m so grateful for everything that has happened,” she said. “We’re in an area that I feel we are going to be so productive.”