Would-be porn house instead spotlights Jesus through Christian films

ORANGE, Calif. — Once slated to be an X-rated cinema in the 1970s, the old theatre is now a venue for Christian films that are leading people away from sin and to a life in Christ.

The historic landmark, located in downtown Orange, Calif., was built in 1929. Today it is home to Son Light Christian Center, a nondenominational church that holds weekly services and shows free Christian movies once a month.

In 1976, the church had only been in existence for two months when it grew out of a rented room at a nearby hotel. Pastor Joe Magliato learned that the Orange Theatre, which showed movies and plays that attracted movie stars over the years, was up for sale because it was losing money.

"We talked to the owner, Norm Goodin, and he told us that it was already in escrow to be turned into a Pussycat Theater," Magliato said. "He told me if the theater fell out of escrow, we would be next in line."

But Magliato said his 300-member congregation didn't have money to put down on the place and, without a financial history, no bank would give his church a loan.

"I was discouraged because I thought the people buying the building would certainly come up with the down payment," he said. "Porn was big business back in the middle '70s as it is today. But two weeks later, the would-be buyers had not come up with the down payment. … The theater fell out of escrow."


No money, no problem
Son Light secured the 900-seat theater and moved in a month later with no money and no bank loan.

"I think Norm Goodin must have believed we were good for it because he allowed us to move in, set up church and conduct services for six months, after which we would have to come up with the down payment," Magliato said. "That was a miracle, but an added bonus was Norm Goodin was willing to give us a mortgage."  

Later that year, Son Light started its tradition of showing Christian motion pictures which are still popular today. The church shows movies in the preserved vintage theater the first Friday on the month. Board President Jesse Villalpando, who leads the movie ministry, said Son Light starts the movies at 7 p.m. in hopes that families will also go to dinner and spend more quality time together.

"We show family oriented movies that bring them in together," he said. "And it allows kids to come out and watch a wholesome movie."

On June 3, Son Light will show the movie "Standing Firm." The film stars Rob Reisman, who plays a workaholic widower that blames God for his wife's death and his financial troubles. His son, played by Eric Stevenson, helps him come back to Christ and learn the purpose of suffering.

Located two blocks from Chapman University, Villalpando said the theater also attracts students that don't have many healthy entertainment options.

"We want to be a safe haven for youths," he said. "What better way to spend their Friday night?"


No pews, no preaching
Son Light moviegoers say the films help them grow in their faith because they are easy to follow and put into picture what can't be explained in words. Laura Mesa, 53, started watching movies at Son Light in 1979.

"I was a brand-new Christian and I didn't know a lot of the stuff that was being taught," she said. "It really gave me a good basis to understand Christianity and something to connect it to."

Mesa, of Orange, said although she didn't know much about the Bible then, the movies allowed her to fellowship with more knowledgeable believers because the films reach people at every step of their walk.

"After the movie, we stuck around and talked about it," she said. "It was very informal, but that afforded me to really grow in the Lord."

Mesa said the more Christian movies she saw, the more she wanted to know about God and seek him out in His Word and in the fellowship of believers.

"With a movie, nobody is giving you the outline so it makes you think and they brought up a lot of questions," she said. "We'd go to a restaurant after and we'd talk for hours."

Mesa said she started attending Sunday services at Son Light's theater in part because the setting is fun and relaxing, unlike religious sanctuaries that she found too intimating.

"I was expecting a traditional church but it made me feel at home," she said. "You feel comfortable and at ease even though it's church."

Schoen Tucker, 47, said the films are also a good evangelical tool and when she brought her cousins to the movies, they found Jesus there.

"They actually got saved," the Orange resident said. "It's nice because we can pull in people from the community so they can experience the blessings as well."

Although Son Light's membership hasn't grown much in the last 36 years, and the racy movie industry has, the church has still kept the theater in the body of Christ and out of the hands of the world.

"Here the big money people couldn't make a go of it, but our small congregation is," Villalpando said. "For whatever reason, their transaction didn't go through. Well, we know the reason."


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