Perlita is Spanish for “little pearl.” And that is exactly what is found along Perlita Avenue in Atwater Village — a small gem in Cristo Rey Church, the pride of the neighborhood for seven decades. The 350-seat church was built by parishioners with their own hands at the height of WWII when materials were difficult to find. One parishioner, Teodoro Estrada guarded the lumber by sleeping with his dog in his car so no one would steal it. That love and devotion continues today, as evidenced in the way the pastor, Augustinian Recollect Father Galo Espinoza, and members of the Guadalupanos meticulously clean the church together — mopping the floors, dusting the statues and caring for their parish. The church is open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily and it is never empty, especially on Sundays and feast days when Masses are standing room only. With a 7 a.m. and a 7 p.m. daily Mass schedule the church is always busy. Father Galo and his associate, Father Michael Stechmann, work as a team. Father Michael celebrates the one English Mass and assists with other Masses in Spanish. He also frequently celebrates Mass at nearby hospitals and helps out at other nearby parishes. And both priests “make it a point to be out here” in front of the rectory and near the church, says Father Michael, who appreciates the “peaceful, quiet neighborhood properties that are so well taken care of.”“People know we are here and part of the community,” he adds, while waving to people as they pass by the church or drop in for a visit. Some want to make confessions or discuss their problems. The priests are always accessible. There is no parish secretary; the priests answer the door and phone.But though poor financially, Cristo Rey is rich in every other way. “It is a poor area, and it is tough sometimes,” says Father Galo. “Some people move into the parish, stay for a while and move away — but they stay with Cristo Rey. They like the way we treat them. It is like a family.” For the feast of Cristo Rey in November Father Galo and Father Michael walk in procession with the people throughout the neighborhood carrying an image of Christ the King. The largest feast and celebration in the parish is Our Lady of Guadalupe with its novena and celebration in the church hall. The people perform the drama “Cristo Siempre” for special feasts, involving many parish youth.This year 47 teens will be confirmed, with 45 more in first-year confirmation classes. And 28 English-speaking adults will also be confirmed (most Spanish-speaking parishioners were confirmed at baptism).The Guadalupanos, the largest organization within the parish, clean the church two Wednesdays a month. Most members are Eucharistic Ministers who take Communion to the homes of the sick. They are also dedicated to praying the rosary in church and in their homes.Devotion is exemplified by parishioners like Maria Santillanos, who says she has been a Cristo Rey parishioner “siempre” or forever (in actuality, more than 50 years). Three generations of her family are members of the parish. Tomasita and Antonio Guevara have been parishioners close to 50 years; Tomasita and her friend Rita Castro have taught religious education classes for at least 25 years. These families live a few houses from the church; many parishioners, in fact, walk rather than drive to church. It is a way to visit with neighbors and talk with old friends, like an extended family. And that appeals to Father Galo, who always smiles when talking about his parish. “When I preach, I know almost all the faces,” he says proudly. “We have to be realistic. We work together with the people of the parish. We cannot boss them; we have to treat them as equals, as family. And they appreciate that.” {gallery width=100 height=100}gallery/2011/1007/cristo/{/gallery}