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Saturday, December 6, 1997

In Loma Linda, a Seventh Day Adventist culture prevails


Riverside Press-Enterprise

LOMA LINDA, Calif. - Residents in only one ZIP code in the nation can count on getting junk mail on a Sunday: Loma Linda, 92354.

The more-than-60-year-old practice of observing the Seventh-day Adventist Sabbath by delivering mail on Sunday rather than Saturday continues today, even though the number of Adventists in town has dropped from nine of every 10 to about half.

Seventh-day Adventists may no longer be the outright majority in the city of about 21,000 they established, but in many ways Loma Linda remains a company town. Just as the church's educational and medical facilities dominate the landscape, Adventist doctrine influences the lifestyle from alcohol regulations to restaurant menus.

When the church was founded in 1863, the average American lifespan was 39. Seventh-day Adventist pioneer Ellen White urged the creation of facilities that would combine health care with Christian service.

Nurses and teachers came to Loma Linda in 1905 to establish a sanitarium, the beginnings of Loma Linda University Medical Center.

They brought with them the Adventist observation of the Sabbath from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, which differs from most other Christian denominations that worship on Sundays. The church also teaches abstinence from alcohol, tobacco and drugs. With a strong emphasis on healthy lifestyles, the church also encourages vegetarianism.

Outsiders have moved in, but they haven't disturbed the way of life. Businesses surrounding Loma Linda University, including the post office, still close early on Fridays. Stater Bros. sells a more extensive selection of meat substitute products than beer. Alcohol itself can be sold only in large businesses and restaurants, according to city ordinance.

"It's about as restrictive as you can get," said Community Development Director Dan Smith.

But it's the Sunday mail delivery that probably most amazes newcomers.

"The biggest question is 'Where's the separation of church and state?' " said Loma Linda Postmaster Mary Sidney. " 'Why are you doing this?' When people first move into Loma Linda and they don't know that, they're really surprised."

Providing Sunday mail service adds $33,000 in expenses each year to the office's budget. The office pays employees an additional 25 percent of their salary to work on Sundays. In 1993, the Postal Service sought to end the costly practice and surveyed residents.

"We just thought that the community was certainly not 90 percent Seventh-day Adventist any more and people were asking why the post office was honoring the Sabbath," Sidney said.

But Loma Linda residents didn't want a change to the delivery that has been around since at least 1935, the earliest year that Sidney has a letter from postal headquarters documenting the unusual operating hours.

Louis Venden, religion professor at Loma Linda University, said the town's culture may tend to persist because the community is more like family than a political structure.

"Something good started here in those early days," Venden said. "Time has proven it to be a good way of life."

Breaking into a city so rooted in history and a common faith can be difficult for others. Longtime resident and former mayor Elmer Digneo said a non-Adventist has never occupied a City Council seat, although good candidates have run.

"The non-Adventist portion of the city does not have a central cohesive organization or philosophy to rally around," Digneo said. "Here when you've got your major institution in town ... they would rally around individuals that they knew."

Pricilla Gutierrez moved to Loma Linda about 15 years ago so it would be convenient to take her father to appointments at the Jerry L. Pettis Memorial Veterans Affairs Medical Center in the city.

Gutierrez, a Catholic, said residents are tolerant of the religious faith of others, although she didn't realize when she moved that some businesses closed for the Sabbath.

"That's real tough," she said. "You get out of work at 5 and everything closes at 3."

For much of Adventist history, the practice of vegetarianism has been considered wacky. As scientific research validates the benefits of going meatless, the diet has become easier as businesses have sought to capitalize on it.

Loma Linda residents no longer have to order hamburgers without patties if they want to eat at a fast-food restaurant, says Joe Amlani, chief executive officer for Baker's Drive-Thru. The outlet's "Loma Linda Kitchen," a meat substitute menu, is popular.

"It sells quite well," Amlani said. "We get all kinds of positive comments."

But the Loma Linda Market and Bakery, owned and operated by Loma Linda University, continues to be the Southern California giant of vegetarian food. In the store, pet food is the only meat product found on shelves, although vegetarian chorizo and meatless salami are carried in the frozen-food aisle. Tobacco and alcohol are not sold and church announcements are aired over the speaker.

"People drive to us from San Diego and Long Beach and Victorville and all over," manager Phil Carlisle said. "The interesting thing is we've seen over the years an increase in non-Adventist people interested in improving their nutrition and diet."

There's even a vegetarian food brand named Loma Linda, purchased by Worthington Foods in 1990 from the church. Jay Highman, who handles specialty markets for the Ohio-based vegetarian food company, said the brand sells well in both Adventist circles and natural food stores.

Recreation in Loma Linda centers around Sundays rather than Saturdays. A recent car show at the Pettis medical center was held on a Sunday, and the Sabbath is a consideration when scheduling events, said spokeswoman Annie Tuttle. The annual community parade was held on a Sunday morning in October. Little League plays Sunday afternoons in an effort to accommodate children of all faiths.

"Most Catholics and Protestants are not as strict in their Sabbath observances as Seventh-day Adventists," said Marino De Leon, president of Loma Linda Little League. "The Catholics or Protestants can go to church in the morning and in the afternoon they can go and play the sports."

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)

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