Jerry Earl Johnston: A Presbyterian paradise in San Clemente

Published: Saturday, June 21 2014 5:00 a.m. MDT

As you tool south along California’s I-5 (or the Santa Ana Freeway, as it's known to locals), a dozen prominent churches and shrines guard your path.

The missions of San Juan Capistrano and San Luis are there. The San Diego California Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, with its shape-shifting spires, shows up, as does Saddleback, the famous mega-church of Pastor Rick Warren, author of “The Purpose-Driven Life.”

And high on a hill above the town of San Clemente, the soft glow of a cross keeps a watchful eye on a million drivers below.

I’d visited the other sites along the route, some several times. But I’d never stopped to check out that cross.

So I pulled into San Clemente to have a look.

Say "San Clemente" and the first words that come to mind are Richard M. Nixon. And the first image that comes to mind is the photo of him walking the San Clemente beach in his dark suit and dress shoes.

Nixon grew up nearby and his library is close at hand. The man himself spent so much time here during his presidency that his home here was nicknamed the Western White House.

Driving down El Camino Real (translated as Royal Road) toward the ocean, it’s easy to become enchanted with San Clemente. Businesses (including national franchises) must conform to the adobe and stucco style of old Spanish buildings. And with so many high-end homes and autos in the area, the city is always well-lit and cared for.

But if San Clemente is a gem, the gleam in the stone comes from the other end of town — up the hill on El Camino Real — to a collection of buildings that could easily pass for an ancient Spanish mission.

It’s a compound, really.

And it belongs to the San Clemente Presbyterian Church.

It is also, needless to say, another showpiece.

And the Presbyterian “mission” has a structure for everything.

I met up with Sally Henry, a combination receptionist and family ministry administrator. She gave me the cook’s tour.

“First,” she said, “the view here is a blessing.”

And it was. The serenity of the Pacific Ocean filled almost every window, including the windows of the chapel. It was like looking out over the sea after Jesus calmed the waves.

There was a fitness center, a weight loss center, a nursery, pre-school, prayer garden, library, youth chapel and several other halls I didn’t investigate.

It was, in essence, a Presbyterian Paradise.

“But it’s not the place, it’s the people,” Sally said. “There’s open acceptance. It’s a real family. It’s why we stay.”

It’s also why I would have liked to stay, too. But I had promises to keep, etc., etc. I spent a moment in the prayer garden, then edged back toward the weary world.

As I meandered down El Camino Real, I took a look back at the cross that kept its gaze on all the motorists below.

I was glad it was there — along with all those other I-5 shrines that can make the trip from Los Angeles to San Diego a little less daunting.

Oh, and there’s a P.S. here as well.

In the “It’s a Small World” category: It turns out Sally Henry is the daughter-in-law of the revered Reverend Richard Henry, beloved pastor of many Salt Lake City protestants.

Email: jerjohn@deseretnews.com

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