HOUSTON (AP) — The blue jeans-wearing preacher clenched his eyes shut, ministering to his flock in the same storied house where just over a year ago, 1,280 marijuana plants rose up in a secret indoor growing lab.
"It is our greatest desire Lord, that you complete your will in this place," Pastor Mauricio Saravia said in Spanish.
The recent Sunday service, which drew about 36 people to the newly formed church in Houston, punctuated not only a rebirth for the 60-year-old structure, but a reclamation.
The rectangular building under a giant sycamore tree — once outfitted with a sophisticated system of grow lights, fans and other equipment for producing pot - was shut down by Drug Enforcement Administration agents in late 2009.
It had been a church before, a decade earlier.
The church, turned dope farm, turned church again, is tucked away on a 2.3-acre tract rented from the family of James Cardona, who is serving four years in state prison after pleading guilty to marijuana possession.
The nondenominational evangelical congregants now pray, sing and seek to cleanse their souls on the spacious shady lot authorities contend was once a lab capable of producing up to $4 million a year in hydroponic marijuana.
The fancy cannabis is far more potent than Mexican-grown marijuana.
It typically sells for about five times as much on the streets of Houston. Growing pot indoors locally offers the chance to make more money and holds less risk than trying to cross the border, according to authorities.
The DEA here reports that in the past 18 months, it has shut down about 20 places where extensive amounts of marijuana were grown indoors, but none as sophisticated or peculiar as the church site.
"It is at the extreme end, being one of the most unique and odd twists to an investigation that we've seen in a while," said Wendell Campbell, a spokesman for the DEA's Houston division.
"That place had it going on - it was an advanced, directed, orchestrated business ... a very elaborate system to consistently produce good plants and ultimately push that marijuana into our local community."
No guns, bulk cash or secret ledgers were apparently found on the property, although a money-counting machine was confiscated.
"It is a very tough building," church-goer Paolo Bottari said after the service. "It is now about life."
Those attending church didn't seem concerned about the building's drug past, but welcomed the opportunity to change its role in the community.
Flock members yanked the burglar bars off the doors and walls to the church and refurbished its interior.
The inside had partially rotted due to the humidity of a jungle-like environment where the pot plants thrived to the tune of up to six harvests a year. They also ripped out thick thatches of poison ivy that hugged the fence lines; cleared debris from an adjacent lot and creek; and built a playground and turtle farm for children.
There is not a sign for the house of worship, which they've named Ruta 14:6, Spanish for Route, from the Bible's Book of John.
"This is what we were intended to do," said Valentin Serrano, one of the church leaders. "This is inspiring. This is cool."
There are also plans to expand the church's programs to provide food and clothing to the needy.
The recent history of 1725 Strawn Road indicates the building was bought in 1986 by a Missouri-based church group and named St. Michael the Archangel. The church designated itself as Roman Catholic, though it was not part of the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston.
In 1999, the congregation moved to a larger place and the church building was sold to the Whitehead family, who lived on an adjacent lot. The Whiteheads left the confessional and other adornments in place, and used the building for birthdays, baby showers, holidays and at least one family reunion.
But as the neighborhood changed, the Whiteheads decided to move. In 2007, they sold it to Cardona.
"He bought it, and wanted it like right now," recalled Barbara Whitehead. "He said it was just what he was looking for."
Among the first things Cardona did, she said, was put a big wrought iron fence with an electronic gate along the front of the property.
Cardona has a criminal history that includes a drug and a burglary conviction. It appears authorities got wind of the pot-growing operation after arresting a person who supposedly did business with him.
Once inside the property, agents confirmed the church had been converted into one of the most efficient indoor marijuana growing sites in the Houston area.
"I do not see how one could be more sophisticated and most are about half this size," Campbell said.
Walls were insulated and covered with reflective material and windows were covered, according to photographs of the interior. The temperature was kept at a tropical 85 to 90 degrees.
One room was for seedlings, and the others for larger plants, many of which climbed over 6 feet high.
"That is a pretty significant grow ... that produced some serious bank," Campbell said.
The church building is now immaculate. Its walls are freshly painted. There is hardly a sign of its past.
As the Sunday service wound down, a musician quietly strummed an electrical guitar as a backdrop to inspirational messages flashing on a wall.
"Your old life is gone," read the words. "A new life has come."
Information from: Houston Chronicle, http://www.houstonchronicle.com