PEARL STREET — Jeff McCulty is a blue-collar pastor — his fingernails are stained black from working on car engines and he wears baggy blue jeans with scuffed white sneakers — but this Southern Baptist minister feels right at home among Santa Monica’s manicured lawns and white picket fences.
As the pastor of Church on Pearl for the last eight years, McCulty, 46, has made a name for himself within the community. He has opened up the playground at the church to neighborhood children, let people use the church’s lawn during this year’s Celebrate America festivities and would fix any broken car that rolled into the parking lot.
“We’re slowly trying to break down all those barriers that were built up,” McCulty said. “The church had a whole fenced off feel to it."
When McCulty first came to Church on Pearl in 2001, New Roads Elementary School was renting space for classrooms. When New Roads moved to its current location on Stoner Avenue, it opened up more of the church for McCulty to utilize.
He now shares the buildings with a Hispanic ministry, two Korean groups and is even hosting six young missionaries from North Carolina. But without the income from New Roads, McCulty has been forced to make some changes.
“I sacrificed my salary because I thought it was good for the church, and it has been,” he said.
McCulty now works full time teaching math for the Los Angeles Unified School District in Van Nuys. During the summer he commutes to Westchester for summer school.
While teaching is sometimes a greater challenge than preaching — he had to break up a fist fight in class last week — he credits them with the same importance.
“I’m getting the opportunity to change lives in mathematics,” he said. “The consistent in teaching, is that if you know math, you make money. I’m trying to gain ground with them that gives them an up on life."
McCulty lives near the Santa Monica Airport with his wife and four children. His wife is a stay-at-home mom and he began fixing cars and appliances to help the family cut back on expenses.
“Everyone wants the white-collar pastor, but in reality everybody wants Jeff because he comes and fixes their cars,” said McCulty’s 17-year-old daughter Brittany.
McCulty has made sure to pass along his handiness to his children, teaching them how to work on cars at an early age. Two years ago he started a racing club at the church and all three of his daughters joined.
The racing team hasn’t competed recently because of expenses, but McCulty’s daughters now have a basic understanding of cars, even helping their friends change tires.
“They all have confidence with cars now. You’re not going to pull the wool over most of their eyes, or they’ll call me,” he joked.
Born in Syracuse, N.Y., McCulty received a degree in engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology. Raised Catholic, it was a girl who introduced him to the Southern Baptist faith during college and then a job with Douglas Aircraft in Long Beach that brought him to the West Coast.
After 12 years as a youth pastor near Lake Isabella, he calls the Church on Pearl his opportunity to move to Santa Monica, recalling that he forgot to bring socks to wear for his interview.
“The folks that were here at the time, they were the type of people that built their own stuff, took care of their own stuff,” McCulty said. “They just saw all that, they saw who I was and said, ‘This guy can take care of it.’”
Because the church was struggling financially when he first arrived, he became a part-time pastor while simultaneously working the graveyard shift as a security guard down at the pier.
The church continues to work with a small budget, but for McCulty, money is irrelevant when it comes to serving his parish and the community.
“We don’t have any money, it doesn’t matter,” he said. “It felt like for so long churches took and took and took. We want to be the church that gives and gives and gives."