By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In July 1992, hoping to scare the hell out of a kid who'd been messing with his girlfriend's little brother, police reports say, Salman donned a Raiders T-shirt and fired five rounds from a .38 special into the kid's house. The boy's mother was home at the time; she told police that one of the bullets nearly grazed her hairline.
During an interview with the cops, the police report says, Salman "attempted to minimize the seriousness of his crime by citing that it was not his intention to hurt anyone, as he only fired his handgun because he thought no one was at home." Later, friends of Salman's contacted not only the victim in an effort to scare him, but also had a mutual friend contact the son of then-County Attorney Rick Romley. Bizarrely, they seemed to be attempting to bribe the county's top prosecutor.
Not surprisingly, the effort failed, and a jury found Salman guilty of aggravated assault with a dangerous weapon. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
His record has come back to haunt Michael Salman. The neighbors who want to stop him from building know it's their ace in the hole. It's one thing to welcome a church into the neighborhood, but it's another thing altogether when that church is helmed by a convicted felon, particularly one with such a scary history.
But it was that record that led Salman to God.
Initially, Salman was far from a model inmate, suspected of selling drugs and disciplined both for swearing at guards and for possessing LSD, according to prison records. (He claimed the latter was a set-up.)
But records also indicate that, about a year before his release, Salman suddenly changed his signature. Instead of writing the l's in his first and last name, Salman drew crosses.
Salman gave his life to God while in lockdown, he recalls, fed up with prison and with himself. He describes it in language that wouldn't be out of place at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: "You get sick and tired of being sick and tired."
There, in lockdown, "I got down on my knees and surrendered to the Lord," he says. His prison buddies "thought I'd taken so much LSD that I was seeing God."
In prison, Salman says, he signed up for a Bible correspondence course and was ordained as a minister. He was released in October 1996, just one month after earning his degree. He had served three years in prison.
Five years after he got out of prison, Salman began Harvest Christian Fellowship in his living room. For a small, non-denominational congregation, its birth was hardly unique: One man, dissatisfied with his current church, heard the call of God to start something new.
And Salman, for all his difficulty in getting along with neighbors, has the outsized personality of a guy who could either lead a gang or lead a church. Once his life changed, he simply redirected his passionate energy.
Salman says that after his release, he returned to his old stomping grounds, hoping to share Christ with his former gang brothers. After his first marriage quickly ended in divorce, he met Suzanne, who was raised in the Church of Christ. Suzanne's father, a former church elder, left that church to help Salman start Harvest Christian.
Unlike many start-up churches, theirs rapidly outgrew the family living room. That was a problem. With 70 or so congregants, the fellowship didn't have enough money to build something, or even buy an existing church building. It was still too big to meet comfortably in someone's house.
In 2002, Salman thought he'd found a solution. He'd gotten to know the members of a tiny congregation, one that owned a building they were tired of caring for. The Church of All Nations hired him to be its pastor. Minutes from a congregational meeting suggest that the members were thrilled to have found someone to maintain the property.
The situation deteriorated rapidly. According to a lawsuit the church's leadership filed against Salman, one of the new pastor's first moves was to put up a sign saying "Harvest Christian Fellowship." That wasn't what they'd bargained for: They were the Church of All Nations, and proud of it.
Salman insists that he had the loyalty of the congregation, but he clearly did not have the board of directors on his side. They voted to oust him, and when he fought back and refused to leave, they filed a "forcible detainer" to have him evicted. The judge granted it.
Salman ended up renting space from a local Baptist church. Because the church needed the building on Sunday mornings, he was forced to move services to Sunday afternoons. Attendance fell, from 70 people to about 35, he says.
He looked around for church buildings for sale but, at a few million dollars each, couldn't afford them.
That's when he stumbled onto the house on North 31st Avenue. If he sold his home, he realized, he'd be able to buy this one — with its sprawling, 62,000-square-foot lot. There would be plenty of room to build a church in the backyard.
He says that he called the city. "Are churches allowed in this neighborhood?" Sure, the city said. In December 2005, Salman made the deal.