In a Fresno trailer park beside railroad tracks running along Highway 99, Michael Love Angelo strolls happily through his yard like it’s paradise.
“It’s like I’m living in the garden,” the 78-year-old says beside a “Jesus loves you” sign. “It gives me the spirit to make things.”
“Are you talking about the Garden of Eden?” I ask.
“That’s the one!” he says cheerfully, heading for a planter full of strawberries. Slinky the once-homeless cat follows close behind.
“It seems like the garden likes me,” he says with a smile, “because it keeps growing.”
When Angelo isn’t tending to his patch of earth, he makes wooden crosses. The work is about sharing hope and love.
“God loves us so much,” he says. “He gives us so much opportunity.”
God is pure love. He’s not just loving, he is love.
Michael Love Angelo
Most of the crosses Angelo makes are about 4 inches long and they dangle from twine necklaces and rear-view mirrors all over town. He hasn’t kept track of the total, but concedes it’s a figure with “lots of zeros” since he started making them about five years ago. Around 700 were sent to the Fresno Rescue Mission alone. He mostly gives them away, but he accepts donations when people offer.
Angelo likes using recycled material – the more obscure the better. He calls it “born again wood.”
“It gives it another purpose,” he says. “It gives it another life.”
Angelo the artichoke
You could say Angelo has lived many different lives throughout his 78 years, the majority of them in Fresno.
“I describe him as an artichoke,” says friend Rodney Swanson, who met Angelo while leading a Bible study. “Every time he comes in my door – and I’ve known him for many, many years – I peel off another layer of the guy. He tells me another episode of his life I knew nothing about that is hugely interesting.”
The surprising turns of his life include working as a reserve Marine and reserve sheriff’s deputy, owning fruit stands and an ice cream truck, and gold mining.
“I wasn’t your typical Marine,” Angelo says, a gloom suddenly gripping his face. “They are pretty gung-ho, and I had too much compassion for my fellow man. … They are all my brothers. We’re just a giant dirtball flying through space and we have a mission to do.”
Angelo started selling fruit in the late 1960s. His last fruit stand location in Fresno was at Herndon and Weber avenues near Highway 99. While he stopped selling fruit over a decade ago, he still thinks of himself as a “humble fruit peddler.” He says the wooden crosses he makes now are “fruit of the spirit.”
What I’m doing now is what I feel like I’m meant to do.
Michael Love Angelo
A sign in his small woodworking shop outlines the virtues of this spirit fruit: “Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” He usually works on his creations while watching reruns of sermons by evangelist Jimmy Swaggart on a small television set.
Angelo was inspired to start making crosses after losing one that he received as a gift.
“It felt so good when I put it on,” he recalls. “I wore it for years and years, and lost it and felt so empty.”
It’s not a piece of jewelry, it’s a daily reminder thing.
Michael Love Angelo
Angelo always considered himself a Christian – his birth on Easter Sunday a constant source of pride – but an experience in the 1960s strengthened his beliefs. He believes God brought him back to sanity when he was lost and afraid while doing psychedelic drugs.
“I don’t think you would have liked me back then,” he says.
Coming back to reality from a scary acid trip, he felt like a new person and changed his name to Michael Love Angelo.
He considers it his “born again” name. And while he never painted anything as renowned as famed Renaissance painter Michelangelo’s ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, his drawings of fruit (what he says largely came out of necessity because he was not good at spelling) drew loads of people to his fruit stand.
Swanson says Angelo is a blessing for all he encounters.
“If you met Mike one time and spent three minutes with him, you met a friend for life.”
Angelo is instantly endearing when we meet Wednesday outside his 32-foot trailer. White wisps of hair frame a kind face, and he talks and gestures in an unassuming way. Next to his crosses are small wooden plaques that he made displaying colorful Christian images, and inside his wood shop is a framed sketch of a happy Jesus Christ that reminds me of an image of the late reggae singer Bob Marley.
“That’s laughing Jesus,” he says. “You wouldn’t think Jesus would laugh, but he does because we sure mess up, don’t we?”
Angelo also enjoys making Christian bumper stickers, some slightly humorous, such as, “Sin is fun but eternity is hell!”
The single man has had his share of hardships and heartbreak, but he says he has “always liked people.”
“I can identify with them and their sufferings.”
One of his deepest pains is losing Winonah, the daughter of a longtime girlfriend who he raised as his own. The girl was 12 when her mother left him. He hasn’t seen her since.
He has lugged around a 100-pound block of concrete with Winonah’s handprint on it for the past 40 years that he dug up from outside a fruit stand he owned. It will soon find a peaceful final resting place beneath three large wooden crosses that he built for Scott and Darcy Bennett’s Tombstone Ranch in Raymond along Road 600.
He’s so generous. He would rather give a cross than take money for it.
“He’s the type of man who always puts other people above himself, no matter the situation,” Scott Bennett says of his friend. “He just has a huge heart. I’ve never met a kinder, more gentle spirit in a man. He really has a servant’s heart. He loves God with all of his being.”
Angelo also made a large wooden cross for Bread of Life Church, along Golden State Boulevard near his home, that has been on display for about a month.
Bread of Life Pastor Tom Bedford says knowing Angelo is the biggest blessing.
“His clear biblical understanding of the cross of Christ and its work in our lives is a refreshing testimony in a current era where that truth is slowly being lost,” Bedford says.
He’s the type of guy that gets up in the morning and takes a step out the door and says, ‘God, do you want me to go to the right or to the left?’
Angelo’s friend Cindy Baker knows what his crosses can do for people. Her son received one after graduating from a program at the Fresno Rescue Mission.
“It’s something so simple,” she says, “but it gives you comfort and it gives you peace, and that’s a nice thing to have in this world.”
People from all walks of life have received his crosses, including a code-enforcement officer who was involved with shutting down his fruit stand.
“God’s got such a sense of humor,” Angelo says with a smile. “You have to forgive people, you have to. You can’t carry that around. You are the one carrying it around, not them.”
Angelo believes people are saved by faith alone. Making crosses isn’t about earning a ticket to heaven. It just makes him feel good. His crosses help others feel the same.
“He is so honest,” Swanson says. “His honesty pours out of his eyes and his heart. If he hands someone a cross, you can tell he handed you a piece of his heart.”
The cross ministry
People interested in receiving a cross or supporting Michael Love Angelo’s work can call 559-269-9272.