Prosecutors allege Fiatala Manu stole the money while serving as interim treasurer of the First Samoan Christian Congregational Church in Santa Ana.
"It's a lot of money and I felt bad for the parishioners, because they would come faithfully and it's all family-oriented. I'm really surprised and saddened," said Florenda Torres of Santa Ana.
Prosecutors allege Manu embezzled the money from church bank accounts over 10 months, starting in October 2011. Instead of paying the bills of the small church, the 46-year-old is accused of writing checks to himself and making withdrawals.
Authorities suspect Manu gambled away most of the church money. It's cash that authorities allege church members raised to go toward building a new church.
"It's outrageous, frankly, for somebody who's a member of a congregation, put in a position of trust to handle the church's financial records, would simply steal everything he could get his hands on and take that money and pretty much spend it gambling at Indian gaming casinos," said prosecutor Chuck Lawhorn.
The alleged theft was discovered after an assistant treasurer noticed the money was missing. Authorities say Manu was arrested this week during a church meeting. If convicted, he could get up to 11 years and four months in prison.