I am SOOO tired. What a day. I knew it was going to be packed from the schedule, but I did not realize just how much information I was going to try to absorb in such a short period of time, and how exhausting it would be. I am dead tired, and ready to fall asleep, but I am going to attempt to write a little about today before I do. I am worried that if I don’t write about it now, I never will….
The day began when I left my host family’s home to pick up a friend and co-seminarian, and then meet the others at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. From there, we carpooled to St. Mark’s (Lutheran) Church, where we met with Pastors Jim, Brian, and Matt. We spent some time with introductions (again, but more involved) and prayer before the pastors gave us some background information about the New City Parish. The name of this group is slightly misleading, as it is actually a coalition of nine urban Los Angeles Lutheran congregations. It began in 1992, as a response to the horrible beating and violence that occurred when the “Innocent” verdict from the Rodney King trial was given. The story, as well as the impact that can be seen from the work of this coalition, is very impressive and inspiring. If you are interested in learning more, I recommend checking out their website, newcityparish.org.
Next, we spoke about the neighborhood there by St. Mark’s, which is next to the University of Southern California (USC). USC has been slowly and firmly taking over the neighborhood and pushing out the families that have been calling Inglewood their home for many years. Although some see this displacement as a good thing because it is changing a low income black neighborhood into a high income white one, these pastors explained how this movement, which some call “progress,” is taking away homes, damaging communities, and leaving low income families with little to no options for finding affordable housing. One of the pastors, Brian, took us for a brief walk around the neighborhood, pointing out the single family homes that still exist, and then the large lots where single family homes were torn down in order to build brand new, multi-level apartment buildings with student housing. As we spoke, it became clear that the issue is not whether USC has the right to expand and build in the community, but rather HOW they go about doing it. Some houses have been bought by USC, and tenants told they will be given $200 to help with the costs of moving out within the month. Most tenants are low income, struggling, and do not know what to do. They don’t know what their rights are, and they end up doing as they are told because they do not believe they have other options. One woman, who we had the opportunity to meet later in the day, fought back. She gathered the other tenants and kept saying, “We must fight back!” The group floundered, and eventually stumbled across a non-profit advocacy group, who started to help them. Eventually, Strategic Actions for a Just Economy (SAJE) was born. This group worked hard, challenging many corporations who were pushing around the poor, taking advantage of their lack of funds and ability to fight back, and slowly, things began to change. Their work is most certainly not complete, but they have earned themselves a reputation as a group to be respected. In fact, recently, The Staples Center proactively contacted SAJE to speak about their desire to expand, and collaborate with SAJE on plans that will allow their expansion while also working with and providing for the community that would be impacted. This success story was told in depth through the community walk, followed by lunch at Mercado La Paloma, and then completed with a discussion in the SAJE/UNIDAD office. If you’re interested in learning more, check out the SAJE website: www.saje.net.
When our discussion at SAJE ended, we rushed off to the Hope Street Family Center. Despite being tired and running late, I believe this was my highlight of the day. It was my highlight because of many discussions I have had with friends and family on Facebook regarding who is to be blamed for the increasing amount of homeless and underpaid/unemployed families. Some of my friends and family believe that the problem is big government. They say that our government programs create families who are dependent on government for their food and housing, and are unable to support themselves. They believe that the US is a land of opportunity, and anyone can “make it” here, as long as they are willing to work hard.
I disagree. I often point out that people who are born into poverty do not have the same opportunities that people who are born into wealth have. I speak of families whose parents are not at home to teach their children the basics that we take for granted; basics like self-care, financial planning, non-violent relationships. These families have little to no financial means, and are forced to live in violent neighborhoods where the children are exposed to drugs, and eventually offered get-rich-quick opportunities through drug traffic or other illegal means. Without the parental guidance and support, without any examples around them of someone who found a way to be successful within the bounds of the law, and with the constant view of how easy life seems to be for those who get involved in these illegal activities, most of these children succumb to the pressure. Eventually, these kids either die of violence, or have their own kids, and the cycle continues. I refuse to blame these kids (and later adults), who have had no support, community, or education to guide them out of the difficult situation into which they were born. And so, I argue that what is needed are programs that will help educate both parents AND kids.
Well, that’s exactly what the Hope Street Family Center does. They have multiple programs, all focused on the kids, but which extend to the parents, designed to get these families the education they need to parent, eat healthy, exercise, read, and succeed in school. This Center’s programs are funded by the government, but, of course, are being cut every year as our government looks to lessen their spending. It is precisely programs like these that I believe MUST remain funded and operating. It is precisely because of these programs that I endorse raising government revenue as opposed to reducing government spending. These programs are not giving “handouts,” but are instead teaching families how to support themselves. They are ending the futile cycle of uneducated, struggling kids giving birth to kids who, due to their circumstances, become uneducated and struggling.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I know that not all programs are successful like the ones run by this group. And I know that there are efficiencies that can be gained in government spending. But any call to cut programs instead of REFORMING programs will end up hurting not just these programs, not just the people who are enrolled in them, but also all of us. If we do not make efforts to break this cycle, it will mean more violence, more isolation, less community, and a bigger wealth disparity. If you’re interested in learning more about the Hope Street Family Center, check out their website: www.hopestreetfamilycenter.org. And if you’re ever in LA, check them out in person. An investment in this group is an investment in a future that will require fewer welfare programs because those who are struggling the most will be educated and aware of the few opportunities available to them.
After the Hope Street Family Center visit, we headed to the Ascension Church for a quiet dinner with Pastor Reggie. Pastor Reggie and his wife welcomed us with open arms, sharing their personal stories, and speaking a bit about ministry in Inglewood. After a very filling dinner (I ate way too much), we joined Ascension Church for their “Hip Hop Worship.” I wish I had more time and energy to describe this worship. First, I would not actually call it “Hip Hop,” but it was an unstructured form of worship that was lead by the youth of the congregation. There were about 50 people in attendance, with about 10% white (not including us), and most of the rest black. They began with some song and prayer, and sharing of the peace. Then, our leader of the evening invited everyone to share their testimony of good news. The first person who spoke actually brought tears to my eyes. It was a tall black man who took the microphone and proudly told us all that he had just received his son’s report card, which had 3 As and 1 B. He spoke about how incredibly proud he was of his son, who was the ~14 year old boy sitting next to him. Why did this bring tears to my eyes? Well, the first reason is because I am a hopeless sap. But the second is because this man’s pride in his son was so strong that I could feel it, and I knew his son could feel it, too. I believe so strongly that it is expressions of pride and hope in others, like this expression of a man about his son, that inspire and motivate people to keep on working hard. It was incredibly touching.
As other testimonies continued, we heard about more excellent report cards, good health, and a young man (teenager or early 20’s) who said he finally got a job. He would not tell us what the new job is, and so a woman in the congregation took the microphone and told him, “You may not want us to know what the job is because you’re embarrassed, but I’m telling you this now: that job is a blessing. It is nothing to embarrass you because it is a mere stepping stone. It will take you to bigger and better jobs. Ones where you will be proud to speak of them. God is leading you.” Yes, that one brought a few tears to my eyes, too.
After the testimonies, we had more song and dance, and then we were entertained by a beautiful liturgical dance performed by a young woman with ballet/modern dance. When she was finished, the entire congregation stood up with enthusiastic applause. This happened again at the end of the night when a teenager got up and signed a gospel song to us with expressive sign language movements. Both the dance and the sign language were absolutely stunning, and emotion provoking, and both were met with support and appreciation by everyone in the room. We also had a skit, and even a well thought out, loving, and inspirational sermon delivered by a young woman. So much talent in that room; I only wish I had more energy left at that time to engage fully and completely.
The night ended around 9pm, and my group of seminarians and I drove back to Holy Trinity, and then back to our host families. As I lie here now, ready to sleep soundly, I have so many images and lessons flying through my mind. I can only hope and pray that they settle there, enabling me to reflect upon them fully, absorb them completely, and inspire me wholeheartedly.
Good night, all.