If you read my previous post, you already know that I am in Los Angeles for a class. Well, the class began tonight, and I thought I would try blogging every night, in an effort to share what promises to be a very interesting experience. First, some context.
One of the required classes for a Masters in Divinity degree from Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary (PLTS) is this class, also called, “Ministry in the City.” Although students may propose and complete an alternative experience to satisfy this requirement, the experience that PLTS provides for its students is in LA. It is designed to embed students in a community that is different from their own home community, and hopefully different from any community in which they have previously participated, so that they can learn and experience not only a culture that is different, but also how ministry within that culture is changed. Since most students at PLTS are white, the cross-cultural experience that PLTS provides begins within an African-American community in one of the LA neighborhoods that many people believe is “unsafe,” Inglewood. To illustrate what I mean, within only the past few days, when I told a few friends that I would be living in Inglewood for the weekend, my friends expressed concern for my safety, and spoke of the city as the slums of LA.
This morning, since I had some time, I drove down to Inglewood, and specifically the neighborhood where I would be living, even though I was not due to be here until 5pm. I drove down from downtown LA, and noticed how the nice malls turned to strip malls, and the cute restaurants became fast food joints. I did see more trash in the streets, and the skin color of the people walking around became darker. When I turned into the neighborhood, though, the trash disappeared. The houses were modest, but well kept with nice yards. As I looked around, I wondered… why do people call these the slums?
Actually, I didn’t wonder that. I know why. Because it is a black neighborhood. This is not to say that anyone who calls Inglewood is racist. For example, my friends who think of it as “unsafe” have probably never even driven through here. They think this area is a slum because that is what they have heard from others. It is an image, a caricature that has been passed down from the mid-1900’s, that is racially based. As I learned this evening, in the mid-1900’s, the nicer neighborhoods in LA were “white only” neighborhoods. Many of them had “sundown laws,” that allowed blacks to be in town while the sun was up, but required them to be long gone when the sun went down. And so, these neighborhoods were born. Neighborhoods made up of blacks, most of whom did not have much (if any) financial opportunity. Because they were, and are, mostly black, they were considered to be slums that are not safe places for any respectable person to be. Curious, I even looked up the crime statistics of Inglewood, and compared them to a city that is considered to be one of the safer ones in California, Sacramento. The crime rates in Sacramento are actually worse than Inglewood. But I have never heard Sacramento called “unsafe” or a “slum.” It is true that when I compare the crime rates between LA overall and Inglewood, there is a one point (out of 10) difference in the violence statistics with Inglewood slightly more violent. However, a one point difference does not seem to me to warrant the “slum” reputation.
This class is coordinated through a local Lutheran (ELCA) church, Holy Trinity Church, and that is where the class began. As we found the room in the church, we were greeted with offers of bottled water, granola bars, and coffee/tea, while we introduced ourselves to the other students and instructor. We chatted for awhile, and then were given some information and background about the area. The church invites its congregants to host us, and we were given a schedule of events, along with a list of students and each host family’s names, addresses, and phone numbers. Ideally, every student has a different family with which we live during our long weekend here. After the orientation and getting-to-know-you was done, we moved into the Parish, where dinner (lasagna) was served. Some of the host families joined us for dinner, and we spent some more time getting to know each other while we broke bread. The church’s choir rehearses on Thursday nights, and we were invited to join them. All of the students opted to join the choir, and we enjoyed a couple hours of rehearsing gospel music together.
The rehearsal was difficult for some of us, as those of us who are in choirs in our own home churches (or elsewhere), are used to being given sheet music and following the tune by reading the music. In this choir, though, most participants do not read music, and so instead, we are given sheets with words only on them, and expected to follow along in our respective parts! Although this did not seem to be any problem whatsoever for those who are members of the choir, it was very difficult for me!! I found myself wanting to make up my own harmonic tune to go with what was being played on the piano, but I discovered that we WERE expected to sing a specific line of music. Just because the sheet music was not written in front of us did NOT mean we were not expected to discern the appropriate melody or harmony and sing! Thankfully, my fellow Sopranos were happy to sing loudly in my ear so that I could pick it up and join in with them. This is just one example of how being embedded in a different culture will make some differences more visible and even envious. I am very envious of their ability to pick out the appropriate part in the music by ear!
My host family was not able to join us for the dinner, but the matriarch did join for part of the choir rehearsal. I met her after choir, and she waited for me to finish up some of the logistical necessities, and then led me to her home. I met her husband, and she showed me around her very nice home. Similar to the houses that I saw when I did my “drive-through” earlier in the day, her home is modest from the outside, but quite roomy and well kept with beautiful wood floors, a bit of crown molding, and a nice, large kitchen. I have my own bedroom, and she graciously offered me coffee and tea, and told me to help myself in the morning to any of the breakfast items she pointed out as she gave me the tour. She explained that she will not be here in the morning when I leave at 8:30am for my class day tomorrow, because she works at UCLA. I asked her what she does, and found out that she is a micro-biologist! (So impressive!) She and her husband were very tired, and need to get up early, so after making sure I had everything I needed (including the wireless code, which is enabling me to write this), they headed to bed.
Tomorrow, I have a long, busy day. My schedule begins with meeting up with other students at Holy Trinity so we can carpool over to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. From St. Mark’s, we will be led through a “community walk,” where we will experience and observe another community in Inglewood, including lunch at a local restaurant. At 2pm, we will meet with representatives from UNIDAD (United Neighbors in Defense Against Displacement), and then meet someone at a local Family Center. We have dinner at 6pm with the local pastor of that church, and then will attend a Hip Hop Worship at Ascension Church, which is led by the youth of that church. I have to admit… I think the Hip Hop Worship is going to be the highlight of a very full and interesting day!
And so, I am going to head to bed. As I sit here, I take in the silence from outside. No road noises (unlike my own house at home), no sirens (also unlike my house), no disruptions. It sounds and feels pretty safe to me.