Art by Loretta Weeks
“I anticipate a great spiritual awakening in many people who will learn to apply that spirituality to the physical world.”
—Daniel Dennis (Wiccan)
Mosques, synagogues, churches — institutions of faith all, places to worship, pray and participate as a community. A main tenet of this community aspect includes the responsibility to assist the poor, the hungry and the homeless. Traditionally, religious charity has been directed at helping members of a particular faith. Today, in addition to providing a safety net to compensate for the shortcomings of government social policies, many houses of worship, influenced perhaps by the ideology of the Information Age and ever-increasing globalization, have taken on the role of educator, instigator and activist. Beyond handing out a meal or providing a warm place to sleep, a handful of religious congregations in the city are advocating, prodding and providing in a way that ultimately touches us all.
Catholic Worker Ammon Hennancy House (632 N. Britannia St., Boyle Heights; 323-267-8789) follows the doctrine, but not the hierarchical leadership, of the Catholic Church. “The scandal of businesslike priests, of collective wealth, the lack of a sense of responsibility for the poor, for the worker . . . There was plenty of charity, but too little justice.” These are the words of the founder of the Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day, and the inspiration of her disciples. During a groundbreaking ceremony for the new cathedral downtown, a group of Catholic Workers stormed the site, silencing Cardinal Roger Mahoney with demands that funds raised for construction of the $163 million structure (including $5.5 million for the archbishop’s residence and $3 million for bronze doors) be used instead to assist the city’s hungry and homeless. To underscore their position that the bombing of Iraq was immoral and inhumane, members tossed a mixture of dirty oil, human blood (drawn voluntarily from Catholic Workers themselves) and fake blood on the U.S. government seal at the Westwood Federal Building during protests last December. Not all of their endeavors are so hardcore: Volunteers are always needed for the downtown soup kitchen, for health advocacy for the poor and for death-penalty vigils held the fourth Wednesday of every month.
The Dolores Mission Catholic Church (171 S. Gless St., Boyle Heights; 323-881-0039) noticed a 600 percent increase in the number of families showing up at the weekly food bank after the federal government and former Governor Pete Wilson decided to “reform” welfare by gutting food-stamp funds. Christian Based Communities, the activist entity at the church, follows a particular protocol: reflect, discern and act. In order to prove to government decision makers that real families were suffering, the parish organized a letter-writing campaign. More than 400 paper plates — each with a picture of a family affected by the cuts and reading, “My family is hungry. Please see that food stamps get restored immediately” — were sent to President Clinton, Senator Barbara Boxer and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. When nothing changed, parishioners traveled to Sacramento to meet face-to-face with state legislators, as a reminder of the parishioners’ plight and their determination. Since then, the food-stamp program has been restored, with the people of Dolores Mission proving that combined voices ring powerfully.
The Islamic Center of Southern California (434 S. Vermont Ave., downtown; 213-382-9200) sponsors the Project of Islamic HOPE (Helping Oppressed People Everywhere), dedicated to visiting incarcerated gang members on the first Sunday of every month at the Chino Youth Authority. Najee Ali, director of the project and a former gang member, goes to the youth facility not to convert convicts to Islam, or merely to sit and pray for their salvation, but to counter the allure of returning to gang life by offering concrete alternatives. “Once upon a time I was in their shoes, and now I am trying to show them a way out,” declares Ali. HOPE works to create economic empowerment by providing job training, â résumé assistance, clothing for job interviews and a database of potential employers.
The Second Baptist Church (2412 Griffith Ave.; 213-748-0318) did not find UPN’s sitcom The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer funny at all. The show was named after President Abraham Lincoln’s African-American butler and supposed trusted political adviser. Critics charged that, juxtaposed with the tragedies of slavery and with speculation that Lincoln had only used emancipation as a pretext for going to war, the show misrepresented and made light of the historical suffering of blacks. The Second Baptist Church congregation responded quickly, organizing a petition drive, picketing in front of the Paramount lot and demanding meetings with UPN’s executives. The show was promptly canceled, in part due to the church’s mobilization efforts, which rallied not only its own congregation but across doctrinal lines and differing beliefs, enlisting the support of a Catholic church and a synagogue.
Unitarian Universalist Community Church (1260 18th St., Santa Monica; 310-829-5436) depends on its Social Action Committee to keep up-to-date on issues such as welfare cuts, homelessness and the environment. Information is shared with the congregation, followed by action: raising funds for housing built by Habitat for Humanity, organizing a letter-writing campaign for gun control addressed to the state Legislature, hosting a fund-raiser to assist farm workers during last winter’s freeze. What drives this organization of Westsiders to maintain a broad focus and reach out to others? The committee explains, “This kind of caring for fellow man is religious . . . otherwise, what is religion all about?”
University Synagogue (11960 Sunset Blvd., West L.A.; 310-472-1255), thanks to the organizing efforts of its Social Justice Commit-tee, maintains a local and global approach to social change. Besides holding forums to discuss — and find resolution for — local issues such as the shortage in health-care resources for the city’s youth, the committee is currently focused on a forgotten people halfway around the world: Ethiopian Jews, who live in a remote, mountainous area in their East African homeland, and are ostracized because of their religious beliefs and practices. In 1981, an L.A.-based organization airlifted 15,000 Ethiopian Jews in 36 hours for repatriation in Israel. Many were left behind, and an effort has begun to have the remaining Ethiopian Jews follow the first wave of emigrants. But the state of Israel has hesitated about letting the airlifts move forward. Members of the Social Justice Committee, in conjunction with the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, are now calling on Israeli officials to give the same priority to Ethiopian Jews once afforded Russian Jews. The committee has also organized a letter-writing campaign; some 28,000 letters have already been sent. A forum to discuss the problem is planned for June 18, with first-hand accounts from speakers who’ve visited the region.