Category Archives: Los Angeles

Vacation to LA

I was preparing for an announcement I hoped to give during our worship service last week and found the following reflection written close to six years ago. I am now on the other end of this, planning and recruiting Seattle folks to join in a week of service and kinship with Church of the Redeemer. This was a good reminder for me of the many ways God uses outside groups to come alongside and bless an existing community.

On April 14, 2005 I wrote the following post, titled “My Burden Is Light”:

I love my baby. I love holding her, playing with her, talking to her, bathing her. I am one of those moms who simply cannot get enough of her little one.

With that said, when someone asks to hold her and I pass her into the arms of another, there is that moment where I straighten my back and shoulders and stretch my torso a bit. There is that feeling of release, relief, and the easing of a weight or burden, even if for only a few minutes. There is that sudden freedom to go to the bathroom by myself, or sit down and eat a plate of food unencumbered, or sit at the computer and read an email without her little hands grabbing at the mouse and shoving bills and papers onto the floor.

This week our church is hosting a group of kids and adults from my home church in Seattle, Washington. They are here this week to serve our church and our community through morning service projects at our tutoring center and at homes of church members, and through afternoon sports and dance camps for neighborhood children. It is an amazing group of people who chose to spend their spring break, many of them as families, not in Cancun or at Disneyland, but in the gritty streets of South Central.

I have been close to tears many times this week:

-leaving the home of one of our church members who is widowed, wheelchair bound, and the primary caregiver for her elderly mother with Alzheimer’s disease where four members of the mission team were scrubbing walls, priming rooms for painting, scouring behind toilets, picking dropped pills up off the floor, and helping to organize the contents of a kitchen so that things could be accessed from a wheelchair;

-standing in the middle of the street talking to a neighborhood woman and her son who had nothing to do with any of our camps or events but who had driven by our gathering time of singing with the kids in the park and had stopped their minivan to find out who we were and why we were doing what we were doing;

-sitting in the auditorium of our local grade school watching a beautiful high school senior who is an accomplished dancer in Seattle teach dance to more than forty little girls—and remembering holding that young woman when she was the same age that my own little girl is now;

-walking into the back classroom of the tutoring center I have directed for the past three years and having someone flip the light switch to reveal a brand new ceiling filled with new recessed light fixtures that fill the room with bright, warm light–no longer will young children and their tutors squint to learn new words on book pages that are barely illumined by a lone fluorescent light.

I love my life here in South Central. I love my church and the people I call neighbor and friend. I love the opportunities I have daily to wrestle with Jesus’ call to love mercy and to walk justly. There is nothing else that I would rather be doing.

But it is not always easy. And it can sometimes feel lonely. And so this week I am feeling that deep sense of a weight lifted, of responsibility shared; of partnership, companionship, and relief. I have stood on the sidelines of camp programs, free to chat with the watching moms. I have stood in the back of the group of kids singing, free to engage stopped minivans and curious neighbors in conversation. I have stood in the middle of a newly painted tutoring center, and watched others bend and sweat and cover themselves with paint so that children I love can be welcomed by cleanliness and beauty.

This week, twenty-nine people have come into our life here and humbly asked: “Can we hold your baby?”

$900,000 goes to Pasadena agency?

I remember driving a friend down to Skid Row one night, not long before we left Los Angeles to move to Seattle. My friend was involved in a rehabilitation program on Skid Row, as was her husband of many years. They lived separately while they pursued healing from addiction, received job training, and moved toward permanent housing and employment. Driving through Skid Row at night is an experience I will never forget. The images from that evening are fresh and real in my mind even today.

I remember hearing about the L.A. times reporting on the practice of hospitals dumping patients along Skid Row, some still in their gowns; others still hooked to IV’s. I remember also hearing often enough about police dumping homeless or mentally ill individuals in locations far outside the boundaries of the communities they would patrol, or often at or near Skid Row as well.

I read this story today about the financial settlements that came out of investigations into these dumping cases with one particular L.A. area hospital. It will be interesting to see how this situation plays out. (HT James Love)

Henry Louis Gates and my night as a prostitute

I have been following with interest the media coverage of the arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., an esteemed African-American scholar on the faculty at Harvard University. Incidents like this are dipstick moments of sorts for how different opinions and perceptions really are about some facet of our society. They are O.J. moments, really, and this one has likewise opened the door for much discussion and shouting and debate.

Having lived as an adult in urban communities in both Los Angeles and Chicago, I have shuddered over the years at the stories of people, young and old, who have been arrested unjustly, verbally abused, and assaulted by police officers who were just “doing their job”. I grew up in a community where the policeman was a hero; an upstanding member of the community; a friend. I knew such men, and there was a reason kids wanted to grow up and become like them.

When I moved to Chicago, those impressions began to shift. Now, Chicago is a bit notorious for police misconduct and corruption, and the city is full of stereotypes and war stories about Chicago cops. And when I first heard that stuff, I mostly treated it the way one would experience an episode of a TV show because that is how stereotypes feel. But then, a year or so into living in that community, those stereotypes lost their movie star faces and took on those of my neighbors and friends.

I remember the day that one of the young men I was especially close with started telling his cop stories. Growing up as a Puerto Rican youth who was “neutron” as he called it (unaffiliated with any gang) in our community , he had not been spared from chasings and beatings and humiliations. I remember feeling so horrified at what he described, and I burned with anger toward those who had so consistently harmed this child. I recall one story in particular where he talked about seeing the cops coming and choosing to run through the alleys to escape. I remember thinking that was a foolish choice: of course if you run, they are going to chase you down, right? If you haven’t done anything wrong, don’t run!

Well, that was a bit naive. Oprah will tell you that, if you are a woman who is being assaulted, not to EVER let your assailant take you to a “second location”. Fight with all that you have in you to prevent that move. While I am not willing to suggest that the police station can be compared to a rapist’s house, there is an instinctual reaction to someone who may harm you: fight or flee, just don’t let them “take you”. And if you grow up hearing stories of beatings and seeing your brothers come home bloodied and bruised because they dared to play basketball at the park or walk in an alley, and even if it is only one relative who mysteriously “dies” during his incarceration, that is enough to rewire your response to an unmarked Impala.

I ran a drop-in center on the campus of North Park University for a number of years, and in its early stages, I was the adult responsible for the kids who came to read or talk or play pool with me on Friday afternoons in the campus game room. When six o’clock would roll around, I would walk out with the kids who were left, and I would walk them home. I remember being stopped on occasion by officers who were quick to tell me that I was walking where I did not belong. They were not polite or kind, and while I was “one of them” in terms of the color of my skin, their disdain and annoyance and offense even came through loud and clear.

I am a warm and gentle and kind human being, and tend toward a higher level of politeness, even at times using “sir” when I speak to my elders. But I remember clearly the snappy tone that came over me when these guys would stop me and speak rudely to me. I felt defensive and while their behavior was in no way abusive or threatening, my face would get red and my tone would change. I don’t know if it was a mama-bear-like response as I would take a step forward to put my body between my kids and their cruiser, but I know with certainty that I did not call any of them “sir”.

I thought about that when I read all of the coverage that continues to unfold around the Henry Gates case. One news story in particular had a full string of comments from readers saying in one way or another: “Oh, look, the race card won again!” in response to the charges ultimately being dropped. And while I am of the mind that, as many have said, cooler heads could have prevailed in this situation, I also know that I relate to the story and to Gates’ reaction with an understanding borne from my experiences in both Chicago and L.A. that are not normative for everyone, especially the lighter-hued among us.

On the night when I was picked up and placed in the back of a police cruiser for the crime of flagging down two officers to protect me from a man who was propositioning me as I walked down the street, my own behavior surprised me. You don’t ever know how you will react in situations you don’t expect, and when I was apprehended, when those officers began to accuse me of prostitution, I could taste the indignity and I wanted to spit it back in the officers’ faces. I was horrified by how they were speaking to me. I was humiliated by their assumptions about my body and sexuality. I was irate that that they had so clearly seen a man following me, had watched as I crossed the street and waved my arms begging them to stop and help me, and yet watched as the only person on the street doing anything remotely criminal walked hurriedly away.

As they placed me in the back seat of the cruiser, I found myself repeating an absurd phrase: “But I’m Senior Par Excellance! I’m Senior Par Excellance.” This was the name of an annual award given to the graduating senior who most expressed the University’s values and ideals through a life of service on campus and beyond. It was my own much lesser version of Gates’: “You don’t know who you are messing with.”

And so instead of catching a cab to make it downtown to the graduation party for our University’s president’s daughter, I rode in dismay back to my apartment where thankfully my Mom happened to be getting ready for bed having taken a red-eye with my Aunt the night before from Seattle. After supplying the officers with campus identification, a recent issue of the College News which had three articles on the front page that mentioned me, as well as my weekly column inside, and of course the testimony of my mother about when I left the house and what I was doing, I was finally released with this admonition: “Well, we’ll let you go this time. But we’ll be watching for you. If we don’t pick you up again after a month, the charges will be dropped.”

As I stood in the doorway of my apartment, I did not say “sir”. I don’t think I even extended a “good-bye”. I was livid, and as much as my mom tried to persuade me to stay in that night and forgo the party, I was not going to let their intimidation win. I grabbed my things and walked right out that door, though I did not go back to Lawrence Ave. but opted for Foster instead. A cab came, I made it to the party, and word spread quickly about the incident. And I went down in campus history as the Par Excellance Prostitute!

I share my story for the sake of relating to the Gates’ arrest, and relating to the fact that for me there was a whole mess of circumstances that informed how I responded that night on Kedzie Avenue. And also to relate to the fact that, one who is described as polite, well-mannered, distinguished (well, no one has ever described me as distinguished, but they have used that word for Gates), can suddenly face an indignity or humiliation that brings out every defense.

I appreciated the following comments about the Gates’ incident:

Did Professor Gates exhausted after his long flight from China and perhaps irritable after being unable to gain entry to his own home, become outraged when he was questioned by Officer Crowley and ordered to step outside? Maybe. Did the police officer overreact to the professor’s outburst? Certainly. Did race shape their responses? Most likely.

The officer, rather than treat Professor Gates as a respected member of the Harvard faculty, probably expected more deference from him because he was black. Professor Gates, in turn, probably offered more defiance because the officer was white. Just as the officer may have presumed that Professor Gates did not belong in the upscale neighborhood, Professor Gates may have presumed that Crowley was a racist, intent on harassing him.

This stuff is loaded and complicated and messy and we are bound to judge and assume and pretend to know more than we do. I hope there can be some fruitful dialogue around issues of race and power and our criminal justice system, and I hope we can sincerely move past the perspective that this is all a game of cards.

John’s Eulogy for Ann

“But in her life, God’s strength sure came into its own in her weakness.  One of our friends in an email spoke of his “vivid memory of the day you told me of Ann’s illness all those years ago, and of your faith then that God was in it and with you and always would be.”  Forty-three years ago, it was, and God has been in it, and with her, and with me, all through.”

An excerpt from John Goldingay’s eulogy for Ann found on his Fuller web page: scroll to the very bottom under “Articles and Papers”.

For Ann

It can be the most unlikely person who impacts us the most deeply. It was not surprising that, as a student at Fuller Seminary and as a lover of all things Old Testament, I would find myself challenged and provoked and delighted by a man named John Goldingay. Purple shorts and Coldplay T-shirts and a winning accent sort of had me at hello! What I did not expect was to have my life changed by the mostly silent woman who sat in a wheelchair who was his wife, Ann.

Ann Goldingay was a steady presence in my Fuller experience. So much of how John offered himself to us as scholar and friend bore the mark of her life impressed upon his. As he would teach, it often felt as if she were there in the classroom with us. Ann and John also welcomed each class into their home nearby campus every quarter for tea and treats and occasionally a movie or some other diversion. And Ann and John were faithful in their attendance at chapel every week, much more so than I. Their worshiping presence was something I could always count on, seated toward the front and on the left.

Since leaving Fuller, we have seen the passing of David Scholer and Ray Anderson, two giants of faithful instruction at Fuller and beyond. And last week I received word that Ann Goldingay passed away. Ann too was a giant, and her life, and John’s life with her, instructed so many of us. Knowing Ann, and sharing the life of a community with her and John, is one of the enduring treasures from my years at Fuller.

As I have thought about Ann this past week, I have had different memories stand out in my mind. I remember the first time I was in their home, sitting somewhat awkwardly by her side, speaking with her without expecting any verbal response. I remember John, turning toward her with a smile and witty comment when she would cry out in the midst of a class visit. And I remember a September night when Ann and her wheelchair were carried up our long flight of stairs on Kenwood to join in a surprise celebration for my birthday.

In his book, Walk On, John Goldingay shares about his life with God through the journey of Ann’s battle with MS. In his chapter titled Calamity, he shares his thoughts on the book of Job. He writes:

“What we may be able to infer is that calamities do have explanations, even if we do not know what they are, for there is another feature of the story of Job that delights me every time I think about it, not least because it establishes a similarity between Job and us. It is that Job himself never knows about chapters 1 and 2 of “his” book. So he goes through his pain the same way we do. And he illustrates how the fact that we do not know what might explain our suffering, what purpose God might have in it, does not constitute the slightest suggestion that the suffering has no explanation…I cannot imagine the story that makes it okay for God to have made Ann go through what she has been through. But I can imagine that there is such a story.”

As I have thought about Ann these past days, I have been struck by a passage in Philippians chapter one that for me describes the kind of impact Ann has had on my life and on the lives of countless others. The apostle Paul writes of a different sort of bondage than that which robbed Ann of her movement and speech, but the truth of how that bondage impacted others I believe is the same. He writes:

“Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel…Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly…

Yes, and I will continue to rejoice, for I know that through your prayers and the help given by the Spirit of Jesus Christ, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain, and I will continue with all of you for your progress and joy in the faith, so that through my being with you again your joy in Christ Jesus will overflow on account of me.”

I don’t know ultimately what Ann’s chapter one and two are that might bring meaning to bear on her illness and suffering. But I can testify with certainty that there are significant riverbeds of  progress and joy that wind through my soul as a result of Ann Goldingay.

Ann, may the angels lead you into paradise: may the martyrs receive you at your coming, and lead you into the holy city, Jerusalem. May the choir of angels receive you, and with Lazarus, who once was poor, may you have everlasting rest.

Update

For those who are praying for my friend in L.A.: she does not have West Nile as they initially believed. Her paralysis remains, and she now has pneumonia as well. Please pray for the Lord’s full healing and grace to be upon her and her loved ones.

Please pray…

A dear member of our church family in Los Angeles was just diagnosed with West Nile Virus and is undergoing risky treatment for this as we speak. Pray for her husband and for their baby (she just found out she is six weeks pregnant); for God’s protection and for complete healing. She is currently experiencing paralysis form the neck down and is having difficulty breathing. We are joining our friends in around-the-clock prayer for her, and I am asking anyone willing to carry this burden with us to intercede for her.

Thank you.

Scott Intern

One of the Servant Partners interns we had the pleasure of getting to know down in L.A. was a young man named Scott (or Scott Intern as we called him). I just caught this video tonight that shares a bit about his life with our community in South L.A. The video was made by a film crew from Urbana who came out and spent some time in our community filming Scott and his life. I was preaching the Sunday that they were there filming.

Enjoy!

My country, my lifetime

Having voted in this past election while a resident of Los Angeles, and while living among many African American neighbors, today felt a bit strange to watch the inaugural events in a very different kind of community and context. I am sure the day was significant for many around here, but apart from my Facebook updates and one friend who brought by some free Krispy Kreme doughnuts that were being passed out today, I just didn’t feel that same sense of energy and import to the days events.

I was grateful for Maurice Broaddus’ reflections posted on his blog, attempting to describe for someone the scope of significance held in what took place today. He writes:

I watched an old black woman laughing. Crying. Laughing and crying and saying joyfully “I’m glad I lived long enough to see this! Oh God! I’m glad I lived long enough to see this!”

They looked like people taking their first breath and really enjoying it. I didn’t see the haggard, submissive expression. I saw enthusiastic joy, free from restraint. If you saw it, if you heard it, there’s no way that a human being couldn’t be touched by it. How many people last night and this morning took their first real breath?

A friend of mine recently commented that she’s “just a white girl from a small town” but she just doesn’t get the near-messianic expectation surrounding Barack Obama being black and elected. Not why people broke down and cried, not why folks danced in the streets, or stayed up so late. Or why my cell phone blew up election night as every black person in my directory called or got called, all sharing a similar refrain. It boiled down to four words “not in my lifetime”…

No, President Barack Obama won’t redeem white people from the sin of racism (or whatever else some folks might imagine the import of his election might mean). But he represents a beacon of hope and the promise of change. His election might portend a true shift in our culture and how we see and treat one another. That is the root of the expectation: the hope of a better tomorrow in light of our many tragic yesterdays. Something many of us never thought we’d see in our lifetimes.

On election day, we lived in a community that cried and danced and shouted in the streets. I missed that today. I wept this past weekend watching a random video Scot McKnight posted of the Obamas going to church on Sunday at a historic black congregation in Washington, D.C. I was overcome by emotion as I saw them shaking hands with fellow parishioners as they made their way out of the sanctuary, for some reason feeling this very great and real and earthy context for the significance of Obama’s election.

We heard enough about “the Black church” during some tense weeks of the campaign, and we often quote the line about Sundays being the most segregated hour in America, but somehow seeing the Obama family there, surrounded by an all-black congregation, seeing them pass through parishoners hoping for a hand shake, something about that grounded the magnitude of his election beyond Facebook frenzy and cool Obama posters and into wooden pews and fancy hats and a choir of children’s voices. And it just felt so very intense and real. And I was overcome by awe at what I too had dared to hope to ever see in my lifetime.

Burning

It is hard to breathe here right now due to the heavy smoke that fills our air. It is easy to be reminded that countless families are suffering great loss as a result of the fires burning around L.A. as we, who are not affected, cough and choke with them.

I always appreciate the reflections Don Johnson regularly offers on his blog, and it was gut-wrenching to read that in his church alone, ten families have lost everything: homes completely destroyed by the Montecito Fires. I was talking with a friend at church this morning and I remarked on how much that kind of loss for one family would impact a congregation, and the degree of displacement and disorientation that would come with that kind of loss for ten families seems unimaginable.

Please pray for the many people affected, and if you feel led to give, Montecito Covenant Church has a relief fund established for those facing loss, both within their church as well as throughout their community.