Category Archives: Los Angeles

What a life is worth

A young man was killed in our neighborhood last week. He was a USC film student who had some sort of altercation on the street while walking with friends late at night near campus. There was a fight, he was stabbed, and he died. Everything about the situation is tragic, and while USC can feel like an isolated world within our community, we certainly join his family and friends and the broader campus community in grief and sorrow over the loss of a bright young life.

I had known something must have happened due to the large number of helicopters which hovered nearby for so many hours that first morning after the incident occurred. And sure enough, it was the leading news story on every station throughout the day. My route home from Mercy’s preschool takes me directly past where the killing took place, and there were news trucks still stationed there the day after the tragedy was so widely reported.

As I watched the news coverage share footage from the candlelight vigil the night after his murder; as I heard friends share their love for this young man and their sorrow at losing him; as I listened to reporters tell the story of this young man’s life and accomplishments, I was struck by how much this extensive news coverage stood in contrast to the silence that typically hovers over the murders that happen in our hood.

When Carlos died on our corner four years ago today, there were no helicopters. When we held our vigil of remembrance and prayer, no footage was looped on any network. It is hard not to feel as if some lives really matter more; it is difficult to not conclude that some people are simply expected to die.

Just last week I came across a deeply disturbing article tracing a serial killer’s years of murder in our community, and the comprehensive political silence which accompanied his crimes. Because he is killing young black women, mostly prostitutes, not even the families of the dead girls were informed that their loved ones died at the hands of a serial killer.

“It doesn’t take a scientist to figure it out,” she says. But when LAPD detectives paid Peters a visit, they didn’t come clean with her. The city’s failure to involve the families, she believes, stems from the fact that “they are poor little black girls.”

A deeply frustrated Porter Alexander, who learned from this newspaper that his daughter Monique’s death in 1988 was the work of the Grim Sleeper, says, “We should have some awareness that it is going on again. Nobody came to us…”

The Weekly attempted to reach elected city officials and top Villaraigosa political appointees, but many were out of town, attending the Democratic National Convention, including the mayor, City Council President Eric Garcetti and Police Commission Vice President John Mack. Spokeswoman Eva Vega said Mack couldn’t weigh in on the Grim Sleeper case. “He doesn’t have the time,” she said. “He’s too busy right now.” The Weekly got a nearly identical response from Bratton’s office.

Such responses from City Hall feed the view held by Laverne Peters, that if 11 troubled young women had been killed in Westwood or Mount Washington by a single nut case operating over 23 years, it would be big news at City Hall. Instead, “It is almost hush-hush. … [The authorities] act like the parents of those kids don’t exist.”

Since the publication of the article quoted above, a reward has been issued for help in solving this case.

As I drove up Western Avenue the other night after a later Target run, I saw the alleys and dumpsters where these women’s bodies have been left. I thought of our own good friend who used to work as a prostitute in this very area. And once again I was struck by whose deaths warrants outrage; whose murders feel like loss; whose lives feel invisible and disposable.

Ignorance as bliss?

I went to the mall today with the big kids and Doug’s sister. I had a pair of shoes for Aaron to exchange that had been a gift, and another pair I had purchased for him in Seattle that needed to be returned. Our first stop was a Croc’s kiosk where Aaron got to pick out his very own pair as a gift from his beloved Auntie. Mercy has a pair of Croc’s knock-offs that she loves, and Aaron was very excited to be like his sister, and I was excited for him to have a pair of shoes he could so easily slip on and off (especially while traveling).

The pair he picked out were a few dollars cheaper than the ones Sarah originally purchased so each kid got to pore over the trays of little decorative thingys (I know they have some cutesy name but I have no clue what it is) that stick into the shoes and select one. Aaron left with a ladybug and Mercy now has a slightly eerie Cinderella head dangling off of the top of her shoe.

After the Croc’s kiosk, we headed briefly to the Apple store where we posed for a picture with the very large photo on their wall of one of our dearest friends, Steven, an Apple employee who was photographed for a recent marketing campaign. Aaron LOVES Steven, and his face was so precious when he looked up at the giant Steven image on the wall and recognized him. After the little photo shoot, Sarah offered to take the kids to the children’s play area while I ran into Nordstrom’s to return Aaron’s other shoes. So they took off in one direction and I headed in another to finish my final last errand.

Walking into Nordstrom’s today, I was struck by how incredibly luxurious everything around me felt. And I realized that the fact that I don’t go to malls and so very rarely shop for anything has really tweaked me. I felt so out of place there and so overwhelmed by it all: so many sleek and shiny things that, in an instant, had me longing after them.

Walking toward Kids’ Shoes on the second floor, I passed the kid’s clothing section. A rack of children’s jeans caught my eye when I saw that they were Seven for all Mankind jeans. I thought to myself, “Wow, I can’t afford those jeans for myself. Who buys these things for their kids?” Knowing how quickly kids blow through clothing sizes, I was stunned to see the price tag for these pants: $119.00. I am pretty sure that is more than we have spent on kids’ clothing in the last three years!

On any given day, I may think about the fact that I wish we owned a home. And Doug can definitely get excited about a friend’s nice camera and wish he had one like it. But for the most part, we live “off the grid” so to speak in terms of the more image-y kind of stuff, which is surprising being that we live in L.A. But where we live plays a big part in that, and who our peers are likewise informs those desires. And I guess I was just surprised how little time it took inside of a mall for me to suddenly feel like I needed a bunch of stuff I had not given any thought to or had no desire for previously.

That could either be a statement as to my weakness for this or that luxury on a Nordstrom hanger, or it could illustrate how well we are played by any number of techniques used to convince us of desires we did not even know we had. Probably something of both.

I returned my shoes and was reminded of one of the reasons why we always shopped at Nordstrom’s growing up: attentive salespeople offering great service that makes shopping not feel like a chore. I left the store and met back up with Sarah and the kids, and realized this was maybe their fifth time ever being in a mall. The highlight for them? Macy’s escalators.

Wicked wins

The night before we left for our trip north, we had the amazing privilege of seeing the Los Angeles production of Wicked with our very dear friends. Many people had told us how incredible this show is and we had heard over and over again how we just HAD to go and see it. Of course, nights out at the theater are not the norm for us, so while we had both shared a strong desire to see the show, we did not have any real, concrete expectation that we would.

Well, it surpassed even my highest expectations which felt surprising considering all the hype. The night was magical, and the next morning I just could not help myself from showing a few YouTube scenes to Mercy. The flying monkeys and the big talking Wizard head certainly caught her attention, but her imagination was most captured by the relationship between Glinda and Elfeba as they sang a sad goodbye to one another.

Wicked tells “the untold story of the Witches of Oz”, and the friendship between the two witches really turns the story of the Wizard of Oz on its head. And so it was interesting the other day when Mercy stumbled across the Wizard of Oz book in the van that good friends had loaned to us for our trip. It is a book filled with pictures along with the text, and so she sat in her carseat while we drove, flipping through the story.

At one point, Mercy started asking me questions about the Wizard of Oz story and I was answering them according to the original text. Mercy was growing increasingly agitated in the back seat. Finally she cried out in exasperation: “But Mommy, you are not understanding me!” “Mercy, what am I not understanding?” I asked, genuinely confused. “But Mommy, the witches LOVE each other.”

And then her frustration made sense. She was trying to make sense of the story I was telling her but it was in such clear contradiction to what she knew to be true based on Wicked. And I was stuck. I could not get the one story across without violating the other.

Last night during bath-time, Mercy had me tell her the Wicked story three times. For my daughter, a green-skinned, misunderstood friend has captivated her far more than a little Kansas girl and her dog.

Stevie Wonder at the Bowl

I got a call yesterday from a good friend who suddenly had two tickets available to see Stevie Wonder at the Hollywood Bowl. We managed to line up childcare (thank you, Lauren!) and we met up with four good friends from the neighborhood and headed out to the show. The traffic and parking were crazy, as they can be at the Hollywood Bowl, and after a long line to have bags checked (no alcohol or bottles were allowed for this show which was disappointing–sipping your wine is simply part of the HB experience, and we had brought a nice bottle of Toasted Head we had planned to enjoy), we made it to our seats right as Stevie began his introduction. We were settled and ready by the first note played.

The show was amazing. He is an incredible performer and the stage was filled with an orchestra, various family members, and all of the energy and passion a performer like him brings to his craft.

It turned out that our seats were in the “Toasted Head” section of another variety: I hadn’t been around that much pot smoke since a Beastie Boys concert in Chicago.

Doug and I realized that it was the first concert we had been to together, ever. That was hard for both of us to believe as we could each rattle off a long list of live performances we have seen over the years, but none that we had seen together.

All in all it was a magical evening: great music, great friends, an incredible venue, an unforgettable show.

Missional: To die and to live

“The crucifixion was the consequence of the incarnation.”

And so it can also be said that the resurrection was the consequence of the crucifixion (thank you, Patrick), and that too is a necessary theme of “missional” we do well to explore.

Moving from death to life: when I considered how to describe the ways that this has been true for me and for my family, a flood of stories raced through my mind, many of which have been told here before. Stories of how my children have been shaped to consider hospitality and generosity in terms of our home, our money and our food; stories of how my kids understand culture, language and race (in ways that simply could never have been taught from a distance); and story after story of how God is at work removing what is dead and hard inside of me and replacing it with something living.

And when I think of my community at large, I recall the stories of a community bound by fear coming together to stand up against a criminal liquor store owner and battle all the way to City Hall to see prostitution, drug sales and shootings removed from their street corner. I think of homeless, addicted friends walking the slow road to rehabilitation with a community and a God who refuse to let them turn and go back. I remember a black woman who spent the final years of her life with our church and in the process received God’s heart for racial reconciliation and gave all of us an example of what it looks like to be a person of grace.

I recall the story of a first-generation Spanish-speaking mom walking the aisles of our Ralph’s grocery store at ten o’clock at night desperate for someone who could interpret her daughter’s homework assignment (written in English) and help her understand what her daughter needed to do. And I think of how our tutoring program at the end of our street has served so many moms like her. I think of the many, many kids who have been given every help with homework assignments; the parents who have been equipped to better partner with their kids; and the flood of reading buddies who take time off from work and studies to sit and read with little bodies with growing minds, and help inspire a love for learning in them.

As I write this, our pediatrician (who is first and foremost a very dear friend) and two of her four kids are down the street at our tutoring center painting and roofing and helping prepare the place physically for our summer program that begins next week. This is the fourth year that this family has taken a week of “vacation” to live with us and labor at our side, doing morning work projects and afternoon camps for our neighborhood kids. The very fact that these friends from San Marino are here sleeping on our futon and floor, sharing cramped space with three early-rising small ones, and giving every ounce of energy to loving us and our neighbors is a story of that move from death to life.

In fact, I remember the first year this family and the rest of the team from Pasadena Covenant Church came to “dwell among us”, and I will let this story conclude my reflection today.

The first day of the afternoon camps, we were disappointed by the vary small number of kids who showed up and so decided to hit the streets in hope of recruiting more kids to come. The week before the group from Pasadena had arrived, there had been a gang murder that had taken the life of a very prominent gang member in our community. Large red shrines still stood boldly on Adams, nearby to where he had fallen, and we had warned our visiting friends about not wearing red that week, walking away from anyone who was wearing gang colors, and having in general a heightened sense of awareness for their safety. And a few weeks before that, a young girl had been shot in the face while playing basketball, in the same park that we were using to host our sports camp.

As we walked the streets and talked with kids and families, we could feel the fear and tension that our neighbors were living with, and we could understand why many of the parents were afraid to send their kids outside, and especially anywhere near the park.

In spite of these obstacles, we were able to make contact with a whole crew of kids and it wasn’t long before the camps were full and moving at full speed. As I walked down the street with Jamie, a San Marino physician who had come to Vacation to L.A. with her husband and three young children, still looking for any last kids to invite, she suddenly interrupted me and began to pull me toward the other side of the street. I looked up and saw what she had seen: a group of fifteen or twenty men approaching, all dressed entirely in red.

We crossed the street without making eye contact, and moved quickly back toward the park. As we got closer, we saw that, in addition to the volunteers and the kids enjoying their sports camps, large groups of gang members were gathering. The adults present promptly sent the kids and most of the volunteers back to the church, while a few stayed at the park, trying to tear down the equipment we had been using. The park staff, however, having also sighted the gang members, locked the doors of the rec center and refused to open them and let them in.

Over the next few minutes, more than seventy men, dressed literally head to toe in the color red, descended on the park. It turned out the murdered gang member’s funeral had been held that day, and as is custom, the guys needed a place to gather after the funereal.

After that memorable first day, the camps continued to grow and more than seventy kids were ministered to that week in the name of Jesus. That Friday, we sponsored a barbecue in the park for all of the kids who had participated and for their families and we had a blast. I bet there were two hundred of us gathered there in the park that Friday night. And it was strange, but people would be driving by the park in their cars and they would slow down or even stop to stare at this strange group of black folk, white folk, and brown folk, all laughing and eating and talking together.

That night, families who had stayed locked up in their houses came outside and enjoyed dinner with their neighbors. That night, kids who had been scared to step onto the basketball court shot hoops with their new Pasadena friends. That night, relationships were started that have resulted in whole families coming to know Christ and joining our church. That night, the same park that, days before, had been a symbol of death, violence, fear and division became a place of life and light.

“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

When I grow weary from sharing or welcoming or forsaking something for the sake of the kingdom here; when I consider how much safer or easier a church full of people like me would be; when I look around sometimes and all I see are dry bones, I hear Simon Peter ask this and I know that, as much as he failed to see and grasp and follow his Lord through the valley of the shadow of death, he had eyes to see what was ultimately true about his master: in him was life, and life “to the full”.

And so, though he faltered and failed, he followed. And so must we.

Alessandra

I love poetry. Recently I have been reminded of this from a range of sources, and I am enjoying the recovery of this part of who I am.

A few weeks ago, Doug was sitting on the futon piecing together worship songs and powerpoint slides while I sat at my computer trying to find a way out of the slaughterhouse that was our Scrabulous game. I clicked over to my email and found a message from Doug waiting: “read this” was all it said. I scrolled down to find a poem written by a young woman at our church, and discovered a talent and voice I could not resist.

Anyone who has ever walked the streets of our neighborhood at this time of year knows about the purple blanket of Jacaranda flowers that covers June sidewalks. Here is a recent entry on her blog I love:

Jacarandas Bloom

On 8th Street,
where the legless and drug addicted
mumble pleading eyes
for the change in your pocket,

On Raymond Ave,
where teen shotandkilled
sparked retaliation gunfire and prayer,

we fast forward to exhale.

Arthritic fingertips of trees secrete hope:
lavender droplets of ice cream fall
carpeting the sidewalks in bubble wrap.
Our eyes waft skyward to birdsong.

The trees have not forgotten it is Spring.

But perhaps my favorite was her description of a man showing up on her bus with her stolen bike and how she bought it back from him for $20.

I am thankful for the artists I am fortunate to share life with here, and glad to know that the beautiful girl I see on Sundays has a gift like this to share with the world.

Making soup

I recently came across the work of a man named Gerry Straub, a former Hollywood producer who, following a conversion experience in Rome, has devoted his time and his treasure to put the power of film at the service of the poor.”

Having exhausted his personal savings, he writes this about how he finances his film projects:

“In an odd way, I learned how to finance my films at the St. Francis Inn. There’s a friar there named Brother Xavier. He is a simple man, of Hispanic background, and all the street people love him. One day, he was cooking dinner. A volunteer entered the kitchen and asked, “What are you making, Brother Xavier?”

Brother Xavier answered, “Potato soup.”

The volunteer looked around the small, cramped kitchen and didn’t see any potatoes. And so he asked, “Where are the potatoes, Brother?”

Brother Xavier answered,“We have no potatoes.”

The volunteer asked, “Then how are you making potato soup?”

Brother Xavier said, “The Lord will supply.”

Well, you can imagine the volunteer rolling his eyes and thinking…what a sweet, pious thought…but the people are lining up in the yard and we need to serve them in an hour.

A few minutes later, there is a knock at the side door.

It was an off duty Philly cop. He had been at the farmers market and spotted 50 pound bags of potatoes on sale. He knew he passing the Inn and so he bought two bags and threw them in his trunk.

I make my films the way Brother Xavier makes potato soup…by trusting God will supply what I need.”

Thirteen

Thirteen people were murdered this weekend in Los Angeles (the L.A. Times offers details on eleven of the slayings).

We have all noticed an increase in activity lately in our neighborhood: sirens, screaming, the pounding of helicopters that hardly ceases…”Do you know what was going on last night?” is a common question between neighbors.

Meanwhile life goes on and days are spent chasing marbles up and down our driveway, starting swimming lessons, going to birthday parties with neighbors, and welcoming new babies into our church family.

But thirteen people were murdered this weekend.

Food for thought

Ed Gilbreath writes an excellent blog, and his post today includes a collection of interesting links I would recommend. One is to an article discussing the gentrification that is happening in my old neighborhood in Portland. Our recent visits to our old neighborhood and church have surprised me by how very much the neighborhood there has changed since we left in 2002.

I realize that the same is true for my old neighborhood in Chicago, and it makes me wonder what the future holds for our little corner of South Central. Already there is a substantial population of “gentrifiers”, and that trend is on the rise both here and in urban centers throughout the nation. Bob Lupton, who has inspired many in our community through his years of ministry in Atlanta, speaks of “reweaving the fabric” of frayed communities by bringing people of resources (read money, education, and power) back into under-resourced communities. In this article, Lupton shares about being confronted with his own identity as a “gentrifier”.

But during prayer and sharing times at our neighborhood church we began to hear prayer requests for housing needs. “Please pray for us – our rents have just doubled.” “Please pray for us – we’ve just gotten an eviction notice.” It wasn’t until Opal, a church member who lived within sight of the church, came in weeping one morning that I first made a disturbing connection. She had just received an eviction notice from the home she had lived in for many years – the city told the landlord to fix it up or board it up and he had decided to board it up until property values made it attractive to sell. For the first time it dawned on me that as my property value was nicely increasing, so was the value of the surrounding affordable homes. As my wealth was accumulating, Opal’s poverty was deepening. It was my investment that was the catalyst for her displacement. I could no longer sit in the circle and pray with integrity. I was the problem!

Father Abraham, have pity…

Driving in Pasadena this morning, I pulled up next to an enormous, shiny black luxury SUV with rims that probably cost double what my car is worth. Living in L.A. for almost six years now, I am so accustomed to car-bling that the vehicle itself was not enough to grab my attention. However, the Fuller Seminary parking sticker on the back was. Remarkable.

And coming home, as I neared my off-ramp on the 10, I swapped lanes with a shiny black Mercedes sporting a custom license plate that read: “DVA4GOD”. Really.

When did luxury cars with ridiculous rims and self-proclaimed “diva”-hood become even remotely compatible with Christ crucified?

When I left my house this morning I realized that my car was on empty so I swung into our neighborhood gas station to fill up. As I was leaving, I saw our friend David approaching and he was not looking very good. I stopped my car and rolled down the window and we talked for a bit. I gave him eleven dollars (what I had in my purse), and I knew that that equivalent of a morning Starbucks run for two would totally change his day.

I like to listen to the old-school mix on the local hip-hop station if I happen to be in the car mid-day. One of the songs played today used the phrase “Viewer discretion advised” in the context of speaking it’s message about life in the hood. Those words kept ringing in my ears as I thought about what it means to live as a disciple of Jesus in our cultural context. Honestly, and I know I do this too, it is just so easy to censor what we don’t want to see or admit or acknowledge around us, especially when doing so would demand a response. And so we create our own safe little play-lists that enable us to pursue “the American dream with a Jesus overlay” (can’t remember where I first heard that phrase) and simply tune out the Davids in our midst.

Doug read to me some staggering statistics the other day about the number of hours and images a typical person receives from the media in a week, and clearly the message spoken through television, movies, advertisements and the like is compelling, perhaps more so than the narrative of God With Us. Which is why we barely turn our heads at the Escalades and status symbols of the week that find their way into the lives and witness of the people of God and make for themselves a comfortable home. And so Lazarus sits, hungry, while we live in excess, and I wonder at the extent of reversal we can anticipate at the end of this life.