USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Forging a New Moral and Political Agenda

Forging a New Moral and Political Agenda

Executive Summary
In the nearly 20 years since the 1992 civil unrest, the Los Angeles faith community has significantly expanded its role in the public sphere. The social response to the Rodney King verdict was a watershed moment that provided an opportunity for congregations and other religious bodies to establish relationships across racial, ethnic, and economic divides. Faith-based organizations also launched efforts to meet short-term needs. Since 1992, significant demographic and political events have altered the landscape of Los Angeles, and of the faith community. While faith groups have always participated to varying degrees in the public sphere, over the past two decades they have become expected partners in dealing with social issues. This has resulted in a substantial increase in the number of faith-based nonprofit organizations and a diversity of approaches to the problems they seek to address. In the immediate aftermath of the civil unrest, faith groups established programs to address the symptoms and the underlying social issues of a fractured city. Many of these efforts lasted less than three years, but they accomplished the goal of quelling tensions and expanding interfaith and interethnic understanding. Other efforts had the organizational capacity to sustain coalitions and bolster community development activity. Between 1995 and 2010, political developments such as Charitable Choice legislation in 1996, the promotion of faith-based initiatives during the administrations of Presidents Bush and Obama, and the needs of overburdened public agencies, have served to increase the public activities of the faith community. These expanded efforts mirror the pluralism in Los Angeles and its inherent complexities.

Currently, faith groups in Los Angeles exhibit five primary approaches to addressing the public sphere: 1) Charity in the form of volunteerism and service provision; 2) Organizing efforts intended to nurture community leadership; 3) Advocacy that involves speaking out on behalf of marginalized populations or addressing issues of discrimination or injustice; 4) Community development to improve economic opportunities and well-being of communities; and 5) Interfaith dialogue to foster understanding between different religious traditions. If most of the work by faith groups is directed toward charitable activity, the development of interfaith groups has seen the most growth since 1992. While the level of activity has increased in all five areas, partnership across the religious spectrum remains a key area for growth and opportunity. The challenges that face the Los Angeles region, including the ongoing economic crisis, immigration, and the specter of a cataclysmic natural or human-made disaster, require responses from all sectors of society, including religious communities. Perhaps the most powerful contribution that the faith community can make is to change the civic discourse of Los Angeles by reframing the region’s challenges as issues that demand moral rather than purely political responses. Despite its limitations, the faith community, rightly organized around its highest ideals, can be both an example of a principled commitment to the public sphere and the source of commitment to creating a Los Angeles in which all of its citizens can flourish. The faith community must realize the common denominator of helping the poor and the disenfranchised, and regain its prophetic voice to hold politicians, policymakers, businesses, and the media accountable in order to advance the public good.

Perhaps the most important moment in the life of Los Angeles in the past twenty years was the civil unrest that erupted in the wake of the verdicts in the Rodney King assault trial. Both during and after the city went up in smoke, the religious community played an important and unexpected role in bringing the city back together and helping to heal the wounds and bridge the differences that led to the conflagration. In this report, we revisit the efforts of the faith community to bring the city of Los Angeles together and to create better opportunities for individuals, families and communities in the wake of the 1992 civil unrest. In 1994 we reported our efforts to identify, describe and understand the many religious groups that set out to bridge the cultural, racial, and economic differences that had divided Los Angeles and led to the unrest.1 Almost twenty years after many of those religious groups first entered the public sphere, this report examines what became of these attempts from within the faith community to heal the social fabric of Los Angeles and to improve opportunities for those in underserved communities. In this we were particularly interested in both the relative successes and failures of these groups, seeking to understand lessons for the faith community in its efforts to engage the civic sphere of Los Angeles. A second set of questions emerged as we were underway with this project. It became clear to us early on that while 1992 was in many ways a watershed moment in the life of the city of Los Angeles, many changes had taken place over the intervening years that had led to a drastically increased, and diverse, faith presence in the efforts of many different groups to engage the public square. Thus we expanded this project to understand the current efforts of the faith community as it engages important social and political issues in Los Angeles. Our effort in this is not intended to be an exhaustive account of the many congregations and faith-based organizations (FBOs) working in Los Angeles, rather, as a resource to examine the role that the faith community currently plays in the public life of Los Angeles and its potential for helping to make the city and region a better place for all who live here.

In the immediate aftermath of the 1992 urban unrest in Los Angeles, there were numerous efforts by faith communities to address the anger unleashed by the Rodney King verdicts. A broad spectrum of religious groups—from individual congregations to quickly formed coalitions—organized clean-up crews and the delivery of food, clothing, and other resources to the affected communities. People from a wide range of faith traditions were mobilized in these efforts and new relationships developed across the city. In addition to providing emergency assistance, there were many groups who felt that their religious commitments required them to make a sustained effort to heal the divisions that separated people of different races, ethnicities and social classes. These efforts included citywide or regional interfaith organizations, such as the Interfaith Coalition to Heal L.A., intra-religious efforts that brought together leaders and lay organizers from within particular faith communities, and “covenant” relationships between congregations, often with one of the partners from an affluent suburb and the other an urban area more closely affected by the unrest.2 For example, Jewish congregations from L.A.’s Westside joined with inner-city congregations, such as First African Methodist Episcopal Church. Similarly, suburban churches, such as All Saints Episcopal in Pasadena, established partnerships with predominantly African American congregations in South Los Angeles. While it is tempting to critique the long-term impact of these efforts, since many partnerships lasted only a few months or a couple of years, an alternative view is that the civil unrest created the occasion for members of various faith communities to establish relationships across boundaries—social, religious, economic, racial and ethnic—which set the stage for the city’s vibrant interfaith networks. In addition, one can plausibly argue that the civil unrest was a major impetus for renewing the faith community’s engagement in addressing a number of seemingly intractable problems, such as poverty, homelessness, violence, and disparities in educational performance.

Covenant relationships bring congregations from different economic, ethnic, and religious populations into sister/brother relationships—into partnerships directed toward the nurture of cross-cultural understanding and of mutual assistance.

1 “Politics of the Spirit: Religion and Multiethnicity in Los Angeles,” Center for Religion and Civic Culture, University of Southern California, 1994.

2 “Politics of the Spirit.”


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Richard Flory is the senior director of research and evaluation with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Brie Loskota is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.

Donald E. Miller is the director of strategic initiatives with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.