USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Forging a New Moral and Political…

Successes, failures, and contributions of civic religion, 1992-1995

Immediately following the civil unrest of 1992, faith groups began to work toward creating a more unified city, with informal partnerships or covenant relationships being a prime expression of the desire to heal the breach in the social contract that binds together people from different social, economic, racial and ethnic groups. While most of these groups dissolved after a few years, there were other organizations that had larger aspirations. Perhaps most visible, both in 1992 and for years after, were the efforts of Rev. Cecil Murray of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME). Murray had already established close ties between his church and city officials, as well as with other religious and civic groups. During the unrest and in its aftermath, he became a key actor in many additional community development efforts and programs in the city until his retirement in 2004. Another organization— New City Parish, a coalition that began with five Lutheran churches in Los Angeles—grew out of the responses of like-minded pastors whose initial aim was to provide food and clothing to people displaced by the unrest. The coalition grew to nine churches and developed into an organization that is still active today in the civic life of Los Angeles. These examples raise the question of what led to longerterm success, in both organizational and programmatic terms, and ultimately what these and other groups have contributed to the civic life of Los Angeles since 1992. In what follows, we outline several reasons for both the short-term and long-term successes of these efforts.

“Those organizations that
really had their purpose in
rebuilding L.A., a lot of us
disappeared because whatever
goals they set were met,
at least to their satisfaction.”

Chip Rawlings, Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter Day Saints

Short-Term Crisis Response
Most of the efforts coming out of the 1992-era were organized with a short-term goal in mind, such as to clean up the areas affected by the unrest or to create a sense of community among diverse groups of people. Many of these efforts received enthusiastic media attention despite their modest goals. Other efforts, such as “Hands Across L.A.,” organized by the Interfaith Coalition to Heal L.A., were largely symbolic efforts to show that people in a city as large and diverse as Los Angeles were more united than divided. Because these events and relationships were initiated primarily in response to a crisis and often oriented toward a particular issue, rather than the underlying conditions, they did not lend themselves to long-term efforts to address larger problems facing the city.

Organizational Capacity, Structure and Resources
Owing primarily to the fact that most of these efforts were born out of a crisis, most of these partnerships lacked any real organizational structure to sustain their efforts. Given the limited resources of many congregations, however, faith-based organizations often had no choice but to move on to the next critical issue that they were equipped to address. The few exceptions to this general rule were those organizations that had existing structures of community development and policy advocacy that could be adapted to the new efforts as well as the relationships necessary to make the efforts successful.

“When there is a crisis, a lot
of good people respond.
The sustainability is always
questioned because there is
so much going on.”

Rabbi Emeritus Steven Jacobs,
Temple Kol Tikvah

The two examples noted above—the programs initiated and sustained by First A.M.E. Church under Rev. Cecil Murray and the development of the New City Parish in response to the 1992 crisis— represent two different ways that organizational structures were effectively utilized. FAME used its existing organizational structure to create FAME Renaissance, a community development organization associated with the church. A key to the success of FAME Renaissance was the hiring of Mark Whitlock, a former banking executive, to become the executive director. FAME was able to capitalize on Whitlock’s knowledge of the financial world and create an expanded community development organization. New City Parish used the existing relationships among several Lutheran churches, first to create an organized response to the needs caused by the civil unrest, and then to develop a larger structure through which they could sustain ongoing programs to address the needs of the communities they serve.

Population Change
Among the factors that led to the 1992 civil unrest was the rapid demographic change that took place between the 1980s and the early 1990s in Los Angeles. As the Latino population increased and the African American population decreased in the same communities, many shared the view that the two groups were competing for resources such as jobs and housing, which stoked underlying tensions. This demographic trend has continued since the 1990s, one result being that many of the African American churches in South Los Angeles are now primarily commuter churches, with their members living as far away as Riverside and San Bernardino. A drive up Vermont Avenue, Hoover Street, or Figueroa Street reveals that many churches are only open for weekend services. This has the potential to reduce the commitment to the community where the church is located.4

Generational changes have also affected the demographic makeup of traditionally African American communities since 1992. In our interviews, we found that while the events of 1992 loom large in the minds and experience of some, the civil unrest has little to do with the lives of others. The leaders of several faith organizations were either too young to remember the civil unrest or they did not live in Los Angeles or California at the time. Thus, while 1992 remains symbolically important as a sort of touchstone for many L.A. communities, it does not have the same resonance with many of the groups active today as it did for the first several years following 1992.

Demographic change has also taken place in organizations—leaders retire, move to other positions or geographic locations, and members move away or drop off. The effect of the changes on organizations can be variable, but what is clear is that in faithbased groups most of the energy for community engagement usually comes from a motivated individual within the organization, and that knowledge is rarely institutionalized in such a way that it can live on after the individual has left the organization. The result is that each time a key person leaves, the knowledge they have gained over time often leaves with them.

In sum, the urgency of the crisis in 1992 created the key impetus for mobilizing the faith community in Los Angeles to enter the public sphere in a significant way. Even though most of the efforts lasted less than three years, they accomplished the primary tasks that they had set out for themselves, to create a greater sense of interfaith and interethnic understanding in the city. For those few groups with larger goals, the key to their success was the leadership of a key individual and the ability to leverage existing relationships and organizational structures to support their programs.

4 On this theme, see Omar McRoberts, Streets of Glory: Church and Community in a
Black Urban Neighborhood, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005.

Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

Brie Loskota is the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.

Donald E. Miller is the co-founder of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.