Even though I was an outside observer, I felt some anxiety as I turned east off of the Harbor Freeway and headed to Mount Olive Second Baptist Church in the heart of Watts. Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke had failed to appear at several previous meetings to signal her support of the GED initiative—a bill before the California legislature that would require, as a condition of probation or parole, that non-violent offenders would have to pursue basic literacy skills. District Attorney Gil Garcetti had publicly indicated his approval of the bill that had been introduced by Assemblyman Carl Washington. But Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches (LAM), the moving force behind this bill, wanted Supervisor Burke’s support also. After she failed to respond to their last invitation, members of this coalition of small and mid-size African American churches 2 3 staged a prayer vigil on the steps of the supervisor’s office building.
As I entered the church nearly every seat was taken. There was a palpable sense of excitement in the air. Mount Olive’s choir entered the sanctuary and sang two inspired songs, followed by Pastor E.Winford Bell stating the purpose of the meeting. The agenda was carefully scripted. Praise and worship was to take ten minutes. The call to order and prayer was three minutes. Pastor Bell had five minutes, and from a prepared text he stated what everyone already knew: namely, that seventy percent of all repeat offenders have one common trait: they cannot read! He concluded his statement by saying: “The purpose of this meeting is to demonstrate to our public servants that LAM is serious about this initiative. We understand as an organization that large numbers of disciplined people acting together is the most effective method of demonstrating our seriousness. We thank God for your presence and prayers. To God be the glory.”
Indeed, the power of God and the mandate of biblical narratives had been cited at previous meetings I had attended. At one of the strategy sessions, Reverend Bell told how he had been caught that afternoon in the crossfire of youths shooting, and that he had to duck below his dashboard to avoid the flying bullets. This incident was graphic testimony to the turf wars associate with drug dealing, an obvious symptom of what happens to illiterate young men who have difficulty pursuing legitimate employment. Far from being discouraged, however, those present at the meeting began quoting scripture: “No weapon formed against thee will prosper. Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world.” And amidst the prayers that closed the meeting there was an overpowering sense that “God is on our side.”
Remembering these words, I nevertheless worried that Supervisor Burke had not yet arrived. Mary Neal had taken four minutes to explain what the audience should expect to occur at the meeting. Dale Gooden had concisely outlined the ground rules for the “action.”
At exactly 7:30 p.m., Erica Byrd extended an invitation for Supervisor Burke to come forward to the podium. The room was abuzz with anticipation, and then the room fell silent when there was no response and no obvious sign of Supervisor Burke or her deputies. In one of the side aisles of the church I noticed Eugene Williams, founder and executive director of LAM, in a quickly called caucus meeting with LAM board president, Reverend Richard Byrd, and several other leaders.
At 7:36 p.m., Reverend Bell walked to the podium and announced, “Supervisor Burke has arrived,” and he turned to the choir which belted out the song “Jesus is Real,” while the audience spontaneously jumped to its feet and clapped and joined them in festive praise. During the closing refrain of the song, Supervisor Burke entered the sanctuary with an entourage of three deputies and responded affirmatively to each of the questions asked by Mrs. Byrd:
“Do you agree to make a public declaration of support for the GED initiative sponsored by Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches?”
“Do you agree to introduce a resolution concerning LAM and the GED initiative prior to the county supervisors’ recess?”
“Do you agree to assign a person to assist in the design of a pilot program?”
Then a final question was addressed to the audience: “Are we satisfied with Supervisor Burke’s response?”, which was followed by an eruption of applause and a standing ovation.
On September 15, 1998, Governor Wilson held a press conference in which he signed into law the GED initiative, culminating an organizing process that had begun in 1992 when Eugene Williams, an organizer for the Regional Council of Neighborhood Organizations (RCNO), traveled to Los Angeles from Philadelphia. After dozens of one-on-one interviews by Williams with pastors and community leaders, Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches was founded on August 15, 1994. Four years later, twenty-seven small and mid-size churches demonstrated what can happen when civic leadership is developed within the faith community. Currently, there are nearly forty churches partnering together in Los Angeles, and similar movements are starting in San Diego County, Riverside County, and San Bernardino County. In addition, LAM has launched its next major organizing effort, One Church One School, which is an effort to involve parents and churches in taking responsibility for the condition of schools in their neighborhoods.
As part of its documentation of LAM, the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California asked Jerry Berndt, an internationally renowned photographer, to attend two recent LAM-sponsored public actions in Compton, in support of the One Church One School initiative. The next few pages of photos portray the interface between faith and civic responsibility, followed by the Center’s report assessing two years of documenting the organizing process of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches. As executive director of the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, I am grateful to The James Irvine Foundation for providing the funding which has allowed myself and research assistants Orlando Love and Lezlee Cox to spend a number of hours observing LAM events and interviewing the inspired leaders of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Churches.