USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Opening the Gates

The Research Process

Working within the parameters of the Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development, established in 2007 by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and headed by then “Gang Czar” Jeff Carr—himself a minister with significant community engagement experience from a faith-based perspective—we decided to focus on three Gang Reduction and Youth Development (GRYD) zones out of the 12 that had been identified. All three (Baldwin Village, Newton, and Florence-Graham/77th Division) were in relative proximity to the University of Southern California, and each zone had gang-related violent crime rates that were at least 400% higher than other areas in Los Angeles. In 2007, for example, 12 of 13 homicides were gang-related in the Newton GRYD. Newton has 14 active gangs that claim territory, six Latino gangs and eight African American gangs. Baldwin Village has only four active gangs, but 60 percent of residents report that gang activity is “always” or “often” a problem. The Florence-Graham/77th Street Division GRYD has 11 active gangs. In 2007, the Florence-Graham/77th GRYD experienced 354 gang-related crimes. These three areas also had a significant religious presence with hundreds of congregations spread throughout each zone, ranging from a few large churches to numerous smaller congregations.

In the early days of establishing the Institute for Violence Prevention we met with staff members that had been hired by the city in each of the three targeted GRYD zones. In addition, we drove and walked through the zones in an attempt to understand their religious ecology, talking with residents as well as clergy. Perhaps we should not have been surprised to discover that many of the churches were closed during the week and opened only for Sunday worship services and, on occasion, for Wednesday night prayer and Bible study. We also noticed that there were historic African American congregations in communities that were largely Latino. And there were Latino congregations that catered to immigrants from particular countries, and even specific regions of a country. These congregations often provide an informal social safety net and system for their congregants but tend to have less engagement with the larger community.

In studying demographic surveys of these three GRYD zones, it became clear that gang activity must be understood in a larger context, not only of low and under-performing schools, historic and current public policies and practices that create racial discrimination, high unemployment and the persistent lack of capital investment in these communities, but also the significant demographic shifts that have taken place in Los Angeles over the last 30 years. Since 1990, Los Angeles has in general become less Caucasian, less African American and more Latino in its racial and ethnic makeup. In 1990, Latinos made up 38% of the population of Los Angeles County, while the 2010 census data show that Latinos make up almost one-half of the population. These changes were also mirrored in the religious ecology of the three zones we were studying.

In the three zones, we mapped 329 congregations, not including storefront churches, multiple congregations meeting in the same building, or those meeting in more informal settings. In 2010, the population of the three zones was 108,710, which means that there was at least one congregation for every 330 people. In neighborhoods that had experienced dramatic shifts from historically African American to now being increasingly Latino, this trend created both new tensions and new ministry challenges. Many of the Black churches were comprised of commuters who were driving to the church they attended after moving to the suburbs or to areas like Palmdale and Riverside. Hence, these congregants were not confronted with daily life in these neighborhoods which lessened the motivation to challenge the violence and social problems in the areas surrounding their churches. Further, many Latino churches in these neighborhoods were Pentecostal imports from Mexico, Guatemala or El Salvador and their members were seeking to recreate the extended family communities that they had left behind. Indeed, possibly because of their immigrant status, or their experience of oppression in their countries of origin, or a theology that emphasized personal salvation, many Latinos were reluctant to engage government representatives or political structures.

Within the three GRYD zones, the IVP staff collected data on congregations and contracted with the Advancement Project’s Healthy City initiative to create community profiles and asset maps. (Maps are available at Our relationship with staff at Healthy City proved to be invaluable. They combined our survey of congregations with other community assets and produced three community profiles that mapped active congregations in or near the GRYD areas as well as gang intervention assets already in place in the community.

Place-based religion

One side benefit of the relationship with Healthy City staff was that these mapping exercises provided an opportunity for the Center for Religion and Civic Culture to deepen its place-based religion model, which seeks to understand congregations within the context of geographic communities and the ways in which religious organizations function alongside other institutions, such as schools, health care facilities, nonprofit organizations, and other community resources.

Historically, religion scholars have been focused on religious beliefs—how they develop, are influenced by, and in turn influence culture, and, how beliefs may influence social action. In contrast, a place-based religion approach seeks to discern how religious organizations operate as community actors within a network of other community resources. This approach promotes a scholarly understanding of how religion and community relate to each other, but it also can aid communities as they seek out religious organizations as partners in improving the lives of its members, and for congregations as they perform important roles within the community:  socializing children and imparting values that enable them to be responsible members of the human community; being a prophetic voice for justice; nurturing, consoling, and inspiring people in need; and being an important location for a variety of community-based activities.

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

Donald E. Miller is the co-founder 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.