Going Beyond the Walls
Many participants in the program commented on the role of the church in the community. While some churches are inspired to work on issues such as gang violence due to their faith commitments, many others are not engaged in confronting the issue or other social problems within their community. Some church doors are closed to outsiders and members do not seek to extend services beyond their gates. The IVP program served to re-inspire faith leaders to use their leadership role and pulpit to effect change in their communities. This comment from Pastor Luis Orellana of Faro de Luz was typical: “For many years I have been a church pastor, but what happened is there are a lot of people not reached from the pulpit. So I decided to do more outreach for youth and teenagers.”
For many congregations, their theology is a significant barrier to community engagement. Some congregations simply spiritualize issues and believe the answers can only be found in praying, Bible reading and relying on “God’s will.” For other congregations, the internally focused and purely spiritual nature of their religious belief limits their activity. Still others remain focused on material gain, spreading the “prosperity gospel” that inspires many to view economic gain as a sign of God’s blessing. To these people, Rev. Cecil Murray offers this advice: “I would admonish those who preach prosperity to remember that the one who founded the Christian church had just one pair of sandals for his feet.”
Other leaders must be shown that congregations have an important role to play in the public sphere, whether within their immediate neighborhoods or in the larger community. Understandably, congregations prioritize spirituality, but this can constrain them from addressing social problems. They may fear the possibility of gang members disrupting the status quo of the church or may be unsure of adapting church programs to meet the needs of a new group of members. Marco Antonio Martinez of Milo Terrace Baptist Church said, “I see some churches around the area that are dying out, sometimes [because] the pastor has lost his vision to go out there and make an impact.”
IVP introduced congregational leaders to theological models that expanded their more narrow understandings of how churches should function within communities, without giving up their spiritual commitments. A continuing emphasis in the program was reflected by the approach of Rev. Cecil “Chip” Murray and Rev. Mark Whitlock. Murray and Whitlock drew upon their experience of First African Methodist Episcopal Church (FAME), one of the most successful and visible congregations in Los Angeles during the period of Pastor Murray’s tenure. After the 1992 civil unrest, the church created FAME Renaissance, which Mark Whitlock directed, and in subsequent years was the vehicle for $400 million of investment channeled into low-income neighborhoods in South LA. Similarly, Rev. Alexia Salvatierra, former executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE), presented their model of “faith-rooted” community organizing where people are brought together to create change, but are guided and shaped at every step by their faith commitment and a confidence in God’s intervention in human history.
These models and others presented during IVP helped inspire Rev. Alan Wright and his wife Rev. T. Marvene Wright of Word Center Church of Los Angeles. Like many faith leaders, they hoped to influence young men and women in their neighborhood. They also recognized that their desire to help the community required a concrete expression, so they decided to join the Institute for Violence Prevention. Early in the program, after a field trip to the Los Angeles Summer Night Lights program, the Wrights began to realize that their church was an important community asset that could help in the battle against community violence.
For the Wrights, the simple action of letting young men play basketball on the church playground changed their perspective on community outreach and engagement for the Word Center Church of Los Angeles. Previously, they had looked at the young men clamoring to play and thought that it would take time and be a “bother.” Despite their apprehensions, they let the youth in and were immediately impressed by the respect that the youth showed. Soon, Marvene expanded a simple basketball game into “BBB,” basketball, Bible, and a bag of snacks. “If I hadn’t been part of the [IVP] program, I wouldn’t be thinking of it,” she said.
Bridging Divides and Creating Multicultural Partnerships
An additional community issue that limits the role of congregations is the tension in the community around the issue of ethnic and cultural differences, especially between Latinos and African Americans. The churches mirror these tensions. Despite the demographic shift that has taken place, there are few multi-ethnic congregations within these neighborhoods. While this is not necessarily a surprising result—multi-ethnic congregations are inherently fragile organizations—faith leaders in these communities need to understand the potential that their respective congregations represent if they can figure out ways to work together, if not worship together.
By design, the Institute for Violence Prevention included African American and Latino participants. The program also emphasized developing coalitions that bridge denominational and racial divides. The classroom settings encouraged cross-fertilization through group interaction where relationships could deepen.
According to a survey we administered at the beginning of the program, participants demonstrated a strong understanding of the importance of coalition-building but needed more information regarding how to build strong coalitions. A number of participants said that they were participating in multi-cultural coalitions, but only a limited number could provide examples. After the program, participants said they had gained a more nuanced understanding of the role and place of multi-cultural partnerships, increased their involvement in multi-cultural coalitions and campaigns, and had a deeper understanding of how to make such efforts successful.
During the course of the Institute for Violence Prevention, the Wrights demonstrated a new openness to engage their neighbors and use the resources of the church to assist neighborhood youth. The Wrights continued to express openness to new levels of partnership and coalition building throughout their IVP experience. At the end of the program, Alan discussed his newfound partnership with the Latino church across the street. Through the program, they discovered the importance of building multicultural alliances and coalitions with neighborhood churches. They looked across the street and realized that the Latino congregation was a potential partner. They opened their doors to Pastor Estrada for special events, such as a quinceñera (15th year birthday party), and shared toys from a Christmas toy drive with the congregation.
Alan even said that when he commented that he wanted to learn Spanish in order to create connections with the Latino congregations, a parishioner purchased Rosetta Stone software for him to learn the language. “The open gate policy…is just a starting point in my thinking. Now I can go out and be an open gate. I can open myself up as a gate and whatever resources I have or whatever I can give, whatever good things I have, I can give them away to other people,” said Alan. The Wrights experienced a change in their view of “church” from an experience on Sundays to a community-wide resource.
Harnessing the Productive Power of Research
The university setting for the Institute for Violence Prevention proved to be an important component of the program’s success. Interdenominational gatherings are rare and such gatherings with both African American and Latino pastors are rarer still. USC provided a neutral space for pastors to engage across these lines to address important issues.
In the course of the our data collection, however, it became apparent that a lack of clarity existed among the participants in the program about the role of research, the university, and academics in their communities. Presenters emphasized that additional training in research methodologies could significantly advance their abilities to create and operate effective programs in their areas of concern. Often those being studied, interviewed, or observed by social scientists feel abused, disempowered, and silenced by the work of the researcher. This phenomenon is most pronounced when the subject of the research is disenfranchised in other ways, including a lower socioeconomic status, underprivileged post in society, marginalized ethnic or racial categorization, and when the research is seen as yet another instance of moneyed interests taking advantage of their communities.
We sometimes encountered this sense of suspicion and anger during the course of our initial data collection with program participants. Those we interviewed often questioned our research motivations, the purpose of the interviews, the reasons this data was being collected, and to what use it was going to be put. One IVP fellow questioned how participating in such data collection exercises would effect any change in his community. “Researchers always come into our communities asking questions, but they just take what they need and never give anything back. They publish what they find but we don’t see any change where we live.” This sense that disadvantaged communities were being further marginalized by the academy was highlighted in this aspect of our work. However, this finding highlights the need for more work to be done in this area, not only to demystify the academy but to make research more accessible to these communities, and to create dialogues between researchers and communities.
Exit surveys administered at the close of Phase I of the IVP program revealed that a large majority of respondents wanted access to information that, with some training, could be reached through research tools, including internet searches, the use of Healthy City’s free mapping and database tool, or a simple web-based literature review. Respondents were looking for information such as the demographic characteristics of their target community, existing programs in their community, dropout rates in their community, homicide rates, income levels, locations of sex offenders in their neighborhood, healthcare resources, and the like. Such information, along with the desire to learn how to perform community assessments, were by far the most needed items listed in the exit survey at the end of the IVP program.
While the IVP program attempted to chip away at this problem by providing training facilitated by Healthy City, which introduced their databases and research platform while exploring the role of community research in their programming and program development, much more is needed to open up the potential that research can provide these programs. As previously stated, in order to address this gap the Center for Religion and Civic Culture contracted with Healthy City (www.healthycity.org) to develop community profiles in the three GRYD zones. Healthy City mapped active congregations, social services, and existing gang intervention assets, creating a resource directory to be used by program partners and participants to promote access, build networks, and identify potential stakeholders and partners. In addition, the resource directory allows partners to assess key gaps in services throughout the area.
Beyond providing the community profiles we believed that it was essential to train IVP participants in how they could use the online Healthy City resource so that these congregations and faith-based organizations could develop their own source of knowledge about their communities. Healthy City’s community research labs, offered free of charge to community groups, are an easy way to tackle this problem, but more coaching is needed to effectively resolve this gap. This was an important step in providing these leaders with access to information, giving them the tools for how to obtain data about their communities. Making knowledge accessible to those who could most effectively use such information to address root problems is an important goal worth tackling.
Richard Flory is the executive director of the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
Donald E. Miller is the director of strategic initiatives with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.
Brie Loskota is a contributing fellow and the former executive director (2016-2021) of the USC Center for Religion and Civil Culture.