Cover Story

'Fear is winnin' the day'

"'Fear is winnin' the day'" Continued...

It is also institutionalized despair. Massengale, in an interview over breakfast, cited all the staggering statistics about high unemployment, high dropout rates, and broken homes: "You have fractured families that are missing the males, missing the fathers, and these young men are growing up without the things they need to become adults." Gangs have simply become extended families made up of minority young men who, he says, are "alienated from society."

Massengale is an elder at Zoe Christian Fellowship, and makes his living in "community training and organizing." Professionally, he is a social worker involved with both government- and church-based programs, in which he ministers principally to gang youth.

So, what do the gangs want? Massngale tires of hearing the question, but he answers nonetheless. "Bottom line, they want what any man wants," he says, picking up steam. "They want a fair opportunity to be educated, a fair opportunity to get gainful employment, to have a nice place to live, to have a nice place to shop, to be able to go to and fro in the community, and feel like where they live is not so different from other parts of town."

But even with hard-nosed police chief Darryl Gates out and more federal aid money flowing in, the conditions that provoked the rioting still exist. President Bush called the $1 billion urban aid package he signed into law last week "just a start," as if the lack of money, per se, in the main problem.

Out of Touch

Washington is about as out of touch with the problems of the inner-city as is the rest of white America-including the so-called white church. Giving a tour through the city, John Perkins spots a church with a huge display of clothing for sale along the street in the front of the building.

Perkins laughs, but turns sarcastic about the truckloads of food and clothing that were dumped in to the city by well-meaning suburbanites: "Ain't nothin' to eat down here."

"All this clothing, all this food, all this stuff-how is that connected to the situation?" Perkins wonders. "People are still out [collecting] clothes and food-for Los Angeles. It's insane. But the suburban white person can give that and feel better."

Perkins doesn't want to discourage the charity, just refocus it. "My goal would be, yes, send even more money," he says. "But what do we do with it? How do we turn that money into some creativity?"

White churches weren't alone in falling short on finding creative solutions to inner-city problems. The riots prompted many black and minority church leaders in this city to work with a renewed sense of urgency to address the root causes of the despair and alienation of inner-city life-before it's too late. "People are saying, in my interpretation, 'we are going to give you another shot,' because [most of the] churches were not on the cutting edge of this thing before it broke out," Massengale says. "They have been given the opportunity to kind of catch up."

Catching up is exactly what many church leaders in Los Angeles have been doing. "It's been one big meeting ever since [the rioting]," says Michael Mata, director of the Bresee Institute, a Christian urban organization committed to economic and spiritual development. "Yesterday was my first day I had a whole day in my office that I didn't have to be at one other meeting, or speaking, or doing interviews, or what have you," Mata said in a interview at North-Central's First Church of the Nazarene, where the institute is headquartered.

Mata is optimistic. He believes that the church will rise up to meet the needs of the inner-city and solve the problems of those who live there. Low-income people have been left behind because of economic "restructuring" and poor educational opportunities in the public schools. They simply have not been able to "keep up," he says. The church, Mata believes, should be more involved in economic development: job creation, housing, education, and training-but with a spiritual emphasis. "Gang members have skill. We just have to redirect that. Let's change that."

"The church," Mata says, "is going to have to show a unified front-coming together, breaking down the denominational [differences], and the egos-and sit down at the same table and say, 'we have the resources to do something about that, not only the spiritual but the material resources to respond.' And then begin those church-based community development projects."

Despite that confidence in the corporate church, Mata lays much of the blame for the April riots at the feet of the clergy, who failed to show "moral and spiritual leadership" prior to the outbreak. "We have a strong Christian presence here [in the city]," he says. "African-Americans, as well as the Koreans, are the two most highly-churched ethnic groups in the world. For me that's an indictment against the church because it wasn't involved in the public life of its community."


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