Still in service

Compassion profiles | A Midwestern political junkie; a Ph.D. from Buffalo; a first-generation American born in East L.A. Three very different personalities traveled different roads to the same calling: community-based poverty-fighting. While some pundits have written off "compassionate conservatism" as a new and failed GOP slogan, William Schambra, Amy Sherman, and Rudy Carrasco show that effective compassion is actually, as Schambra puts it, "the historical recovery of some very old ideas"-and that no matter which party controls 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Christians will continue to reach the needy on Main Street

Issue: "Cellblock campaign," Dec. 23, 2006

Born in East L.A.

Boarded up and condemned by the city, a barrio-style neighborhood store sits at the corner of West Howard and Navarro Avenue in Pasadena, Calif. Well, one-third of a store, anyway. In May, the second story and one wing burned to cinders in an accidental blaze, leaving a grungy little store-stump of sorts. That was a few weeks after gangsta rapper Ice Cube and a hip-hop posse thumped out of town (having used the store in a music video) and a few months before a tagging crew beat a kid with a baseball bat for having painted out their graffiti with his own.

But such drama is relatively rare on Navarro these days, in part because of the guy who hangs out across the street from the store.

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Rudy Carrasco came to work with the urban poor in this once-blighted neighborhood in 1990. At that time, the intersection of West Howard and Navarro was called "blood corner" because of the blood that splashed the streets during drive-by shootings and aborted drug deals. In 1982, John Perkins, an African-American evangelical, had founded the Harambee Christian Family Center in a house on the corner opposite the store. Perkins bought the house right out from under a pair of incarcerated drug-dealing twins who had run a brothel from a tent in the backyard. Eight years later, Carrasco, fresh from college and full of youth, joined in Perkins' plan to reclaim fallen neighborhoods by nurturing "indigenous leadership" tutored in scriptural truth.

"I was just out of college, stumbling in the daylight, trying to do urban ministry, but not really knowing what I was doing," said Carrasco, who talked with WORLD in the shade of a spreading pine at the edge of the half-size basketball court poured behind Harambee's property, which has grown to include six adjacent houses. A few feet away, 30 or so polo-shirted K-6 students from the Harambee Preparatory School galloped up and down the concrete, laughing.

"Rudy! Rudy!" kids called at intervals, the younger girls running up to administer brief hugs, the older boys to give Carrasco "dap."

"I want you to have that college degree and that ring on your finger!" Carrasco said to one boy, about 12, then held up his hand and waggled his wedding band. "Aw, yeah . . . marriage!"

The boy grinned and dashed back to the basketball game.

A number of Harambee Preparatory School kids come from two-parent families that, Carrasco said, "can afford to send their kids anywhere." They pay full tuition, about $6,300 a year. Others pay as little as $10 a month. One little boy lives in a garage with his mother and sister. One girl's mother is in jail. Carrasco emphasizes that while the former is not necessarily the neighborhood rule, neither is the latter. "When you're talking about urban ministry, everyone wants to emphasize the bad things that happen. But there are many good families here who go to work, come home, and dream big."

Harambee started as an after-school program. "The idea was to meet some basic needs, give kids a safe place to go," he said. Back then, "a kid playing ball on the sidewalk was being 'discipled' by drug dealers, prostitutes, and thieves"-some formally, and some by street-osmosis, absorbing bad attitudes about things like race, drugs, money, authority, and morality. "They are being 'discipled' and don't even know it." As a stronger antidote, Harambee added both a teen-jobs program and the school.

In 1996, Carrasco became associate director at Harambee, and Christianity Today named him one of 50 evangelical leaders under 40 to watch. In 2003, he took over as executive director. Thirty-nine now, Carrasco still talks like a college kid, wide-eyed and earnest, making exclamation points with his hands. But his enthusiasm is grounded in hard experience. The son of Mexican immigrants, Carrasco was born in East L.A. His mother died when he was 6; his father had left the family long before. Carrasco's older sister, Yolanda, a Christian, took him and his siblings in and raised them. Their little neighborhood church became Carrasco's extended family.

After earning a degree in English from Stanford University, Carrasco knew he wanted to work with the poor. Though not a loner, at first he thought he could reach people one-on-one. "I was like, here's my money, here's some clothes. Need a ride? Here's my car," he said. But slowly, he developed the philosophy that the power to promote lasting life-change lies in the strength of a group.


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