Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Giving a Hand Up in South Central When 1992's Riots Hit South Central Los Angeles, They Struck an Area Already Struggling to Get By

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Giving a Hand Up in South Central When 1992's Riots Hit South Central Los Angeles, They Struck an Area Already Struggling to Get By

Article excerpt

ON a sunny Wednesday morning in South Central Los Angeles, a line is forming outside the Ebony Baptist Missionary Church on South Figueroa Street.

A collection of nearby residents and homeless people, single men, and women with babies are waiting for sacks of free food, which the church distributes weekly.

Michael Wynn, a local community organizer, has stopped by in search of volunteers for the neighbor-to-neighbor program organized by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to calm fears and quell unrest in the inner city.

A year ago, looters and arsonists went on a rampage here after four white Los Angeles policemen were acquitted of using undue force in subduing black motorist Rodney King. The worst riots in recent United States history left many nearby stores and businesses boarded up or in ashes. In the immediate aftermath, Ebony Baptist was the only food source in the neighborhood, feeding 250 families a day.

The violence was a devastating blow to an area already blighted by decay.

Mr. Wynn is part of a large network designed to encourage a sense of community among area residents who have known poverty, hardship, and fear.

"The majority of these folks are tough nuts to crack," Wynn says. "Their quality of life has been so bad for 25 years, they're skeptical." Nonetheless, he says, he has made a lot of progress in this part of town, where he estimates that the unemployment rate is upward of 40 percent. (Unemployment is 20 percent in greater South Central Los Angeles. It is the highest rate anywhere in California, and California has one of the highest rates in the country.)

Wynn says he has even managed to "get some gang members on board. They're mostly interested in `How can we get employed?' They go back to their own gangs, and share the information with other gang members."

Looking around the neighborhood, Wynn is clearly pleased with his prospects. A crowd has gathered in front of the church door, and there are plenty of passers-by. Ebony Baptist is located across from the 20-year-old House of Uhuru drug abuse clinic on a busy street where liquor stores, check-cashing and food stamp centers, corner markets, and housing projects sit among both boarded-up buildings and modest homes with well-manicured lawns.

Inside the church, a dank, brick low-rise building, Pastor Ernest Woods is directing people who are shuffling through a narrow hallway to rows of chairs lined up outside the back of the building. Once outside, he opens the gate of a rusted chain-link fence, and welcomes congregants and others into the sun-filled area.

"We have 125 members, half Latino, half African-American," Pastor Woods says, shaking hands and accepting envelopes they offer.

Can these visitors afford to give money to the church? "Oh, yes," he says, smiling. "They may give a few pennies, some even give a dollar. It may be enough to cover a trip in the van to pick up food. …

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