The most chaotic time in my life occurred in 1965 to 1967 when I was appointed as a pastor to serve my first church in Lincoln Heights, Los Angeles. It was in the midst of a civil rights battleground in the community. When we moved in and looked out our kitchen window there were about eight gang bangers sitting between our backyard chain-link fence and a Head Start bungalow on our church lot. My wife, Liv, looked out the window and said “Make them go away!” She grew up in Norway and I grew up in L.A. knowing about the Heights. I said, dumbly, “They aren’t all that bad.” She just looked at me and said something in Norwegian. I didn’t want to know.
I had to walk by the guys daily on the way to the church office. I smiled and nodded to them but they ignored me. After a couple of weeks of passing by I asked if I could sit down with them. One tough character nodded, OK. I asked how long they had been sitting there. There was a long pause and a kid said, “For a couple of months, since we have been harassed. The police often use their batons on us when they think we have drugs or not. They are just mean and are trying to get us to move out of the area and our homes.”
We talked often after that and I finally asked them if they would like some jokes. They said yes. I gave them my best puns but left out a few of them in my sermons. One day I half-jokingly said “What if my wife came here and asked you to move out.”
The boss of the group smiled and said “Hey, Father, aren’t we on church property here and if so, aren’t we able to have sanctuary here?” He had me and he knew it.
Reverend John Luce, my next door neighbor and also new on the job, was a gutsy priest by helping to deal right away with an explosive neighborhood battle on our streets.
There had been entrenched angry Hispanic gangs and deep-seated raging police officers in the community for a year or two. I learned John was a mild guy but he would risk his life to bring justice. He was always trying to get the Sheriff to meet in his church hall with a hundred or so neighbors and with a few gang members present. He was seldom in his office and mostly on the streets.
Liv and I were watching a shoot ‘em up Gunsmoke show one night and missed knowing John was getting shot at. A bullet went through his front room window where he was in his chair reading and the slug passed through his newspaper. He took it in stride, knowing it might have been a scare tactic by the police.
There was always a squad car in front of John’s house for months.
John never gave up on the meeting possibilities. One day he told me the Sheriff called him and asked if he would come to his office. The callous officer said he wanted John to climb up on the outside escape ladder to the third floor and when he gets there he will turn him around and kick his a.. over the railing.
One day John told me that the Sheriff said he was willing to meet. The hall was packed and the supreme police officer came by in a limousine with four cops in their squad cars protecting him. They circled the neighborhood two times and went away.
Eventually the Sheriff met with the community in the church hall and it went well. Our homesteaders behind our fence moved out with some pride.
We know the conflicts Martin Luther King Jr. dealt with in those years. Cecil Williams, a Methodist pastor, faced the fury in the mid-sixties between the police and the gangs and transients on the streets in San Francisco. Years later he often had police in uniform and street people on the front pews in his church.
So, we have had a Baptist, an Episcopal and a Methodist pastor that I know of in those years who faced death in their ministries to break through the hate in our culture. I don’t recall having a course in seminary that urged us to take on such wars. If there was one I missed it or I blew it off.
The awesome trio broke through the tribes and brought some peace to our country but they didn’t stop the hate that continues to erupt in our lives. It will be difficult to try to model what they did because most of us have a piece of hate in us. They too must have had some hatred but they managed to work through it.