"People of faith!" thunders the Rev. Rafer Owens, a native son who is also a veteran Los Angeles County sheriff's deputy. "Are you ready to praise the Lord?"
Six hundred people respond: "Ha-roo!"
"Are you ready to take back Compton?"
Louder this time: "Ha-ROO!"
"We disrespected the city of Compton," Owens says, more quietly now. "And when you don't want something, you give it to the rats and the roaches."
They've been praying for a long time in Compton, praying hard. For a long time, it seemed no one was listening.
"Father God, some people in here are hurting," the pastor says, head bowed. "They have given what they feel is their last mile."
But change, he insists, is afoot.
Takin' a life or two
That's what the hell I do
By the time the hip-hop group N.W.A released its seminal 1988 album "Straight Outta Compton," with those lyrics, the city's fate seemed sealed. The album was a celebration of the gang life; killing was described as an inescapable part of life.
The town that many still refer to as "Old Compton" -- poor but proud, with an abiding sense of community -- had been ravaged by guns, crack and joblessness. With just 100,000 people, Compton developed an outsize but deserved reputation as a national epicenter of gang violence.
Today, there are 65 gangs jammed into 10 square miles -- Front Hood Crips and Pirus and Seminoles, bored and broke, jaded and angry, sure that life has little to offer. The turf for some is no bigger than a football field, and they will defend it against any perceived slight. That's how it's been here for almost three decades.
So it came as something of a surprise when the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, which contracts to provide police services here, added up the community's 2008 homicides. The total for Compton, including smaller, adjacent pockets of unincorporated county land: 38.
It was the lowest number in at least 25 years and a 50% drop since 2005. From 1985 to 2000, said Sheriff's Capt. William M. Ryan, an average of 66 people were slain each year within the city limits; that number fell last year to 28. Gang-related aggravated assaults have fallen too in the city and the county pockets, nearly 25% over four years -- "dramatic indicators," Sheriff Lee Baca said at a recent news conference, "that we are doing the right thing."
The sheriff did not mention an irony: Compton, while widely viewed as a success story, is one of the few L.A.-area communities where crime is rising. Both the city and county of Los Angeles saw declines in major crimes last year; in Compton, such crimes rose by 13% in the same period.
However, officials said, most of the increase was in property crimes -- burglary, up 39%; larceny, up 27%. Authorities attribute that to the bad economy. A poor community with high unemployment, Ryan said, "is affected the most."
So in a sense, Compton is trading blood in the streets for stolen lawn mowers -- and around here, that's a bargain many will live with.