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In East L.A., Women Answer a Call to Feed the Needy, Disarm the Gangs : Standing Together

TIMES STAFF WRITER

And so there came the day when 54-year-old Guadalupe Ruelas would no longer hide behind her door like the rest of her neighbors at the Aliso Village housing project in East L.A.

Tired of fearing the junkies who injected themselves on the stairway, she went into the hall and approached three addicts.

“I was calm. I talked to them without fear and without insulting them,” she says in Spanish, recalling her words: “Please don’t do this here. Kids run upstairs and step on the needles. You should remember little kids live here. Be an example to them.”

Surprised, they begged her pardon, she says, and told her they would not do it again.

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“You have to talk to them with love,” explains Ruelas, who is divorced, uneducated, unemployed and sole supporter of a teen-age son.

When pressed about confronting the drug users, she says the source of her courage and peculiarly loving approach is a nettlesome question: “What would Jesus do?”

The same question has led her to befriend gang kids who frightened her, to talk to the cholos and girls who steal clothes drying on the lines, hang out in the parking lot--keeping her awake--and sleep on the steps in the day.

“They are not as they are painted,” she says. “I would not have talked to them before.”

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Before means before Ruelas’ involvement with Amar a Dios (To Love God)--one of 12 Christian base communities at Dolores Mission, the poorest parish in the Los Angeles Roman Catholic archdiocese.

The mission is a scruffy little place where the poor give to the poor. For several years, the impetus for much of parish life has come from the base communities--a movement that started in Latin America to unite small groups of people at the base of society: the poor and marginalized.

There are about 120 base community members at Dolores Mission, a parish that covers an area of 2,200 predominantly Catholic families. Members hold spiritual meetings weekly, during which they pray, read the Gospels, look at the problems of contemporary life. They act through their Comite Pro Paz en el Barrio (Committee for Peace in the Neighborhood), their actions a result of the overriding question: “What would Jesus do?”

It is not a question for the timid or lazy.

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They live in an urban war zone of drugs, crime and violence, a place where building heaven on Earth is an almost unimaginable concept.

But the overriding question has led them to shelter and feed the homeless on church property; to set up a day-care center for working mothers; to confiscate their own sons’ guns; to approach local businesses seeking jobs for youth; to monitor law-enforcement officers for evidence of abuse; to reach out relentlessly to the neighborhood gang members.

To refuse to give up on anyone.

It is a mild evening and a dozen animated women--a few carrying babies--filter into Yolanda Gallo’s small living room, greeting one another in Spanish.

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The mood is light, and in that vein they settle on the hymn they will sing, join hands and follow Gallo’s bidding to “ask the Holy Spirit help us to understand” the Gospel.

Francisca Acosta reads from John about the Good Shepherd; later she reads from Ezekiel 34, a passage full of warnings for shepherds who feed themselves well and neglect their flocks.

The discussion drags a little. Most of the women are a little diffident; their statements end up as questions. But, tentative or not, they can see clear parallels to their daily lives.

The stray sheep and other flocks are the cholos , as individuals and as gang members.

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One fold and one Shepherd?

When base members talk about their work, they describe it as “building the kingdom.”

“He is going to make a single family,” Paula Hernandez says of Jesus. “He is saying do good, don’t discriminate. (You can’t say,) ‘I’m not going to get involved with anybody but my children and neighbors; if others ask for help, no.’ ”

The group neither reaches new conclusions nor plans new actions this night. Rather, the meeting renews their commitment.

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These women do not have a lot going for them in this society. And they know it. Many are uneducated or illiterate; most don’t speak English. Few are citizens. Some are single mothers on welfare; others work at low-paying, insecure jobs. Few have husbands at home. Their kids are exposed to gangs and drugs; some succumb.

At earlier meetings they have determined they are today’s lepers: the low-paid, rejected, out of sight on the margins of society.

Now, Gallo draws a contemporary parallel with Ezekiel’s selfish shepherd: “High people with power can go to the government. (Politicians) do not care about who we are. But, you can tell the difference with rich people. The government likes them. (The rich) can demand.”

And yet, their discussion pushes them to conclude that powerless or not, they too must demand; they must lead, they must be good shepherds.

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With resignation but without irony, Hernandez acknowledges the paradox of their commitment: “It’s not going to get better. The closer you see (gang kids), the more you see things from their point of view. You see their problems.

“But, when we’re leaders, we have to pay attention. What is it we are called to do? Serve, or serve ourselves?”

Without a firebrand, eloquent speaker or charismatic leader among them, the women and their comments about love could be easily dismissed as simply pious.

It would be a mistake.

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Father Gregory Boyle is pastor at Dolores Mission--a post he will leave, at least temporarily, next June for a long retreat required by his Jesuit vows. He is famous for his work among gang members and for his stubborn insistence on a loving rather than adversarial relationship with them. For some, Boyle is Dolores Mission.

Clearly, he has set the tone at the parish, but Boyle sees the base communities at the center.

“These women are on the cutting edge. Anything that is going to happen here--if it does not have the participation of the base community, nothing’s going to happen. . . . They really are the church. . . . It’s theirs.”

That the base communities consist mainly of women is not lost on anyone, Boyle says, least of all the women.

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He recalls them asking each other at an early meeting why only women participated. “Without missing a beat, they said, ‘It’s because the men are afraid.’ ”

Not cowardice as a reverse of macho, he explains, but “fear of what it demands, the commitment. ‘Nos cuesta,’ they (the women) say--'It costs.’ They’re out on the front lines. They put their lives in danger. It’s been a very feminist kind of movement. It’s empowering.”

Urban barrios may not be bastions of feminism and empowerment, but how else could one view the day-care center? Boyle asks.

The women needed jobs, had no place to leave their children and could not afford child care. Now, while a new building nears completion in the church parking lot, the center operates in the parish school basement. The women staff it, and several have received professional training.

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Boyle cites the women’s courage when they confiscated guns from their sons and gave them to him. But perhaps the primary example is their simple determination to reclaim the neighborhood.

No longer prisoners in their apartments, the women are a presence--sitting on the park benches, standing in the yards. They drove away the outsiders buying drugs from their fancy cars at the curbs. And they have taken on the gangs, whom they once reviled, with their primary method of disarmament--acknowledging gang members as people, inviting them to meals and parties.

“They have learned to accept the consequences,” says Leonardo Vilchis, 29, the parish organizer who works closely with the women, attending their weekly meetings and that of Comite Pro Paz. “They stick with it.”

The consequences?

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Each night, after Mass, at least 100 men--mostly immigrants from Central America and Mexico--pick up their bedrolls and file into the church to sleep on the floor and in the pews. The women decided the parish should take in all who come. And it does. The men sleep in the church; the former convent now houses women and children.

Next, Vilchis says, came the inevitable. Those homeless needed to eat. It was, he says, like a reluctant re-enactment of Mark’s tale of the loaves and the fishes as the women realized what they were starting.

“ ‘Well, I have some beans. . . .’ one would say. That first night they fed 100 people,” Vilchis recalls.

And every night since, the mission’s parking lot is filled with homeless men filing past the serving tables where the base communities, and, recently, other parish groups, take turns providing dinner.

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The people do it themselves. Outside groups and parishes call, wanting to come and help, Vilchis says. The women turn them down, saying they gladly accept contributions but need to do the work themselves.

Sometimes they politely suggest that the others do the same thing--in their own back yards.

Looking for drug dealers last January, police from the Hollenbeck Division swept through the Pico Gardens housing project. Officers arrested several young men, including one of Lupe Loera’s eight sons--right on her front steps.

“They took the good with the bad,” Loera recalls. She knew her son did not deal drugs, she says, and confronted an officer, protesting how the police crammed so many into a patrol car. “The officer told me, ‘You Mexican people should be used to it. You come up here just like this, crowded into cars.’ ”

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An El Paso native, Loera has lived in Pico Gardens for 25 years. She has raised her sons there, and two, ages 16 and 19, remain at home.

The raid enraged and insulted her. A member of the Buen Sembrador (the Good Shepherd) base community and active in Comite Pro Paz, Loera took her concern to the group’s meetings. After several sessions among members and with Hollenbeck officers, the police monitoring project was born.

The women have divided the area into nine units, appointed monitors, established a phone network.

“When the police come, we just go outside and watch for misconduct. We just keep an eye on them,” Loera says. “At first the cops thought we didn’t want them to come. We told them no. We need them, but we want them to have a little respect for us.”

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Things have gone well, she says, with few incidents. And she is convinced the women’s presence is a deterrent.

Capt. Norman Rouillier became commanding officer of the Hollenbeck Division in July. He says relations with the parish were strained earlier this year, but that they now are working very well together.

“We would never view the monitoring project as being negative,” he says. “We expect total professionalism from our officers. The only problem would be when an officer tries to take someone into custody if they interfere. Monitoring is another thing entirely.”

Rouillier wholeheartedly endorses the women’s efforts to befriend gang members, noting that “running them through the criminal justice system has not been successful.”

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Loera now works closely with “a bunch of little dirty, messy kids,” youngsters who proudly call themselves Pandilla Mugrosa, the Dirty Gang.

She plans activities for them--sometimes with the help of Community Youth Gang Services--and hopes to somehow be a positive influence before a more violent life claims them.

“I tell the parents, ‘If we get together, work together, we’ll make something out of these kids,” Loera says.

But for all her efforts, she admits, “we haven’t had too much progress with these kids. I get disappointed, but I don’t quit.”

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Whether they express it in mundane or spiritual terms, the women of the base communities seem committed to building “the kingdom.”

They have not transformed the neighborhood, ended drug traffic and abuse, disarmed the gangs. Their successes are incremental and sometimes very transitory. The gang kids they have come to love relax with them one moment and declare a truce, then kill each other the next.

“Working for the kingdom doesn’t make it easier,” Paula Hernandez says she concluded long ago. “What should we do? Kill all the drug people?

“That’s blasphemy. Jesus had dinner with them.”

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