From the riot-ravaged neighborhoods of South Los Angeles to the peaceful middle-class communities of Irvine and Simi Valley, tens of thousands turned to their churches Sunday for solace, hope and deliverance from the violence and chaos that descended upon the region.
Speaking to congregations large and small, ministers and priests tried to impose a moral framework on the days of lawlessness and death. They condemned the not guilty verdicts in the Rodney G. King beating case as an outrageous miscarriage of justice and pleaded for understanding of the violent rampage that followed as the inevitable result of deeply entrenched racism and oppression.
Spiritual leaders told soul-searching worshipers to oust politicians who coldly slash social services, creating a climate of desperation.
Delivering homilies at churches throughout the day, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony urged looters to return stolen goods. In Pasadena, parishioners arrived at All Saints Episcopal Church carrying dozens of bags of groceries for their burned-out neighbors and thousands of dollars in donations.
More than 6,000 people turned out for three music-filled, balcony-shaking and cathartic services at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church in South-Central Los Angeles, in the heart of the city’s riot-torn sector.
In the hard-hit Korean-American community, church leaders passed out lists of vandalized businesses in need of assistance and urged forgiveness. In neighboring Orange and Ventura counties, affluent, mostly white congregants were exhorted to snuff out the racial inequalities that sparked the riots. Some launched food drives to help those left hungry and homeless by the arson and looting.
At First AME, the message was one of regret at the rioting but of continuing anger at underlying causes. “We are not proud that we set those fires,” said the Rev. Cecil (Chip) Murray. “But I would like to make a distinction between setting a fire and starting a fire.”
Years of injustices sparked the rioting, Murray said, but especially a “verdict from a good jury that’s good for nothing and so creates chaos,” he said, speaking mockingly.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), speaking at the noon service, brought the congregation to its feet, applauding and cheering, with a highly charged message.
“People want to know why I’m not saying exactly what they want me to say,” Waters said. “They want me to walk out in Watts, like black people did in the ‘60s, and say, ‘Cool it baby, cool it.’ ”
“Well, I’m sorry,” she said. “The fact of the matter is, whether we like it or not, riot is the voice of the unheard.”
As is tradition at AME, services drew a stellar list of participants, including talk show host Arsenio Hall and singer Dionne Warwick, who gave a soaring rendition of the Lord’s Prayer. Los Angeles Police Commission President Stanley K. Sheinbaum and Korean-American ministers also attended.
Afterward, parishioners leaving church in their Sunday best had to thread their way through a crowd of T-shirted volunteers hoisting boxes of food onto trucks headed for churches in other battered neighborhoods.
A world and about 40 miles away in Orange County, the Rev. Fred Plummer, pastor of a mostly white congregation in Irvine, urged members of his flock “who call themselves Christians” to resist the temptation to fall back on routine and business as usual now that the violence has ebbed.
“This is a highly trained congregation and if change is going to occur it’s going to occur here,” Plummer declared. “I’m not suggesting that after 1965 we should have all sold all of our possessions and moved to Watts, but there’s other things we could have done, should have done and still can do.”
Plummer asked his flock to use their votes to defeat elected officials who slash educational and social programs--actions that he said contributed to the volatile situation. He also enjoined members not to allow themselves to yield to prejudice.
The 6,000-member congregation at Irvine’s South Coast Community Church started a food drive for Los Angeles residents hurt by the riots. The pastor asked for donations at Saturday evening’s service as well as at two Sunday morning services.
“On Sunday, in just a few hours, our (church) lobby filled up with food,” said Sharon Quick, communications director at the church. “People were emptying their pantries and going to Price Club for big boxes of cereal and loaves of bread. It was really incredible.”
Quick said the church collected enough food to help feed between 50 and 75 people and will take the food today to World Impact, a Los Angeles-based aid organization.
In an evening Mass before several hundred Latinos at the Church of the Ascension in Watts, Mahony delivered a message of repentance and hope.
He urged the faithful to “clear their consciences” by anonymously returning any goods that they may have looted to the church and later confess the sin to a priest.
“We all know it is not right to rob, to be a thief,” he said in his sermon. “It is not possible to act as if nothing has happened. The people who robbed have an obligation to return these things. It doesn’t matter if you are young or old. If you have a new television, clothes, furniture, how can you explain this?”
As of nightfall, a Catholic Diocese spokesman said nothing had been returned.
At the Young-Nak Presbyterian Church in Lincoln Heights--the second-largest Korean-American church in the city, with an estimated 6,000 members--church members were dazed by days of rage directed at their community.
Worshipers were greeted at Sunday services with a list of 48 fellow churchgoers whose businesses had been hit in the rioting. The 19-year-old son of one church member, Jae Sung Lee, was mistaken for a looter by fellow Korean-Americans and killed Thursday night near the corner of 3rd Street and Ardmore Avenue.
“We’re all still numb by what’s happened,” said Jay Kim, speaking for much of the congregation, who were at a loss to explain the destruction heaped on Korean-owned businesses.
At Tong Yang Sun Kyo Church--or the Oriental Mission Church, the largest Korean-American congregation in Los Angeles--Elder Jonathan Cho implored those who were victimized to bear no grudge.
“You must see that the people who did damage are like us,” Cho said. “Try to understand their heart. They know not how they have hurt.”
Nearby, at the Crenshaw Christian Center, Pastor Frederick K. C. Price told about 5,000 worshipers to “shake hands with at least three other people and say, ‘Stay cool, brother.’ ” The church, just a few blocks from a fire-scarred stretch of Vermont Avenue, had been without electricity for days, so Price delivered his two-hour sermon through microphones powered by backup generators.
Price said he found the TV image of South-Central residents lining up outside a post office to pick up welfare checks especially galling. “Welfare is the worst curse that ever came down against people of color,” Price declared, as parishioners cheered him on with calls of “Amen” and “Tell the truth.”
“Why should I work, why should I study, why should I learn, why should I go to school? I can get a freebie! Let the government take care of me!”
At the Brookins Community AME Church in South Los Angeles, an overflow audience of more than 1,000 stood and applauded as organ music surged and the Rev. Jesse Jackson strode to the pulpit.
“The Rodney King beating was a caboose on a long train of abuses,” Jackson intoned. In a rousing sermon, the two-time presidential candidate spoke of a passage in the Scriptures that concerns a ship that has run aground. The ship, he said, could serve as a metaphor for Los Angeles and the nation, which have lost their anchors.
“Stay with the ship” was also the theme at the Messiah Baptist Church, where the congregation held an interfaith service with Temple Israel of Hollywood. About 75 Jewish people joined 500 Baptists in prayer and song, packing the lower levels and balcony.
“The rabbi and I got together and saw that blacks and Jews have common bonds in suffering,” said the Rev. Kenneth J. Flowers of Messiah Baptist.
Rabbi John Rosove noted with sadness that a former Temple member was shot and killed in the rioting. The two congregations must work together to rebuild, he said, suggesting that the jury was insensitive to the struggle of blacks because they never lived among them.
In Simi Valley, where the verdicts were delivered from the East County Courthouse on Wednesday, Claretta Kerns, a black member of Simi Valley Community Church, was asked to address the mostly white congregation.
She urged fellow worshipers to take the words of black civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. to heart and spoke of a day when people would be judged not on the color of their skin, but on the content of their character.
In the San Fernando Valley, fundamentalist Pastor John MacArthur of Grace Community Church--where retiring Assistant Chief Robert L. Vernon of the Los Angeles Police Department is an elder--pointed to sin as the root of Los Angeles’ troubles.
Reserving judgment on the King verdict, MacArthur told his congregation, “I’m grateful that Rodney King is alive. . . . My concern is not that he gets his pound of flesh but that he gets saved.”
Contributing to this report were Times staff writers Stephanie Chavez, Mathis Chazanov, John Dart, Tammerlin Drummond, Robert Elston, Paul Feldman, John H. Lee, Edmund Newton, Lisa Omphroy and George Ramos. Correspondent Kay Saillant reported from Simi Valley.