Two major relief organizations on the scene in Los Angeles when riots broke out last week were ready with food, shelter and clothing.
But workers found themselves pressed to meet deeper needs as well--to offer spiritual and psychological aid to residents struggling to cope with deeply unsettling realities about the world in which they live.
The civil unrest--the worst in this century--made it difficult for Americans to deny the underlying economic and racial issues, said Bob Seiple, president of World Vision International in Monrovia. "We have an awful lot of potential for denial in this country because for most of us the problems are always over there, in the Third World."
This time, people used to seeing violence on television saw it erupting in their neighborhoods.
"When you drive down the streets of Los Angeles and they're ablaze on both sides, you can no longer utilize denial," Seiple said. The riots and the underlying sense of hopelessness made it clear, he said, that "the problems of the Third World are here."
Seiple's organization is an evangelical Christian relief and rehabilitation agency with programs in 97 countries, including the United States. When the riots began April 29 after a jury returned not guilty verdicts against four white policemen in the beating of black motorist Rodney G. King, Seiple said his agency was prepared. It already had ties with the churches and two days after the burning and looting began, World Vision had set up an emergency fund for the victims.
Catholic Charities, the social action agency of the Los Angeles archdiocese, also is providing a variety of services in the riot zones, including food and transportation for the homebound elderly, temporary financial help to people whose jobs were lost and crisis counseling services for families and children.
Msgr. David Cousineau, executive director of the Catholic agency, is a Los Angeles native who remembers the 1965 Watts riots in which 34 people were killed. This time was more frightening, he said. "I remember walking out and getting a sense deep in me of 'this one's out of control, I don't know if I'm safe.' If I'm feeling that, imagine how the kids are feeling."
Already, children have expressed their fear in drawings, Cousineau said. He described one drawing by a black child in the first grade that showed flames coming out of a food market and a helicopter flying overhead shooting bullets.
"On the ground, there's this little, teeny kid, maybe about an eighth of an inch high, looking at it all," Cousineau said. "It shows the sense of trauma, the sense of fear, among the youngsters."
Seiple said local congregations have joined together across racial and denominational lines to help rebuild the area.
"Our initial response has to be one of meeting the immediate needs," Seiple said. "These include food, clean water, baby products, all of the things you used to buy in the neighborhoods that you can no longer buy because they have been taken out."
But over the long term, Seiple said, World Vision is trying to deal with "systemic issues" such as job creation, education and housing.
No central clearinghouse exists to coordinate the operations, but Seiple and Cousineau discounted the likelihood of needless duplication.
In fact, in Seiple's view, if duplication occurs, it will be a boon.
Recalling the worldwide efforts to provide famine relief in Ethiopia in the mid-1980s, he said: "We had overlap in Ethiopia, but there are 10 million people alive today because the whole world cared."