Some call it a textbook example of empowering ordinary people through grass-roots organizing. Others say it is a crass and ungodly exercise in raw political power.
Whatever, an unprecedented coalition of ranking Catholic, Jewish and Protestant leaders and four community activist organizations have breached a wall of opposition--much like Joshua at the walls of Jericho--to wrest millions of dollars in commitments from cash-starved local governments for an untested anti-gang program.
Many see the coalition’s success as the emergence of a new player on the political scene, with enough clout to have a major impact on April’s Los Angeles mayoral election and on a range of other issues.
Known as Hope in Youth, the $20-million-a-year anti-gang strategy backed by nine Christian and Jewish denominations, as well as the four community organizations, calls for attacking gang violence in Los Angeles County at its core: in the homes and schools.
With verve and political know-how more characteristic of hardened political operatives than members of the clergy, Hope in Youth backers have won financial commitments of $2.9 million from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and $2.5 million from the Los Angeles City Council at a time when budgets for both agencies are hundreds of millions of dollars in the red.
Hope in Youth strategists have also won endorsements from two leading law enforcement officials: Los Angeles Police Chief Willie L. Williams and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block.
Not since the civil rights successes of the 1960s have churches and synagogues in Southern California pulled off a comparable string of stunning victories against seemingly overwhelming odds: strong reservations if not opposition from Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley, city and county budget deficits, and seeming inexperience in prying money and support from City Hall and the County Hall of Administration.
The victories have not come without controversy.
Sparks flew over Bradley’s resistance to funding the program. At one point, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony--chairman of the Hope in Youth coordinating committee--marched with supporters to pray on the steps of City Hall, beseeching God to open Bradley’s heart, mind and soul. Bradley earlier had faxed a sharply worded letter to the Los Angeles archbishop, accusing him of ignoring the city’s financial crisis.
Critics charge that the program is untried and should not be given priority funding over established efforts such as Community Youth Gang Services, the nonprofit project that runs a gang diversion program.
Concerns have also been raised about whether the line separating church and state has been crossed.
Other opponents complain that not enough black churches are represented. The coalition, said Los Angeles City Councilman Mark Ridley-Thomas, is made up “largely of white pastors and Catholic church organizations . . . without any regard for traditional leadership in the Afro-American community.”
Coalition leaders countered that numerous black churches are involved through their membership in one of the four community organizations. They noted that one of the nine denominational leaders on the coordinating committee is the Rev. E. Lynn Brown, bishop of the largely black Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
Finally, some coalition members were said by critics to have all but made ultimatums in private meetings with Gov. Pete Wilson.
“I don’t mean to be sacrilegious, but there’s something very ungodly about how they went about doing this,” said Ray Johnson of the state Office of Criminal Justice Planning after sitting in on what he described as one particularly hardball session between Wilson and coalition representatives.
“What this comes down to is crass power politics,” said Ridley-Thomas, who opposes funding the program without further deliberations and allowing anti-gang programs to compete for the money.
Others, however, praised the coalition for seizing the initiative in the face of mounting gang-related bloodshed and a sense that government at all levels has failed to act.
“What’s most important about this program,” said Los Angeles City Councilman Joel Wachs, “is the fact that it comes from people themselves, a coalition of religious and community activists.”
Fanning out across strife-torn communities, up to 160 Hope in Youth outreach teams would target young people most at risk--those who are not gang members and the estimated 80% of gang members who are not hard-core. Authorities estimate that there are more than 100,000 youths involved in 800 to 1,000 gangs in Los Angeles County.
Parents’ unions would be formed. Family counseling would be available. Efforts would be coordinated with schools. There would be recreational alternatives for youth.
Several circumstances contributed to the coalition’s formation and its initial success--the increasing number of deaths from gang warfare, a growing willingness among individuals who have suffered losses in gang violence to get involved, last spring’s riots, the upcoming mayoral election and a pervasive sense that government offers little or no leadership in the fight against gangs.
Last year, 771 people were killed in gang-related violence in Los Angeles County. Nearly 500 more have been killed this year in the unincorporated parts of L.A. County and in the city of Los Angeles alone, even with a much-touted truce between rival black gangs.
It is generally agreed that Hope in Youth could not have gone as far as it has without the blessing of religious leaders, who brought “extraordinary credibility” to the battle, especially Mahony, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles.
“The cardinal knows how to project his power just as well as any politician does,” said Deputy Mayor Mark Fabiani.
How the groups went about gaining political support is a classic case of coalition building. Planning for the effort began more than a year ago before the riots.
At first, the community groups--United Neighborhoods Organization, Southern California Organizing Committee, East Valleys Organization and Valley Organized in Community Efforts--began talking. Each operated within areas hard hit by gang violence, and many members had had tragic firsthand experience.
“My father was killed this year on May 16,” Robert Arreola, 17, said during a City Hall rally in support of Hope in Youth. “It just hurts a lot of us in the area. We’re here to try to make something change in this world.” Tears came to the young man’s eyes when he was asked his father’s name. “Manuel,” he replied. “Manuel Arreola.”
At the same time, members of the clergy felt increasingly helpless and frustrated as they were called upon to officiate at one funeral after another.
The Rev. William R. Johnson of Curry Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Compton said he recently presided at the funeral of an 18-month-old boy killed in a drive-by shooting as he played in the front yard.
“It was painful,” the pastor said. “Here was this young mother. I guess she was no more than 20 herself. The grandmother and the aunts and uncle were there. You’re standing there trying to be a professional pastor and counsel them. But what can you say when there’s no rhyme or reason? They’re asking: ‘Why God? Why God?’ And what are you going to say? It really got to me.”
There was also a widespread perception that government did not care or was powerless to act.
“We face a severe crisis in Southern California that requires immediate action,” said Chester Talton, assistant bishop of the Los Angeles Episcopal Diocese. “It is an extraordinary crisis, and the community is waiting for leadership.”
In the spring of 1991, Mahony convened Catholic, Jewish and Protestant leaders to tackle the issue. They reached out to the four community organizations to jointly develop short- and long-term strategies to fight gang violence.
The religious leaders pledged $177,800 to underwrite a lobbying effort for a grass-roots program.
The campaign was honed by organizers from the Industrial Areas Foundation, a group that follows the political action tenets of the late community activist Saul Alinsky, who held that democracy operates on the basis of pressure groups and power blocs. The IAF helped organize the four community groups that are members of the Hope in Youth coalition.
“It’s not that prayer isn’t on their agenda,” said one IAF insider when asked if the clergy were politically naive. “But they also pay attention to who’s supporting them and who’s not and are keenly interested in how efforts to line up support are going both in terms of votes and of external allies.”
Confronted with the coalition’s growing strength and the appeal of its anti-gang program, Los Angeles City Councilman Richard Alatorre said: “How are you going to go against God? I know I’m not.”
The divine being may have been a factor. But the fact that churches and synagogues were registering voters and organizing precincts as part of the coalition’s efforts did not hurt their cause.
“The one thing that elected officials understand is the power of the vote,” said Lou Negrete, senior leader of United Neighborhoods Organization, an East Los Angeles group and coalition member.
Mahony noted that three members of the Los Angeles City Council who voted to spend $2.5 million on the program are candidates for mayor next year.
“I think they realized that if you’re going to run for mayor in this city and you’re not talking about the gang problem, you’re out of business,” Mahony said.
The coalition hopes to enlist 100 congregations in the campaign by early next year, each turning out 100% of its members to vote. About 85 congregations are now part of the program.
“These are not just voices withvoices,” said Robert Alaniz, spokesman for Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. “These are voices with votes.”
Plans call for holding political forums during next April’s City Council campaign and issuing informational leaflets pointing out which candidates support the coalition’s goals--and which candidates oppose them. Laws governing nonprofit organizations will prevent the coalition from making endorsements.
“Church and state separation does not say that church people cannot use their talents to serve the community,” said Johnson of the Curry Temple Christian Methodist Episcopal Church.
Although Catholic Charities will administer the program, there is no intent by any of the nine denominations to use it as a forum to spread religious doctrine, church leaders said.
Hope in Youth advocates set an ambitious goal of lining up $20 million in the first year from city, county, state and federal government sources, as well as from foundations and corporations.
The battle for funding the five-year program will have to be waged annually--another reason for seeking the political muscle of new voters and more congregations, coalition leaders said.
In seeking money this year, the coalition demonstrated its savvy by combing budgets and spotting areas where funds could be tapped with the least amount of political repercussions.
The county was the first target. Mahony contacted Deane Dana, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, and Richard B. Dixon, chief administrative officer.
The makeup of the coalition impressed Dixon: “Clearly the individuals had a great deal of credibility. The cardinal was the most prominent.”
Dixon said that although the program is untested it has a great deal of appeal because of its emphasis on heading off “youngsters as they fall off into jeopardy of becoming gang members.”
Dixon urged the board to commit $2.9 million on a matching basis if other government agencies assisted. “If it was going to get somewhere, somebody had to step to the plate first,” he said. In July, the supervisors agreed in a 4-1 vote before a packed audience, a trademark of the coalition’s mobilizing ability.
Hope in Youth next rounded up endorsements from Police Chief Williams and Sheriff Block. The endorsement of Williams was considered an important coup because Bradley had supported Williams’ selection as chief.
At an Oct. 29 news conference at St. Vibiana’s Cathedral a block from City Hall, Williams endorsed Hope in Youth. In turn, Mahony and other clergy members endorsed two measures on last November’s ballot sought by Williams--Measures M and N to add 1,000 officers to the police force and to beef up the city’s 911 emergency call system.
Hope in Youth backers insist that there was no quid pro quo. They said they would have endorsed the ballot measures no matter what Williams did.
The next stop was City Hall.
There were repeated meetings between Hope in Youth backers and council members, the mayor, city controller and Community Redevelopment Agency staff. When Hope in Youth sent a delegation to speak to Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky, who is Jewish, Rabbi Leonard Thal was among the delegation. Bishop Brown, who is black, helped brief the mayor.
“We did want to have teams in there that were reflective of some of their constituents,” said one organizer from the Industrial Areas Foundation.
From the beginning, however, Bradley balked. He repeatedly explained that the city faced a budget crisis and could not afford additional programs. Moreover, he complained that the Hope in Youth program was untested and that there were other gang programs with a track record, including Community Youth Gang Services.
Nonetheless, the council voted 10 to 2 Tuesday to spend the $2.5 million sought by Hope in Youth.
Hurdles remain. The balance of funds must still be raised from foundations and corporations. There could be another fight in the council if Bradley vetoes the $2.5 million.
Most important, once the funds are raised, Hope in Youth will be under pressure to produce results.
“In a sense, getting the backing of the city and county is the easy part,” Mahony said. “The difficult part is performing.”
Hope in Youth
Nine religious denominations and four community organizations have formed a coalition to back the controversial new anti-gang program known as Hope in Youth.
Bishop Roger Anderson of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America
The Rev. Rafael J. Aragon, head of the California-Hawaii Synod of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)
The Rt. Rev. Frederick H. Borsch, bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles
The Rev. E. Lynn Brown, bishop of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church in Los Angeles
The Rev. Emory C. Campbell, an executive minister of the American Baptist Convention
The Rev. Davida Foy Crabtree, head of the United Church of Christ in Los Angeles
Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles
United Methodist Bishop Roy I. Sano, Los Angeles area resident bishop
Rabbi Leonard Thal, a leader of the Union of Hebrew Congregations
United Neighborhoods Organization
Southern California Organizing Committee
East Valleys Organization
Valley Organized in Community Efforts