The mixture of races, religions and cultures in the San Fernando Valley not only stretches the social fabric stitched by government, commerce and volunteer organizations but also strains the moral fibers stemming from diverse spiritual roots.
Some religious organizations attempt to relieve tensions through social services across lines of faith.
Because he is wearing more than one hat these days, the Rev. Allyn Axelton is familiar with religious work on three fronts in the Valley: He was reelected in May to a second term as president of the San Fernando Valley Interfaith Council, he is active in the United Methodist Church’s $5-million Shalom Project to help Los Angeles heal its urban wounds, and he is a campus minister at Cal State Northridge. He was interviewed by Times staff writer John Dart:
Question: In the aftermath of the Rodney King trials and as the Reginald Denny trial proceeds, what is your sense of the state of race relations in the San Fernando Valley, particularly between African-Americans and other racial and ethnic groups?
Answer: There are different views in different communities. There are some improvements in that more black families are living all over the Valley instead of just in Pacoima. But I think the greatest concern is that many blacks are still not employed, are being hassled by police and finding a lot of things are not available to them. They feel left out of society and are very hostile to what’s going on about them.
I think this is true of most ethnic groups struggling to make a living. The gap between rich and poor is disturbing: Some people live in houses that cost a million dollars, and down the street there are people who have full-time jobs but still struggle to pay for a rented house. This is a discrepancy that society, particularly the government, hasn’t known how to address.
Q: In that sense, isn’t the Valley similar to the rest of Los Angeles?
A: The hostile feelings we have here in the Valley are the same as they are anywhere else in the city.
Q: What are some of the Valley Interfaith Council programs that address social needs?
A: One program with middle schools allows 200 to 300 young people to come together and talk about cultural and ethnic differences. Last year we took them to the Police Academy. We haven’t finalized plans for this fall.
Then, for years we’ve had human relations committee members who talk to victims of race-related vandalism at their homes, cross burnings on their lawns or swastikas painted on synagogue walls. Our people usually try to talk to neighbors, often door to door, to get support for the family or institution affected. If it calls for more than that, they seek more resources.
We provide multipurpose centers with many services for seniors at three locations in the East Valley as well as a nutrition program for older folks eating at 17 sites. They are separate programs, but we have people eating together at the centers. We want different cultural and racial groups to know each other as they address community issues.
Q: Do people of different backgrounds really come together that easily?
A: What can happen is that people want to eat with their own group. Our staff is working to make the mix more intentional.
Q: The Valley Interfaith Council has a special evening program this Labor Day at Central Lutheran Church in Van Nuys. Why the religious attention to labor?
A: This is our fifth year to celebrate with working people, particularly unions, to lift up the value and dignity of labor. It will be both an interfaith service and a talk by state Sen. Art Torres on organized labor’s role in the proposed national health care system.
Q: Where is your Martin Luther King Jr. birthday celebration going to be held next year?
A: It will be in a synagogue in Woodland Hills, Kol Tikvah. There was some concern because we are not doing it in less-affluent areas, but we will probably do it every other year in the Pacoima area. Two years ago we held it in a Mormon church in Van Nuys. It’s really a holiday important to all faiths.
Q: Except for the absence of conservative evangelical churches, which don’t usually join theologically diverse religious councils, you have an interesting mix of religious congregations, don’t you?
A: Yes, we have Mormon, Jewish, Muslim, Korean Presbyterian, Methodist, Catholic, Unitarian and Buddhist, among others.
Q: The Metropolitan Community Church in the Valley, which ministers primarily to gays and lesbians, is also a longtime member. Has that kept some religious groups away from the interfaith council?
A: Occasionally some questions get asked, but we’ve been able to go ahead without a lot of problems. We conduct a number of interfaith forums and dialogues to learn about each other.
Q: The growing numbers of Asians, Latinos and other recent immigrant groups seem to have a hard time successfully building or establishing a house of worship in the Valley because of neighborhood objections to increased traffic. Would these groups find it easier if they tried to locate a religious meeting place within their own population centers?
A: Most churches have mailing lists with people coming from all over the Valley and beyond. It shouldn’t be any different for other faiths. We have many thousands of Muslims living in Northridge and Van Nuys and elsewhere. All the Valley is a “community” in a real sense.
Q: The United Methodist Church, your denomination, is going to collect money on Oct. 31 around the country to help Los Angeles recover from the effects of the April, 1992, rioting. Is the Valley a beneficiary as well?
A: Of the $5-million goal, $1.7 million is to go to three church centers in the Valley. At Pacoima First United Methodist Church, we are addressing black needs, particularly young people who need help in high school tutoring and preparing for college and careers. At El Mesias United Methodist Church we are working to provide food service, child care and assistance for newly immigrant Latino families in the Pacoima-Arleta area. Also, we are going to be expanding Bible study and worship services in Spanish in neighboring United Methodist churches. Thirdly, Sepulveda United Methodist Church plans to expand their existing feeding program for the homeless, a thrift store and working with an East Indian group in their congregation as well as expanding into a Spanish-speaking service.
All of the churches are already doing some of the programs without waiting for the money.
Q: The CSUN campus is not always free of racial or cultural conflicts. How do you function as a campus minister there?
A: I serve the “mainline Protestants” among the students, faculty and staff. Our office is part of what we call the Interfaith Council.
We work closely with the university administration, providing workshops and retreats, and chances for people to be in dialogue on sensitive issues. Our work brings us together with many student service organizations and agencies of the university.
Q: Is the campus’ Interfaith Council barely tolerated because of church-state separation concerns or do you feel like a welcome participant?
A: As a state institution, CSUN does not promote any one religious tradition, but it does encourage students to use the resources of their religious faith here. We are very much accepted.
My office and the Catholic office are in the Satellite Student Union, but a year from now we will move into a suite of offices in the main Student Union along with the Jewish and Muslim campus ministries. We should be more visible in the life of the campus then.