The sprawling character of the city and a growing sense of separation from elected political leaders and governmental institutions are causing Angelenos to look closer to home for leadership and community. And where they are finding them may have ramifications for the kind of society in which we want to live.
A study by scholars at USC and UC Santa Barbara concludes that since the 1992 riots, neighborhood churches and synagogues are, in effect, filling the leadership vacuum, in many ways becoming a kind of shadow government to the one increasingly distrusted by the public.
By virtue of coalitions and covenants that cut across denominational lines, these churches and synagogues are working together on such stubborn neighborhood problems as gangs and crime, education, health care, small business and job training. They are acting as major outlets for food distribution in the inner city, and are equally involved in drug-abuse programs and as refuges for the homeless. In all these activities, there is a strong influence of the spiritual. Links to Establishment institutions are weak.
If there is any serious division in the religious community in Los Angeles, it is between what could be called the ecclesiastical "haves" and the ecclesiastical "have-nots." In this case, between those who have a voice in the city--the Rev. Cecil L. Murray, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, for example--and those pastors and rabbis who do not get quoted in the media. The latters' lack of visibility matters, because with name recognition comes the opportunity to raise money and do more.
The extraordinary upsurge in activity on behalf of the poor by the city's religious community is partly due to the withdrawal of other institutions, most notably government, from the responsibility of caring for them. Another reason may be simply the times we live in--times that see more and more people turning back to core values after a period of rejecting them.
The Rev. Madison T. Shockley Jr. of the Congregational Church of Christian Fellowship notes that the reincarnations of the civil-rights movement and the liberal peace movement--the black-power movement and the new left, respectively--were essentially "unchurched." This generation of unbelieving and unconnected individuals now have children, and they are increasingly considering the effects of their spiritual neutrality on their families, on their "moral sense," as James Q. Wilson has noted.
For many, the answer to a yearning for a spiritual dimension to life and a greater sense of community is found in religious institutions. But they are also discovering that this is not enough, that secular institutions need to recognize that the heartbeat of society resides in the neighborhoods, in the fellowship that reaching out to others provides.
A recent national poll conducted by DYG, Inc. for the Healthcare Forum Leadership Center, concluded that more than half of all Americans believe they can have an impact on their communities, that there is "a new confidence and willingness to get involved." This confidence stems, in part, from their belief that they have to take matters into their own hands because government is failing (only 24% placed their confidence in local government, 19% in state government and 16% in Washington).
Maybe this new-found willingness to make a commitment grows out of a fear that society has gotten out of hand--something we saw so clearly in April, 1992. Maybe it springs from the mindless materialism of the last 20 years and the recognition that government turned its back--and the rest of us didn't seem to care very much. Maybe we should just blame ourselves as individuals and stop worrying about a scapegoat. Whatever the reason, the revival of a civic role for the city's religious institutions could be a harbinger of an urban spring.
The task for secular institutions is to follow their lead and develop ways to come back to where individuals feel a connection to community. Local government needs to figure out a way to reinforce and back up the work of the city's churches and synagogues that does not infringe upon church-state boundaries. It needs to encourage links among institutions that enable communities to learn about each other, and, eventually, to build coalitions with each other. While a stronger voice at the top is needed, an active, stable base at the bottom is indispensable.
Democracy asks of its citizens certain duties, but is unrealistic to expect anyone to assume responsibility unless they have a way of exercising it. Voting is important, but even more important is the day-to-day actions of small communities coming together, reaching out and taking care of the business of living for themselves and each other. That's where citizenship really counts. That's a building block of a civil society. Government needs to catch up and learn a "spiritual" lesson or two.*