For about 75 people Saturday, the sticky auditorium at St. Mary's Church in Boyle Heights was both a sanctuary and a pulpit, a place to reflect on their blessings and begin a fight to preserve their neighborhood.
A framed picture of the Virgin Mary adorned one side of the stage; on the other stood three stark, captioned black-and-white photographs of homes and apartment buildings in their community.
"Over 900 homes destroyed to make way for public projects," read one caption. Another said "40% of families with children under the age of 18 in Boyle Heights live in poverty."
Most of the audience members were renters, and they had come to this forum, organized by the East L.A. Community Corp., to learn how they might inject themselves into the dialogue about the rapid changes sweeping their neighborhood.
In a community where the median income is $22,652 and 75% of residents are renters, fears are building that working families are being displaced and their social networks interrupted, said Lydia Avila-Hernandez, a community organizer.
"The homeowners are organized," she said. "The business owners are organized. Now it's your turn."
A host of residential and commercial projects are underway in the community, said Maria Calbido, the community corporation's executive director. Housing units also have yielded to public projects such as a new school and light rail line.
Despite rent control ordinances and state laws about how landlords can treat tenants, "just about every day, there are folks coming into our office whose landlords are giving them [illegal] eviction notices," Calbido said.
Saturday's event included workshops, a panel discussion and a bus tour of Boyle Heights and downtown, where similar discussions and debates about gentrification are heating up.
Naeli Jeon of the Los Angeles Center for Law and Justice, which provides free legal representation and education to low-income residents and communities, said her organization has heard from many Boyle Heights tenants living in substandard conditions and others whose rents were illegally raised.
"A lot of landlords threaten that they are going to kick you out tomorrow, they are going to call [immigration officials], that you are going to lose your property," she told the audience. "That can't happen."
Los Angeles City Councilman Jose Huizar, whose district includes Boyle Heights, said community leaders and politicians need to look at how to replace low-income units destroyed to make way for public projects. In some cases, while residents received financial compensation, they did not continue to live in the historic area.
"While we want to welcome new residents, we need to preserve the integrity of the people already living here," Huizar said.
Most attendees said they recognized the importance of ensuring that their needs were represented in discussions and negotiations that too often involve property owners rather than residents.
"We need to work together," resident Lidia Hernandez told the assembled group. "Unity makes us strong. We need to inform our neighbors and tell them they don't need to be afraid."
Edward Padilla, who attended Saturday's event, said he sees both sides of the ongoing debate.
He moved to the community last year, finding it similar to where he grew up in San Diego. "For me, this is like being home," he said.
But he said the walls outside the community theater center where he works had been covered with anti-gentrification fliers recently. "We were taking it personally" at first, he said.
Now he believes that they were aimed more at big businesses that might sweep into the area and ignore the fabric of the neighborhood.
"We want to make sure we're coming and not causing friction," Padilla said. "It is important we embrace each other in some sense."