Where Grace Abounds: A Profile of Dennis Ortega
Faraway from Disneyland, the beaches, and the mountains of southern California lay long stretches of streets in east Los Angeles starving for tenderness and commitment. On a stretch of Workman Street in Lincoln Heights is a church building that resonates with the voices of nearly fifty children singing Sunday school songs and receiving individual tutoring -- something teachers of crowded inner-city schools dream about. Three days a week, thirty Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship students trek from upscale UCLA and Occidental College to the Workman Street Church to tutor and play with these children and befriend their parents.
The tutoring forms the hub in the grace that circles outward from this church and parsonage, which is now a community house for seven staff members. The staff are college graduates holding full-time outside jobs and working with older kids in discipleship groups and a youth group. They take the kids out of Lincoln Heights on Saturday nights to study the Bible and have fun, safe from drive-by shootings.
Quietly leading the effort for nine years is director Dennis Ortega who sensed God's call to urban ministry as he was finishing his pre-med degree. He committed himself to work in the city for one summer, but "God seemed to say to me," says Dennis, "'I've been keeping you to work in the heart of the barrio. I knew God would have to prepare me because I was raised in the suburbs. I distanced myself from low riders, hair nets and gangs because I wasn't proud of that part of my culture. While praying and fasting during those early months here, I got a vision for how God would have us work with kids and transform the community."
Dennis's vision can be summed up best as being a good neighbor. Parents ask the staff's help with reinforcing discipline and interpreting immigration documents. Not long ago, neighborhood kids ran to get Dennis because the police had beaten a neighborhood boy and were holding three others on their knees in the street. Families gathered to shout at the police. Dennis knew these boys -- they were former gang members who had given their lives to Christ, disbanded their gang and become computer lab assistants at the tutoring center. The police continued to harass them, however, because experience told them this block was a tough one. Dennis pushed through the crowd in the twilight and spoke to the officers, demanding to know the charges. "By God's grace," says Dennis, "and because of my education, my boldness and my title as youth pastor, they were respectful to me as a person of authority. They began explaining their perspective."
Another typical evening might find Dennis talking and laughing with parents of a child who misbehaved in tutoring that day. Dennis knows the child is hiding in the next room, worried that he'll tell, but he says nothing. The next day he tells the child, "I could have easily told your parents about your behavior, but I didn't. I know you're going to improve so I won't have to say anything."
This mix of justice and mercy have made Workman Street a different place. Once flanked on both ends by drug houses, it is relatively drug-free. The cost has been paid by staff members used to hearing people say, "So you went to that fancy private college to go live with people you don't know, hang out with gangbanging kids and get a no-class job to support yourself?" Many tutoring volunteers have gone on to settle permanently in urban areas and partner with other Christians to revitalize inner city communities.
Dennis Ortega, himself, has forfeited the approval of his parents who are disappointed that he has given up the middle-class standard of living they worked so hard to give him. He has also forfeited his safety and has had his life threatened many times. But Ortega says the difficult decision was to give up the prestige and economic security of becoming a doctor. "My co-workers at the hospital and I had big plans about how it would be when they were working with me as a doctor. I'd worked so hard for it." He did, however, use the second of his double majors to support himself at Workman Street as a civil engineer. Over the years, however, the job and the ministry took its toll and Dennis suffered an adrenal gland failure. After that, funds were found for him to minister full-time.
Behind all the good deeds is a devotion to Christ and His love for a neighborhood the world views with indifference and even contempt. Thankfully, there comes this way a group of Christians committed to living out God's grace and mercy.
This article first appeared in the Nov/Dec 1994 issue of Discipleship Journal in a special section, “People God Uses.” This profile of Dennis was used as an example of “love,” as one of the fruit of the Spirit. As I interviewed Dennis for this article and sat on the scrappy couch in his living room, I had a sense of God saying to me, “Jan, this is what my servants do. They work in small corners of the kingdom with great love.” I was so humbled I could barely see my notes through my tears.
Update on the Lincoln Heights Tutorial Program (4/03):
The address is: 2618 Workman St., Los Angeles, CA 90031.
This article appears here with Dennis Ortega’s permission.
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