Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Essays

L. A. Grace
by Jan Johnson

My suburban friends saw only looting and rubble,
but I saw the unbeatable faith of my former neighbors.

Until recently our family lived in a South-Central Los Angeles neighborhood in which the April riots occurred. Now we live a few blocks from the Simi Valley courthouse.

As I watched television reports of our old neighborhood flashing with anger and fire, Christians around me kept asking me if I weren't relieved that we didn't live there anymore -- especially since we're white. To my friends' surprise, and my own, I wasn't. I wanted to be back in South-Central Los Angeles. We had spent many peaceful years in L.A. and I felt that I belonged there in time of trouble too. I felt outrage at the verdicts my fellow Ventura County residents had delivered. I felt the sting of my fellow Christians' descriptions of L.A. as a hopeless war zone, as a place where "normal" people would never live.

Watching the black residents of South-Central L.A. speak before television cameras calmed me down. They denounced the violence and urged the rioters to work through the system. Young black kids hauled garden hoses to burning buildings trying to put out fires themselves.

I especially admired the woman who stood stunned in front of her charred, empty specialty hat store. She had placed a sign on the front door the previous evening that said, "Black owned," but the store had been torched anyway. The merchandise was not insured and she estimated her loss at $50,000. Her friends gathered around her on the sidewalk in the hot sun and prayed for peace. When the news commentator interviewed the woman afterward, it was my turn to be stunned. Serene and quiet, she looked in the distance and said, "We must rebuild. This is our community and we must rebuild."

Could I have said that? Could I have lost $50,000 and be so filled with purpose that I would be willing to rebuild?

When I worked on a clean-up crew the weekend after the riot, I saw residents standing for hours in the smokey heat under deadened traffic signals directing traffic and keeping peace. I saw old vans with signs that read, "Free Rides." A black family pulled up beside me, saw the broom in my front seat and said, "Go for it, sister."

When the workers on my crew talked about rebuilding, I hid behind a dumpster in the ashes and wiped my tears with my arms. How could this community have so much hope in a time of such despair? I thought about how often, during the ten years I had lived there, I had seen this unbeatable faith, particularly in my black Christian friends. So often the example of their strength bled over into my life and I began to believe that I too, with God's help, could tackle my dreams.

When I tell these stories to my Christian friends, they look at me baffled. They saw only fires, looting and rubble. While I feel such admiration for the majority of the people in South-Central L.A., I only hear only degradation from others. It's as if people are asking in fear and disgust, "Can anything good come out of South-Central L.A.?"

I grieve over this callous dismissal of the whole community. These wounded people do not need our verbal potshots. They need us to join those who encircled and prayed for that store owner. We Christians, like Elisha, can see the hovering angels in the midst of battle, when others do not. We who are recipients of such generous grace and mercy can dispense it as well.

Is that asking for too much? When catastrophes occur in the Third World, Christians are quick to pray and send food. But I don't hear that same mercy for South-Central Los Angeles. I hear Christians clucking their tongues in dismay over what a terrible place South-Central is, rather than asking how they can help. I hear people talk as if every resident there now boasts a new VCR rather than discerning that some burned and looted, while the majority grieved and did what they could to stop the violence.

I hear easy prayers, the ones for families of the dead. What I'd like to hear are prayers for the looters, or for their relatives, who have struggled with the decision of whether to turn their own family members in to the police. I hear prayers that the rioters will calm down, so that the rest of us don't have to be afraid anymore. What I'd like to hear are prayers that examine our own hearts for prejudice.

I'd like to hear as much about grace and mercy from Christians as I hear about law and order.


This article first appeared in Christianity Today,
June 2, 1992, shortly after the riots in Los Angeles.

This article also appeared Christian Reader, Covenant Companion,
The Family, The Lookout, Presbyterian Survey and Episcopal Life.


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