Twenty five years, in April 1992, Los Angeles was hit by some of the worst urban riots in American history. During three days of rioting, looting and mayhem 60 people were murdered and thousands of stores and shops looted and burnt to the ground. The riots were the inevitable consequence of the breakdown of trust between Law enforcement and residents which had been eroded over the previous decade.
At the time of the riots I was a pastor in the parish of St Frances Cabrini in South Los Angeles where most of the destruction happened. I began to realize that our Catholic parishes were the most effective institution to heal our city. With wonderful help from the Archdiocese we renewed our commitment to our Catholic Schools and parishes but also dedicated ourselves to building public relationships of trust and collaboration between the poor black population and the even poorer immigrant population in South Los Angeles. However, the most challenging part of this renewal of public trust was to build a working relationship between residents and the LAPD. Because our Catholic parishes are a part of the neighborhood fabric, we had standing to call the adults of each community to take responsibility for building a better society for the next generation. One of my most important roles as a catholic pastor was to convene meetings of law enforcement, politicians, bureaucrats, residents, teachers and gang intervention workers to develop strategies to improve life in our local neighborhoods. Looking back at the last 25 years I believe that, through hundreds of neighborhood ‘house meetings,’ plus thousands of one-on-one conversations, added to countless public assemblies, all the slow, patient, and sometimes painstaking work of building public relationships of collaboration led to a ‘solidarity’ between us in South Los Angeles that for a good many years led to a huge reduction in killings and violence in our community.
Before the Spanish Civil War, the hard left tried to destroy the moderate left, and the hard right tried to destroy the moderate right, leaving no ground for those who wanted to do the real work of politics. The true work of politics is to keep all stakeholders in society in relationship to negotiate how to build the ‘good society’.
This destructive polarization and erosion of politics is happening also within our beloved country in these times, and if we don’t find ways to build public friendship with each other, many, especially the poor and vulnerable, will suffer. It was the Catholic Church in South Los Angeles that had the capacity and the standing to reweave the social fabric there. I believe it is the Catholic Church in this United States of America that is best positioned to hold the tension between left and right, between Democrats and Republicans. We are uniquely positioned to do the hard work of being bridge builders not only because roughly 50% of us vote Democrat and 50% vote Republican, but also because many members of our Catholic parishes are the ‘movers and shakers’ and many others are the ‘moved and shaken’. For instance many in the Trump administration, in Homeland Security and ICE are Catholic and of course so are millions who are affected by their policies. But we are united by our love for our Catholic Faith and our love for this country. We have an opportunity as a Church to rebuild this ‘Solidarity’ in the public realm that Saint Pope John Paul II spoke about. Let’s us do it for the sake of this troubled country which we are blessed to be part of.
Bishop David O’Connell is an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the Episcopal Vicar of the San Gabriel Pastoral Region in the Archdiocese.
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