Wineskins Archive

January 21, 2014

Faces of the Future (Apr 1993)

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by Billie Silvey
April, 1993

11Los Angeles has been called the city of the future, and with good reason. Our TV and movie producers strike images that spread like wildfire. Our fads and fashions are soon seen from Seattle to Birmingham, from San Diego to Boston. When multiculturalism became the catchword, and LA became the capital of the Pacific Rim, city after city braced for diversity.

Today, a year after the explosion of the LA riots, what lessons does this bellwether of the future have for the rest of the nation? Maybe none. Maybe we handled things so badly we no longer have anything to say. But maybe, out of our pain and fears and sprouting hope, we can offer caution—and encouragement.

Especially as Christians, we should have something positive to contribute from our experiences. As friends of mine—black, white, Hispanic and Asian—have talked, wept, celebrated and prayed over our city, we may have learned a few things.

1) We have to get along. Rodney King’s question has sparked endless speculation about race relations. Can we all get along despite our differences? Increasingly, we inhabit the same neighborhoods, compete for the same colleges and jobs, serve each other in business and the church. In a constantly shrinking world, we’re bound to bump into each other, and we must find ways to cushion the blow.

In the past, we thought sitting in the same church buildings, classrooms, and offices would show us that we aren’t really different. But we are. Different cultures have different values, different ways of relating and different ways of looking at the world. We’ve got to learn, not just to understand those differences, but to make room for those who hold them—on all levels of our society.

According to Manning Marable, researcher at the University of Colorado’s Center for the Study of Ethnicity and Race in America, improving race relations is “no longer just a matter of bringing members of a black church to a white church for a Sunday picnic…. Unequal power, unequal ownership and unequal privilege—that is the root of the conflict we see in the streets.”

How many black elders do you have? Hispanic deacons? Asians serving the Lord’s Supper? Are there just token minority members on your preaching and teaching staffs?

Do we only include blacks who act like whites or Hispanics who speak English? How many of us are bilingual?

Twice a year, the Vermont Avenue church has an all-day Bible camp for neighborhood children. Each class has an English-speaking and a Spanish-speaking teacher. But even then we must be careful not to teach in English and just have the Spanish teachers translate.

2) The poor aren’t like the rest of us. The LA riots weren’t just about race, they were about economics. Last year, some 15.7% of Californians lived in poverty, and homelessness increased by as much as 16%. It’s easy to see the poor and homeless through middle-class eyes, to assume that, if they weren’t so lazy or if they’d just clean themselves up, they could do better.

But the poor don’t think like we do. Those of us with houses and cars and jobs and educations feel pretty much in control of our destinies. If we aren’t lazy and clean ourselves up—maybe go back to school for a couple of classes—we probably will get a job.

As former President Jimmy Carter says, “The rich are those who believe that if they make a decision, it will make a difference in their lives.”

The poor feel much less in control. Buffeted by forces they don’t understand, they feel hopeless and helpless against their fate. This fatalism was hard for me to comprehend until my husband was unemployed for five months. As our bank account dwindled, I felt my sense of control slipping.

Yet often the poor are more generous than the rest of us. Recently when we were feeding the homeless downtown, I worried that a fight might erupt over a sturdy pair of men’s shoes. Sure enough, two men grabbed for them at once. I glanced down at their feet. Both had on good shoes.

“I’d rather give them to somebody who really needs them,” I said, and they stepped back and pushed another man forward. His tattered tennis shoes were barely held together with broken shoestrings.

These desperate men who had their hands on something of value gave it up to someone who needed it more. Would we do the same?

3) The more we need education, the less there seems to be. Even though California hasn’t sunk into the sea, our education system seems to have. Once the envy of the nation, our schools are struggling. Having been asked to take a 12% pay cut, LA teachers are threatening to strike.

With more than 40% of students having limited proficiency in English, we need to put more, not less, into good schools and teachers. Today’s students are tomorrow’s work force. If we’re to be competitive in a global economy, they must be well trained.

4) It’s hard to touch when you live on an island. Despite the fact that the world is shrinking, it’s easier to avoid people than ever before.

As LA City Councilman Mike Hernandez points out, “People… can get in their BMWs in Westwood, drive to an underground parking garage downtown, work all day on the 22nd floor and not understand what’s happening—why streets in some parts of town are dirtier, why schools are overcrowded. People still don’t understand what happened in the riots.”

We need to understand. We need to step off our islands of comfort and isolation and reach out to people we might otherwise never see. We need to share power, resources, knowledge—ourselves, with those different from us.

The angels at the birth of Christ sang of “Peace on earth, good will to men.” The Apostle Paul was committed to promoting unity among the diverse ethnic groups in the early church. That wouldn’t be a bad mission for us.

Racial inequality, poverty, ignorance, and isolation are rampant in LA. They may spread to other parts of the country as well, unless we begin now to reverse the trends, to change the face of the future.Wineskins Magazine

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