Giving a Hand Up in South Central

When 1992's riots hit South Central Los Angeles, they struck an area already struggling to get by

ON a sunny Wednesday morning in South Central Los Angeles, a line is forming outside the Ebony Baptist Missionary Church on South Figueroa Street.

A collection of nearby residents and homeless people, single men, and women with babies are waiting for sacks of free food, which the church distributes weekly.

Michael Wynn, a local community organizer, has stopped by in search of volunteers for the neighbor-to-neighbor program organized by Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley to calm fears and quell unrest in the inner city.

A year ago, looters and arsonists went on a rampage here after four white Los Angeles policemen were acquitted of using undue force in subduing black motorist Rodney King. The worst riots in recent United States history left many nearby stores and businesses boarded up or in ashes. In the immediate aftermath, Ebony Baptist was the only food source in the neighborhood, feeding 250 families a day.

The violence was a devastating blow to an area already blighted by decay.

Mr. Wynn is part of a large network designed to encourage a sense of community among area residents who have known poverty, hardship, and fear.

"The majority of these folks are tough nuts to crack," Wynn says. "Their quality of life has been so bad for 25 years, they're skeptical." Nonetheless, he says, he has made a lot of progress in this part of town, where he estimates that the unemployment rate is upward of 40 percent. (Unemployment is 20 percent in greater South Central Los Angeles. It is the highest rate anywhere in California, and California has one of the highest rates in the country.)

Wynn says he has even managed to "get some gang members on board. They're mostly interested in `How can we get employed?' They go back to their own gangs, and share the information with other gang members."

Looking around the neighborhood, Wynn is clearly pleased with his prospects. A crowd has gathered in front of the church door, and there are plenty of passers-by. Ebony Baptist is located across from the 20-year-old House of Uhuru drug abuse clinic on a busy street where liquor stores, check-cashing and food stamp centers, corner markets, and housing projects sit among both boarded-up buildings and modest homes with well-manicured lawns.

Inside the church, a dank, brick low-rise building, Pastor Ernest Woods is directing people who are shuffling through a narrow hallway to rows of chairs lined up outside the back of the building. Once outside, he opens the gate of a rusted chain-link fence, and welcomes congregants and others into the sun-filled area.

"We have 125 members, half Latino, half African-American," Pastor Woods says, shaking hands and accepting envelopes they offer.

Can these visitors afford to give money to the church? "Oh, yes," he says, smiling. "They may give a few pennies, some even give a dollar. It may be enough to cover a trip in the van to pick up food."

Out of the 28 envelopes Woods collected, half are empty, though all are carefully sealed. In the rest are piles of change, four $1 bills, and a Guatamalan dollar. Total: $14.41.

Founded in 1972, Ebony Baptist Missionary Church has become a repository for surplus, often rotting food from nearby groceries and restaurants. Worn-out clothing, donated by local residents, is piled high on the seats of an old, littered school bus now grounded on the premises.

The church runs two homeless shelters, offers free medical help, provides taxi vouchers for those who need rides to job interviews, and shares information on subjects ranging from housing loans to AIDS.

"We get funding from nowhere," says Woods, who says he is fed up with government agencies that don't respond to his requests for assistance or entangle him in bureaucratic red tape when they do.

Other churches aren't much help either. "There's no money in this - not even enough for those fancy stained-glass windows other churches have," he laughs. "One church actually told me I ought to close up!"

Shaking his head, he runs down a list of unpaid bills, which have been building up for years. "A $21,000 water bill, $300 a month for trash removal. The gas company was here yesterday - we owe $700 - they were here to cut it off, but the gates were locked. We got a $1,700 electric bill and a mortgage that's behind. It's called surviving in the ghetto," he says, smiling again.

The pastor grabs a microphone and turns up his crackling PA system. "Ya'll listen for your number to be called for the food. In the meantime, hop on that bus and see what you can find! Don't leave nothing behind!"

The queue for food includes two rail-thin women who have walked five miles from Watts - located clear across South Central. "We started out at 7:30 this morning," says Charisse Rodgers, whose marred feet are partially covered by black bedroom slippers.

Later, back in his office, Woods interviews Arkansas native Henry Strickland for the shelter, where people stay from two months to two years.

"L.A.'s the homeless capital of the world," says the pastor, who has had drug dealers and pimps try to use the shelter as a base. "But this is not a flophouse. It's a way up. You see, I have a mathematical formula: Your success is inversely proportional to your excuses. When your excuses go down, your success goes up. Pretty soon we know who's fakin' and who's shakin'."

Just then, his assistant comes in clapping her hands. She's very excited. "That was Universal Studios on the phone! They said, `Bring the van by, 'cause we're gonna fill it up!"'

"Fill it up with what?" asks Woods.

"With food! And make sure the seats are out because there is a lot!" she says.

Woods smiles widely. "We make do," he says again. "It's called surviving in the ghetto."

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