Getting off the bus, and on to the streets. A metaphor for inter-community engagement.
The religious and cultural history of our lesser known neighborhoods always intrigues me. I learn something new everyday. And I see amazing sights nearly everyday. However, what I have learned the most has come not from tour bus excursions. It’s from getting off the public buses, and by making my friends pull over to see something usual which catches my eye.
A few days ago as I was taking the express bus north towards Downtown Los Angeles I found myself staring over the rooftops before Slauson Avenue. Looking for the landmark which has kept me intrigued for a while now. Until I spot it. And as I exit the bus at Slauson Metro Station – disembarking at the station right in the middle of the 110-freeway – I keep my eyes on this almost gleaming beacon.
Just east of the 110-freeway, beyond the rows of speeding freeway traffic in front of me, and down in a residential community below, I can clearly see this great building with two blue copulas, one bearing a Star of David and the other a Christian cross.
After spending much time wondering about this, I have finally started to uncover the history of this site as a former synagogue. Following leads from old city directories and oral histories.
So I have spent the past couple weeks returning to the site. Talking to people in the neighborhood, to get to know the history of the area. Also collected some pictures and video of the local sites. This day, my unplanned stop is spurred on by pure impulse and curiosity.
This object of my curiosity is just a couple of blocks away, which is easily walkable. So I descend the freeway’s Metro station platform, making my way over to Broadway.
Here in this area right here off of Broadway, there are a lot of churches right on this thoroughfare. Some of these house of worship are really impressive, like the Greater New Canaan Church of G-d in Christ – just a block over on Brentwood Street, she’s a real beauty!
Though most of the churches here are more humble – being just converted storefronts and former commercial buildings. Small make shift congregations, as it seems to have been in this area since its earliest days.
Though churches of today are more dense. Several of them are directly next door to each other, all smashed up together on the very same corner in some cases. Side-by-side storefront churches, reflective of the diversity and divergence in religious thought found in fundamentalist sectarianism common to the area.
Just at the corner of 59th and Broadway alone, there are two interesting churches. They are just in eyesight of an old synagogue.
The first is the very dispensationally named Concilio de Iglesias Pentecostales “La Nueva Jerusalem (sic).” Which seems to have been a African-American church which has more recently changed their signage to Spanish, and which is now seemingly renting back space from their own meetings from the Spanish congregation. A striking example of the more recent demographic changes in the area.
It’s the second church – the one right next to it – which really caught my eye. “Iglesia Cristian ‘El Dios de Santidad.‘” A fundamentalist holiness church. More precisely, my attention was grabbed by their proudly placed sign emblazoned with a Star of David, that is morphed with a menorah.
Now notice that even though this movement feels comfortable co-opting Jewish symbolism, their sign shows the tension of the duplicity: “Cien porcento trinitaria. Pardre, hijo, espitu santo.” (Translation: “100% Trinitarian. Father, son, holy spirit.”).
The reason a sign like this is necessary, is because in many Latino and black churches Trinitarianism is not just a given. Indeed, the “Apostolic” subbranch of Pentecostalism (aka: Oneness Pentecostalism, or “Jesus only Pentecostals.”) does not believe in the trinity. There are those who follow their biblical fundamentalism to their logical end, and therefore reject any blatant form of plurality in the godhead. This is a tension for many fundamentalist people and holiness congregations which strain on the issue. (See a mainstream evangelical critique of this fundamentalist movement: “What is Oneness Pentecostalism?”)
Many of these churches are outgrowths of church-splits over such doctrinal differences dividing them. This well positioned signage here therefore serves as a notice and warning for people entering the door of this congregation’s firm doctrinal stance.
This artifact revealing that the range of religious thought and questioning in this area is more nuanced than many mainstream white people expect.
Now I notice that the first church, “Nueva Jerusalem” Pentecostal Church, they had a person standing in the doorway. A young black gentleman holding religious tracts and doing some street preaching.
So I ask him if he has lived in the area long. As this has historically been known as a black neighborhood for many years, I ask if his family might have a bit more historical connections to the area than the people I’ve been talking to so far.
I begin relating to him that I’ve been speaking to a lot of the Spanish-speaking residents lately, but that most tell me they are quite recent immigrants. Many of them being central-American families – may of them from Guatemala – who tell me they don’t have enough time living in the area to know the history. Families telling me if I learn the history here, to come back and share the story with them!
The young man says that he’s lived I the area his entire life. And says he knows a bit of the history, which other locals have related to him. Saying that he might be able to help.
As I lift my hand and gesture towards the old building with a Star of David just a block away he quickly blurts out, “Oh, that used to be an old synagogue! It started out way back in the day as a Jewish temple. Today it’s a Baptist church. It’s really old and awesome looking on the inside!”
Without me even doing so much as making a suggestion as to what the site used to be, he instead begins to tell me the story of the site. Telling me in brief how the church purchased the old synagogue building in the 1950s, and then later remodeled it in the 1960s.
He insists with excitement, “You really need to visit on Sunday, to see the inside and talk to the pastor.” Saying that he had once been given a tour and told the history by the church pastor.
I tell him that I find this all fascinating. And that I’d love to hear about the old Jewish history of the area.
And then I mention that for me to hear all this from a non-Jewish person really is even more fascinating. As the Jewish community really seems to be unaware that this site is here and seems to have forgotten the history of this community.
I relate to him that the very thought of this area once being home to a sizable working-class Jewish community really touches something within me, both as a Jewish person and as an ethnic person of color. And that witnessing it, even from the outside, really moves me. Explaining how I’ve been by several times recently with other Jewish friends of mine.
When he hears I’m Jewish his ears perk up. He then asks me: “Have you ever considered Christianity?” Of course, he’s a street preacher so this response does not come as a surprise.
I respond with the same confidence he’s showing in the marketplace of faith: “I do consider it quite often, but honestly, I more often discuss the topic with people who are converted from Christianity to Judaism. And with inter-faith families who are exploring faith.” And I begin to tell him how much of my work is related to helping a diverse spectrum of people return to their historic Jewish faith. And also teaching Judaism to new converts, who are seeking out the Jewish faith.
The guys jaw drops. Surely, he’s never received this answer from someone before! He’s never gotten a response this chutzpadik. So for a while he was just stunned and listening. But I could see that he began to become intrigued hearing of the diversity of race, nationality, language and cultural expression in Judaism. Something he said he had never heard of or considered before.
I tell him how I appreciate the philosophy and teachings of Christianity. And though I love to talk about this faith, I don’t believe it is the path for me. And begin to remind him that the bible says Jews are to be true to our own G-d and not follow after the gods our ancestors did not know. (Deuteronomy 13) That it’s important for me to be faithful and true to the Torah of my G-d, which the scriptures call an eternal covenant between the Divine and the Jewish people. (Genesis 17:7)
He then related to me that he knew a few Jewish people. And that he had several Jewish coworkers. But that his impression of them and their families, was that they didn’t know much about the bible. And so they didn’t really seem Jewish enough to him, as far as he could see. Having a disconnect in his mind between his Jewish acquaintances, and what he understood Jews to be from his reading of the bible.
And he was further troubled and unable to understand how less than pious people could still consider themselves Jewish.
So I took a moment to hear him out. And to consider where he was coming from. In this case, standing literally in the doorway of a “holiness” church – a church which fundamentally believes that even most Christians aren’t really “saved” from hell, because they believe they are lax regarding sin. A group which especially preaches against people who drink, smoke, or even those who listen to secular music. This group has especially become fixated with castigating gays and lesbians in more recent years.
For these people, sin is all around. And to give in to it, means loosing your salvation and place in heaven. This is an old school doctrinal position, which is still quite common in the hood.
So I begin to speak to him one-on-one as a person of faith doing outreach in the inner city. To show him that I both appreciate his beliefs, and truly believe that the power of faith needs to be shared with a society so badly in need of hope. But that I believe we need to transform the way we communicate our faith to people.
And for a while, I begin to make the case that our relationship with our faith and G-d is not an all-or-nothing affair. And that to have this type relationship with G-d is unhealthy, as it would be in any relationship.
I relate to him how I have always been taught by my rabbis that the Jewish faith is not all-or-nothing, it is choosing to embrace holiness one mitzvah at a time. Making inspired and righteous choices, one little act of goodness at a time.
For a while I begin to talk about the realities of society, and our very inner city communities here. Pointing out that there are so many people in need of faith in their lives. Especially here, where life is so very hard for many. And yet for some reason when people can’t live up to some standard of perfection, they are rejected. Shunned and tossed out of their faith communities.
I begin to relate to him the stories I hear from people in these neighborhoods, how many faithful and soulful people feel rejected by their religion. How many who cannot live up to such high ideals are often ejected into a world with no moral guidance. Sent lost and stumbling into an underworld of real danger.
I tell him that many religious people always complain how so many have no moral compass, when we tend to be the very ones taking it away from people and sending them wandering into a wilderness of doubt.
I began to speak to him about my passion for faith and righteousness. And that I feel we need to open the doors wide, to welcome people back to reclaim their spiritual core. And to even rediscover faith anew.
And from there we begin to talk about religion and the bible for about the next hour-and-a-half. For some time him asking questions, and me responding with patient answers. To which he responds with signs of agreement and nods, to his noticeable surprise and delight.
Having heard me mention righteousness and holiness before, he says that he notices that I use these words differently than he’s ever heard before. So I spent some time talking with him about demystifying words of the bible, and understanding them by their clear and obvious meaning.
How righteous is when people decide to do the right thing, not if they believe the right thing. How righteousness is when we do right by G-d and man. As that is the true and literal meaning of righteousness.
And how holiness is not attaining some sense of ethereal perfection. But how kedusha – holiness as described in the Torah – is when something is set-aside for a divine purpose. When we take something that is mundane and ordinary, and we do something extraordinary with it.
I express how I feel it’s very important to understand that when the words of the bible are taken at face value, they call us to do right by others (which is righteousness) and to infuse spiritual inspiration into the ordinary things we encounter in our world (which is holiness).
However, there was one thing which still left him wondering. So he ventured to ask me, “What about salvation? Do you believe you are saved? What about leading people to salvation?”
So I ask him to really consider that word again. To really think about what that word means. To consider the words of the bible and contextualize its meaning. How salvation means saving people from harm and danger.
I ask him to consider how the Jewish people from the time of the bible until present have been troubled by so many hardships. Suffering enslavement, persecution, war, occupation, and near-annihilation; the Jewish people have always understood salvation as being saved from these calamities. For this is the word’s true meaning, and my people’s true reality as Jews.
Then I begin to relate to him in-depth about how my inner city experience has also reinforced this clear view of what salvation is for me. As a person of color, from a struggling working-class community.
As I see the need and challenges in our urban communities, I cannot help but be reminded of what salvation means. As salvation literally means saving, helping and rescuing people from their disparity. Salvation from sword (violence), plague (disease), famine (hunger) and woe (grief, sorrow, sadness).
I contented that leading people to salvation is not helping people attain some abstract religious and philosophical ascent. Insisting that is something which most of the common man here doesn’t really have the luxury to entertain and worry about anyhow. The people of these communities here need saving from real life troubles.
I begin to tell him how we all need to get back to the basics of faith and religion. And begin to remember salvation is in the true sense, and not just as a metaphor.
I see him continuing to nod his head in agreement. Smiling and laughing as I describe my faith in my own very urban and colorful fashion.
Then we get back to talking about people reclaiming their roots and about fostering communal interconnectivity. And about how exploring this history here can help us have more appreciation for the spirit of our historical working-class communities. Discussing my desire to uncover our shared history as a multicultural Los Angeles. With him agreeing that there is an important story to tell here in this community.
The gentleman then tells with excitement that he hopes I will return to see the inside of the old synagogue soon. Asking for my business card. so he could pass it on to the ministers of the church which owns the building.
And saying that he also wished to keep in touch, to talk again sometime. Before shaking my hand heartily, as I departed and continued on my way to explore the site.
One of the things that I could not help but be shaken from this interactions, is the fact that the story of Judaism is being told here. It’s just that so far we aren’t being part of that discussion.
Now all I need is more people to be willing to get off the bus with me. To be continued….