Young adults from Los Angeles stretch healing hands across nation

June 26, 2002

Calling people of faith to follow in the footsteps of civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks by taking 'simple acts of courage' to stop all forms of violence, Bishop Jon Bruno and 14 young adults of the Diocese of Los Angeles recently completed a 47-day, cross-country pilgrimage, focusing on sites where violence has had a major impact.

Traveling by van, the participants departed the Cathedral Center of St. Paul on April 19--the anniversary of the bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City. Their 17-city itinerary included Las Vegas; Laramie, Wyoming; Omaha, Nebraska.; Chicago; Detroit; Cleveland; Pittsburgh; and New York. Teaching violence prevention, they shared their stories, listened to others tell their stories and led community forums and small-group discussions using a guidebook addressing domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, gang activity, elder abuse and terrorism.

Remembering a time 43 years ago--when he was 12 and growing up in East Los Angeles in one of the toughest gang areas--Bruno described feeling anger, fear and frustration after a neighborhood boy attacked and beat him very badly. The youth was angry that his father allegedly showed more kindness and affection to Bruno, 'spending a lot of time with me teaching me how to fish' and other activities.

'I became very afraid,' said Bruno. For self-protection and defense, 'I threw myself into athletics and other activities. I was petrified, wondering what I did to bring it on ... just not understanding.'

From fear to compassion

Twenty-something Luis Garibay Jr. of the Cathedral Center in Los Angeles could relate to the bishop's experience. He recalled growing up in a community of 'ghetto life with lots of drugs and gang life.' When he was 11, Garibay watched from the street as his 17-year-old brother committed suicide by jumping from the family's bathroom window.

'It was very hard,' said Garibay, who, after thinking it could not get any harder, lost his 14-year-old brother 18 months later when a rival gang shot him to death. 'I could not cry,' he said. 'I wanted to see him so bad. ... I looked for him all over; I kept thinking about how could I get a gun and go shoot someone.'

Sponsored by the diocese and the bishop's office, the violence-prevention initiative was conceived two years ago as one way to equip young adults with the skills needed to love themselves and one another, so that they move from a place of fear to a place of compassion, Bruno said.

Every place visited held a special meaning for each participant. Before taking the trek, some said they thought it would be just a tour; but they later discovered its real purpose. South African-born Lester Mackenzie of Church of the Advent in Los Angeles recalled arriving in downtown Detroit. The place appeared 'like a ghost town, with no human life.'

Everything changed for him when they arrived at ACCESS (Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) and he met a former member of the Ku Klux Klan. 'He told me stories about building walls of hatred, about anger, fear and differences, and how he turned his life around when he began to realize that the light of God exists in all of us.'

Growing up under apartheid, Mackenzie said that the trip gave him the freedom to talk about things that he has kept hidden for a long time. 'I could talk about the fact that I can hate, that I can be impatient and intolerant when confronted with something different. My hatred first was to whites and then towards anyone who inflicted violence.' It was easy, he said, 'to lie to myself and say that I believe in God, but I hate a fellow human being.'

Dealing with realities

In Laramie the travelers met with a friend and the college chaplain of 24-year-old gay college student Matthew Shepard, who was brutally beaten several years ago and left to die on an isolated fencepost. 'It was a story not from the media, but a real friend who told us exactly the way it was,' said Garibay. 'We were able to catch that feeling ... go to the site, have prayers, get a feeling of how cold it was, how naked he was.'

Anne Warnock of All Saints Church in Long Beach said that the site where Shepard was killed and the crash site of Flight 593 in Pittsburgh during the September 11 terrorist attacks were the most moving experiences. 'I could feel the reality of death and pain ... your life being taken involuntarily,' she said. 'They were both purely violent acts.'

Bruno referred to Pittsburgh as the 'holy site.' He recalled a woman from the delegation. 'She was cold and came to put her head on my shoulder, and we just stood there. Then there was another person, then another, until a circle was formed, and we began praying for about 30 minutes for each of the names we saw on the place,' he said. 'The power of seeing those people move from being strangers on that flight to heroes ... suddenly we were not cold anymore.'

Finding God at Ground Zero

In New York, the group also visited sites touched by the September 11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. First stopping at the Episcopal Church Center, the delegation met with several church officials, participated in a mid-day Eucharist and luncheon, then took an afternoon tour to the United Nations. The following day, the participants visited St. Paul's Chapel near Ground Zero; Trinity Church, Wall Street; and the Statue of Liberty.

'When we got to Ground Zero, we went through the fire station and were standing on the roof and looking down at everything.' said Frances Moodie of St. John's Church in Los Angeles. 'Everyone was extremely warm, and leading up to that I was having visions of myself being alone and very cold. When I was there I was surrounded by my peers and family, and you felt very warm and comforted ... I knew God was there in that place, and it was good.'

A former police officer and professional football player, Bruno has worked with young people, at-risk and not-at-risk, for the last 30 years, 17 of them at the cathedral. Committed to teaching people how to deal with their anger, Bruno discovered through the years that everyone needs to be taught how to deal with each other.

'You don't teach at-risk people, you teach the whole community,' he said, 'because people are afraid of at-risk youth. And in teaching the whole community, you teach them to relate to one another in a way that will make them act differently.'

Just a beginning

The delegation completed its tour in June. But, Bruno said, this is only the beginning of diocesan efforts to prevent violence in communities. Plans include making an interactive, online curriculum available. The diocese will produce a video about non-violence, plus three 30-minute teaching videos about the trip with questions for discussion, and six public service announcements reporting what the young people have to say about what it means to be in the Episcopal Church and what it teaches.

Moodie said the trip would be worthwhile if it changed a single life. 'If we save one person and get them to not pick up a gun, or not hit their spouse or their children, or not look at someone in anger or with hate, then our job is done,' she said. 'If we can stop and change one life, one heart, then the cycle of abuse, of hate, of pain ceases, and then it allows love and patience to grow.'

For more information, contact the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, Cathedral Center, 213-482-2040; or visit the website at www.HandsInHealing.org for the complete story and a selection of photos.