we will lose each other
at something we have been taught
to call the end.
not beyond the rubble of los angeles
the destruction that became
of our lives
but in it, in the heart of it
the skeleton that rises
bones of apartments and arms
don’t believe them
when they tell you
there is nothing above us
and find the room
and you will see what is left of our city
the life we had
do you see the bricks on the floor
rebuild it and call this place immaculate
there will be no god
nor anything invisible they asked us
to believe in
on the balcony
you will see a body
walking toward you
and a face that peeks in
with a smile
and you will say
i know your name
i have known your name
and one by one
we will arrive
and rebuild all of it
with our names
we will rejoice
sing the songs
of our names
and fill the skies
Chiwan Choi is the author of 3 books of poetry, The Flood (Tía Chucha Press, 2010), Abductions (Writ Large Press, 2012), and The Yellow House (CCM, 2017). He wrote, presented, and destroyed the novel Ghostmaker throughout the course of 2015. His poems and essays have appeared in numerous journals and magazines, including The New York Times Magazine, ONTHEBUS, Esquire.com, and The Nervous Breakdown. He is currently at work on My Name Is Wolf, the follow up to The Yellow House. Chiwan is a partner at Writ Large Press, a Los Angeles based indie publisher, focused on using literary arts to resist, disrupt, and transgress, and a member of The Accomplices. Chiwan was born in Seoul, Korea, spent his early childhood in Asunción, Paraguay, and now splits his time between Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.
In Queer Space: Architecture and Same Sex Desire, Aaron Betsky writes, “The queerest space of all is the void, and AIDS has made us live in that emptiness, that absence, that loss…. It is not a queer space any of us would want to inhabit, but many have been forced to make it their own.” In many ways, Danny Jauregui’s work goes beyond just inhabiting the void, that queer space separate from society. It is about identifying it, reclaiming it, and giving it a permanent spatial location in the decades following the crisis. People cruised within communities, within neighborhoods, at local parks, bars, and shops. A single location can be so many places at once.
“I wanted to show that these locations once existed here,” he says.
The photos used in the artist Danny Jauregui’s project document a history that generations of young gay men might not be familiar with. Chronicling these sites then became a way for Jauregui to recover and graft the memory of gay cruising into the larger sphere of American identity and assemblage. The images are a stark reminder of the transient nature of cruising, allowing for a uniquely queer identity to integrate itself into the very tapestry of the history of Los Angeles.
I wanted to show that these locations once existed here.
I met Jauregui on an overcast mid-May morning at La Monarca Bakery on Cesar Chavez Boulevard in Boyle Heights. Danny is a charming and affable man almost a decade younger than me. He’s made a name for himself as an artist whose work encompasses many different media including photography, drawing, and sculpture. The son of immigrants from the state of Jalisco, Mexico, he grew up in South Central L.A. before his family moved to Whittier. Like me, Danny is an artist and academic; he teaches art and photography at Whittier College. Like me, he’s Latino. Like me, he is gay and in a long and stable relationship with a partner. Like me, he spent the past academic year chairing his department. Over sips of piping hot coffee, we commiserate over the challenges—and, yes, the rewards—of serving as heads of our respective units. We share a great deal in common, and I find it comforting to be sitting down and having an enlightening conversation about art and activism and the pressures of academic life with someone so similar to me.
“My brother was a trouble maker when we were growing up,” he says. “My parents decided to pour all their energies into making sure I wasn’t. They indulged my curiosity. If I was into something, they got it for me. When I was interested in art, my father went out and bought me colored pencils and a sketchbook.”
Danny’s work first came to my attention when I ran across an article featuring him and a project he had undertaken to map the cruising sites and locations around the city using Bob Damron’s Address Book as guidepost. When I ask what led him to put the two together, he smiles.
“I was living in Silverlake with my partner during the whole Proposition 8 battle,” he explains.
“Prop 8,” as it was more commonly known, was a statewide ballot aimed at eliminating same-sex marriage in California. The measure eventually passed, with 52.3% of the population voting not to protect the rights of gay couples to marry. The “No on 8” campaign had rented out a building where a local gay bathhouse once stood. When Danny discovered this, it became the impetus for his work. It was such an ironic thing, he recalls, that the headquarters of a grassroots effort to secure the right for same-sex couples to marry had its office in what was once a place where men flocked to meet and have sex in public. In the 70s we’d gained our sexual liberation. We were free to have sex with whomever, whenever, and (pretty much) wherever we wanted. But 80s and 90s brought AIDS, cutting short the party, forcing so many to rethink such “hedonistic” lifestyle choices. Now, in the aftermath of so much loss, many who remained craved marriage and monogamy—grand symbols of heteronormativity. For his part, Danny also embarked on a project that resulted in a map-based documentary of Damron’s Address Book. In doing so, Danny’s work investigated the spatial memory of gay cruising sites, of connection and intimacy that once played out in these locations—spaces no longer in use for that purpose, but also not completely erased either. They exist as reminders of an era of sexual liberation both before and during the AIDS crisis.
Danny explained that his work aims to preserve and document these sites as places of community building, where gay men once upon a time forged bonds and created a sense of shared belonging through the most intimate and secretive of acts. “I’m interested to know then if cruising is the result of a closeted culture?” he says. “Or another means of maintaining the integrity of a subculture that is uniquely our own.”
A good friend once told me that the only time he ever felt truly alive was when he was out cruising. At the time he carried what he jokingly called a “roadside hazard kit” in his car that contained towels, condoms, bottles of lube, poppers, and a few worn out porno magazines (back before porn could be streamed on a smartphone).
“I’d spend hours driving around in my car,” he recalled, with a reverence that was almost spiritual. “I’d get lost in the whole ritual of it.”
Once he watched as cops arrested a man in a park bathroom. But that never stopped him. It worked to heighten the arousal, he said. It provided a thrill that he felt was otherwise missing in his life. His preferred spot to cruise was Griffith Park.
Author John Rechy situates Griffith Park in several of his novels like City of Night and Numbers. In the latter, handsome and charismatic Johnny Rio has come to Los Angeles after years in Texas. Faced with the certain reality that his age is catching up to him, Johnny returns to his former haunt, a place of past conquests, for ten days of sex before his beauty and looks fade away forever. Upon reaching the park, Rechy writes: “[It] is much vaster than Johnny expected. It sprawls over several thousand acres—threatening to spill out into Los Angeles, Hollywood, Glendale, invading even the sky; its various roads spiral up hills high above the city.”
Here, the space of cruising sprawls, opens up, invades, and ruptures the larger environs. It interrupts the space contained by artificial impediments. The writer, like singer George Michael, arrested in a Beverly Hills park bathroom, brazenly calls attention to the location as a site of sexual exchanges that exist within the larger mesh of American culture. But this is a site that operates outside the boundary, a site that challenges greater notions of exchange and connection. He writes, “The branches of so many trees droop so thickly here that the sun filters through only in tiny shifting sequin points and jagged patches.
Perhaps Johnny’s fading good looks, his various exploits, and his frenzied attempts to recapture the glory days of his cruising jaunts could be seen as a commentary on the threats posed on this rare and little-known ecosystem. And like many delicate ecosystems, perhaps Rechy is making a commentary on the fading phenomenon surrounding such places as married couples with kids and dogs push in and the vast clearings that pocket the park, canopied by trees, go from being prime cruising spots to places for cyclists and joggers.
A 1997 L.A. Times article titled “Neighbors Tackle Gay Cruising” tells of neighbors, both newly arrived and longstanding, getting sick and tired of the cruising scene in the areas around Griffith Park. “In the enduring subculture of men cruising for sex with other men, a few pleasant residential blocks of Griffith Park Boulevard had become hot. A nearby sex club had drawn crowds, as did the boulevard’s mention in gay guides” the article reported. The crackdown led to undercover police stings and road signs that read
TWO TIMES PAST SAME
POINT WITHIN 6 HOURS
Back in 2011 the Los Angeles city council unanimously voted to have the signs removed claiming them to be pointless and offensive. And though this might initially seem like a progressive and bold step on behalf of residents, one that looks to embrace the long history of homosexuality and gay cruising in the community, it’s actually not. The establishments that once attracted such activities have all packed up, replaced by pressed juice bars and yoga studios. “Today, residents say those type of clubs have closed and the neighborhood has changed. They believe the signs ‘stigmatize’ and embarrass the neighborhood,” one website stated.
Begun by visual artist Carlos Motta and writer and dramaturge Joshua Lubin-Levy, Petit Mort: Recollections of a Queer Public is a visual art project that charts the experiences of gay men cruising around New York City. Each account presents detailed drawings by men and brief accounts of their experiences. Deeply personal and culturally significant, these accounts draw strong links between gay subculture and public spaces. Extending beyond the engaged sexual encounters, their project reinforced the idea of cruising as not just a frivolous act, but one with deep political roots, recognizing the foundation of resistant and sexual liberation in the gay community by giving permanence and legitimacy to these spaces in their art. The culture of gay cruising is threatened by gentrification, laws that limit such behaviors, and an overall stigma associated with sex in public. As the makeup of neighborhoods change, the secret cruising goldmines that once existed are slowly being converted or threatened with extinction.
In Los Angeles, Pershing Square was the central locus of gay cruising and hustling in the decades prior to the crisis. A central location in what was known as “The Run” from the 1920s to the 1960s, Pershing Square was the anchor around which gay men could cruise and visit friendly locales like the bathrooms at the Central Library and the Subway Terminal Building, and bars like the one in the Biltmore Hotel.
Many of these places have since vanished and, though remnants of the physical locations might remain—the restroom of a local park, a building that once housed one of the most popular sex clubs in Silverlake, a seedy adult bookstore now fallen into disrepair over the years—they are but subtle traces of what used to be. Finding new cruising hotspots is a little easier now with smartphones equipped with geolocation features, websites, and apps. As these new modes of communication become more ubiquitous, the line between privacy and intimacy also blurs. And given the rise of gentrification in certain regions of Los Angeles as well as other metropolitan cities, the factors that threaten the subculture of cruising come not only from AIDS and other STDs, but also from a long string of new pressures.
Alex Espinoza earned his MFA in Fiction from UC Irvine and holds the Tomás Rivera Endowed Chair in Creative Writing at UC Riverside. He’s the author of the novels Still Water Saints and The Five Acts of Diego León, both from Random House. His newest book is Cruising: An Intimate History of a Radical Pastime (Unnamed Press, June 2019). He has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, and NPR’s All Things Considered. The recipient of a fellowship in prose from the NEA and an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, he lives and teaches in Los Angeles and is completing a new novel. www.alexespinoza.com
“We don’t want to walk into a kumbaya situation,” said Umar Hakim. The sixteen men and women gathered around a conference table in Inglewood simultaneously nodded in agreement. “We need training,” Hakim said, “because we already know who’s holding the power.”
One of the men at the table was Khalid Shah, a veteran activist and organizer in South L.A.’s African-American Muslim community.
“I wanted to be a police officer at one point,” Shah said as people began recounting stories about encounters with the LAPD. “Then the police killed my friend in the projects.”
He shook his head and his eyes clouded over as he relived the preventable event.
“Why?” he wondered, his pain a bridge between past and present.
The community-development organization that Umar Hakim leads—Intellect, Love and Mercy (ILM) Foundation—convened the group to prepare for an upcoming public forum between African-American Muslims and the LAPD at Masjid Bilal Islamic Center in South Central. The meeting would be the first of its kind in recent memory between local law enforcement officers and the constituencies that Hakim and Shah represent.
At a time when public officials often view both Muslims and African-Americans solely through the lenses of policing and security, the event at Masjid Bilal presented an opportunity for L.A.’s African-American Muslims to challenge and dispute that narrow perspective on their lives. It was also a chance for the community to exert agency over the way that law enforcement officers approach their work in neighborhoods where tensions between residents and the LAPD continue to run high and unresolved.
“I’ve heard so many stories of kids being dehumanized by police,” Khalid Shah stated, eliciting murmurs of recognition from everyone around the table. Shah added that his decades-long history of activism has paradoxically both reinforced and softened his suspicion of the LAPD.
“I’ve also meet good, honest individuals who happen to be wearing the uniform,” he said. “That’s enabled me to balance things. I’ve even invited police to talk to some of the young people we work with.”
At that point Delonte Gholston stepped in to guide the conversation. Gholston and his co-facilitator, Eddie Anderson, were fresh from their work on the Trust Talks, a series of dialogues between residents of Skid Row and the LAPD. Umar Hakim had invited Gholston and Anderson to the meeting in Inglewood to help Hakim’s team prepare to steer the event at Masjid Bilal toward practical outcomes and away from both unproductive rancor and “kumbaya”—a feel-good form of dialogue that avoids hard truths and thus fails to move the conversation forward.
“The name of the game is stories to solutions,” Gholston emphatically declared. “That means knowing your story, knowing what you want and knowing where you want to go with it.”
Anderson jumped in, lean and dapper in contrast to Gholston’s broad-shouldered casualness.
“If they hear our stories,” Anderson added, “they have to see our pain. Teach them how you want to be treated—show the problem and the solution in the same story.”
With that said, Delonte wrote the words “story” and “solution” at the top of two columns on a whiteboard at the head of the table.
“Now stories,” he said to the group. “What are your experiences with the police?”
“If they hear our stories,” Anderson added, “they have to see our pain. Teach them how you want to be treated—show the problem and the solution in the same story.”
Trauma weaved through the narratives that followed like an electrified wire. Abdul Ali, a barber who grew up in Watts, recalled the National Guard occupying his high school in the 1960s. Gerald Thompson, who came of age in South L.A. in the 1970s and 80s, recounted being hassled and even thrown against the side of a car by the police “just because I was hanging out.” Rashida Rogers, a sign-language interpreter, said she had intervened on several occasions when she witnessed LAPD officers “running up on” young people in her neighborhood.
Rogers said, “I have gotten out of my car and said, ‘What’s going on?’” when she observed police intimidating children who were on their way to school.
“The officer was like, ‘They were loud, they were making noise’,” Rogers said. “Holding up children from school because they were being loud! To me, they’re placing fear in them—the same oppressive mentality that they’ve always tried to instill in our young people.”
Gholston’s roster of words and phrases under the “story” heading painted a grim picture that depicted pure trauma, fear, deficient accountability, lack of trust, prejudice, and a preceding command-and-control culture. Stepping to the side of the whiteboard where he had written “solutions,” he asked, “How do we address this?”
“True community policing will only happen when police live in the community,” Eddie Anderson said. “We want officers who live within a five-mile radius of the communities where they work.”
Sadiq Davis, whose reentry story is depicted in the documentary “The Honest Struggle,” remarked, “If officers are friendly, it has a positive effect.” He added, “Some of them are just as afraid as we are.”
Others spoke about the importance of regular psychological evaluations for officers—especially those who have served overseas in the military—as well as the need for greater civilian oversight of the police department. In response to the latter point, Gholston mentioned Measure LL in Oakland, an initiative to create a civilian-run police commission and invest subpoena power in an agency responsible for investigating complaints of police misconduct. The measure won overwhelming support from voters when it appeared on local ballots in 2016, and Gholston believed it could be a model for similar initiatives in L.A.
“We also have to change our culture,” Khalid Shah interjected. “It’s cool to go to the penitentiary but not cool to become law enforcement officers. We have to become part of the effort to change that.”
Several people around the table looked dubious. Shah shrugged, conceding the complexity of the point.
“I fear the cop; I don’t respect him,” he said, playing Devil’s advocate against his own assertion. “Why would I want to become something I don’t respect?”
As the prep session wrapped up, participants took cellphone pictures of the stories and solutions that Gholston had written on the whiteboard. Umar Hakim hung back as everyone said their goodbyes.
“A lot of the men and women in the room had some deep history,” he said. “A lot of the new organizers make the elders feel like they’re obsolete. I want to build on where they left off.”
Hakim was also looking toward the upcoming meeting with the LAPD as a turning point.
“During the course of CVE”—shorthand for law enforcement initiatives that fall under the heading of countering violent extremism—“a lot of misconceptions are presented about the Muslim community, and particularly the African-American Muslim community,” Hakim said. “I have to use these relationships for more than saying you’re wrong. This is an opportunity to push back on those ideas.”
A couple of weeks later, on a warm Wednesday evening, the courtyard of Masjid Bilal—the seminal African-American mosque in Los Angeles—was abuzz with conversation. About a hundred people were divided among ten tables. At each table there were two or three LAPD officers, a volunteer mediator from Days of Dialogue (an organization that facilitates challenging discussions between constituencies in Los Angeles) and about half a dozen members from Masjid Bilal and other predominantly African-American Muslim congregations. Participants from the prep session in Inglewood were thrown in the mix as well.
Andrea Martinez Gonzalez, a mediator from the city’s Department of Consumer and Business Affairs, ended up at a table where a woman from Sub-Saharan Africa was an unexpected ally for a young white LAPD officer who looked defensive and uncomfortable.
“The African woman created an interesting dynamic at our table,” Gonzalez said. “She was coming from a law-and-order culture that had respect for the police. She was really on the officer’s side!”
Gonzalez said that the other people at the table were polite, but kept bringing up the problems related to police violence that were plaguing their neighborhoods, as well as other communities across the country. In telling his story, the officer said people regularly shouted at him and disrespected him while he was trying to do his job—and that he was frustrated because nothing he tried seemed to diffuse those situations.
“That might change with more of these dialogues,” Gonzalez said later. “There are bad apples in every profession. But a lot of why people are angry is that these young officers are the inheritors of what went on in the old days.”
She added that the officer also complained that news outlets only produce stories about what law enforcement officers do wrong. Still, she was sympathetic to the counter-narrative offered by the community members at her table.
“It’s incredible how much injustice is out there,” she said. “People feel the police are there for anything but protection.”
Gonzalez said that she was optimistic about the prospects for further meetings between the groups represented that night at Masjid Bilal.
“I’m impressed from the first dialogue that this group is really trying to build a bridge to the LAPD,” she said. “The more dialogues they have, the better it is. It’s noble work.”
Officer Jim Buck, a community liaison with the LAPD’s Counter-terrorism and Special Operations Bureau who sat at a different table, echoed Gonzalez’s cautious optimism. He also knew the sources of tension in the room, along with the possibilities for progress, as well as anyone else.
“It’s been a real journey with Umar,” Buck said. “The first time I met him, he didn’t want to have much to do with me. Since then, he and I have had many conversations about policing. We’ve agreed to disagree on many issues, but I consider him a very close friend.”
A decade ago, Buck was serving as a drill instructor at the Los Angeles Police Academy when the then-Chief of Police asked him to become a liaison between the LAPD and communities like Masjid Bilal. The assignment was in some ways an odd fit—Buck described himself as a “conservative Republican.” But his gregarious personality turned out to be the most important asset in his effort to allay fears and build trust among people who were wary of his intentions as a representative of a police counter-terrorism bureau.
“When the community has issues,” Buck said, “they come to us. We’re the most visible form of government. My unit has to understand how Islam expresses itself in Los Angeles. People have invited my unit into their homes, mosques, businesses and schools.”
Referring to the event at Masjid Bilal, he said, “All of this is what we do, how we do it, why we do it. We want to create a resilient community.”
Like Gonzalez, Buck said he saw the event as the first step on a long but hopeful road.
“It gives us a positive starting point,” he said. “But the easy part is getting communities together. The challenge is moving forward.”
Rashida Rogers, the sign-language interpreter who attended the prep session in Inglewood, was mostly pleased with her experience at Masjid Bilal. From her perspective, the key benefit was the opportunity for members of the community to present their story in their own words and to lay the groundwork for future events that could move the conversation in a positive, evolutionary direction.
“It gives us a positive starting point,” he said. “But the easy part is getting communities together. The challenge is moving forward.”
“Sometimes the story gets twisted,” she said. “This was my first time speaking up and saying that the information you have about us portrayed us wrong. What I heard in response to that at my table makes me hopeful.”
She said it was the officers’ apparent willingness not just to hear, but to really accept what she was saying that left her optimistic.
“If people can change the condition of their hearts,” she concluded, “who am I to think that change can’t happen?”
A few weeks after the meeting at Masjid Bilal, Umar Hakim was savoring success.
“People feel like an opening was made,” he said. “It broke a lot of ice in our own community and showed us that we can address our problems in a diplomatic way when people are trained and given the tools to promote accountability.”
The key to that positive outcome was the storytelling strategy that the prep session participants brought to the tables where they sat during the event.
“It was good to work out the kinks in talking about your trauma behind closed doors,” Hakim said. “Then when you get to the public square, you say what you need to say. People felt like they were actually heard. That’s what I really wanted—to help my community to establish its voice.”
Hakim said he envisions future dialogues between the LAPD and the city’s Muslim communities—achieving concrete changes like the police reforms enacted through Measure LL will take sustained effort. He also wants to see meetings between community leaders and the developers who are driving gentrification in South Los Angeles, particularly around the site of Inglewood’s new football stadium.
“We’ve trained around twenty leaders at this point,” Hakim remarked, referring to community accountability programs developed through the Intellect, Love and Mercy Foundation. “I would like to get to forty, sixty, one hundred. We need a platoon of people to address development! Enhancing the community is cool, but I want to be sure our people don’t get left behind in the process of progress.”
Whether it’s confronting tensions between citizens and police or managing development in a community where residents have historically been denied agency over their lives, Hakim is optimistic that the strategy that yielded signs of progress at Masjid Bilal can be replicated as a means of tackling other challenges.
“Out of this I hope people will see that there’s more than one way to approach a problem,” he said. “You’ve got to engage it from all angles.”
 The Pew Research Center’s first-ever national survey of American Muslims (“Muslim Americans: Middle Class and Mostly Mainstream”), conducted in 2007, found that African-Americans account for roughly twenty percent of the total Muslim population in the U.S.
 Andrew J. Grandage, Britt S. Aliperti, and Brian N. Williams refer to this historical overlay of past practice that distorts police-citizen collaboration in the present as a “shadow effect.” See Grandage et al., “Leveraging the Intersection of Politics, Problem, and Policy in Organizational Change: An Historical Analysis of the Detroit, Los Angeles, and Atlanta Police Departments,” in James D. Ward, ed., Policing and Race in America: Economic, Political, and Social Dynamics (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2018), 57.
 Dialogue is generally acknowledged as the key process involved in successful conflict resolution—specifically, as a prerequisite for de-essentializing the “other” and building trust between conflicting groups. See, for example, Ivana Markova and Alex Gillespie, eds., Trust and Conflict: Representation, Culture and Dialogue (New York: Routledge, 2011) and Daniel Yankelovich, The Magic of Dialogue: Transforming Conflict into Cooperation (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2001).
 Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad and Jane I. Smith, eds., Muslim Communities in North America (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994), 166.
 Following the Rodney King beating in 1991 and the riots that followed the acquittal of the officers involved in the incident a year later, Mayor Tom Bradley formed the Christopher Commission to conduct a comprehensive assessment of the LAPD’s operations. Among other findings, the commission determined that nearly two hundred officers were implicated in repeated instances of excessive use of force. A few years later, officers in the elite Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums (CRASH) program figured prominently in the Rampart Division violence and corruption scandal. After a 12-year period of reform mandated by the U.S. Department of Justice, the LAPD was finally freed from federal oversight in 2013. See Grandage et al., “Leveraging the Intersection of Politics, Problem, and Policy in Organizational Change,” 71.
 According to the Pew Research Center’s 2017 Demographic Portrait of Muslim Americans, “American-born black Muslims are more likely than other U.S. Muslims to say it has become harder in recent years to be Muslim in the United States. Nearly all American-born black Muslims (96%) say there is a lot of discrimination against Muslims in America, almost identical to the share who say there is a lot of discrimination against black people in the U.S. (94%).”
Nick Shindo Street is the senior writer with the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California. His reporting on religious movements, politics, sexuality, popular culture and news media has appeared in Religion & Politics, NiemanReports, TheLos Angeles Times, The WashingtonPost, Al Jazeera America, GlobalPost, Religion Dispatches, The Jewish Journal and Patheos.
The theologian, mystic, and minister Howard Thurman visited San Francisco for the first time in the late 1920s, according to an account he later gave to a friend. In his published reminiscences, he recalled attending staff meetings of the national YWCA held in Asilomar, California in the mid-1930s. One summer, he remembered, “when I disembarked from the Oakland ferry and walked down Market Street, I had a sense of coming home that I never felt any place else in the world.”
I once had almost exactly that same experience, and feeling, admittedly after disembarking from a VW van rather than the Oakland ferry. But the same sense of “coming home” for the first time was there.
Last year, I decided I might be interested in writing a biography of Howard Thurman, someone who long has interested me. When I read this sentence in his autobiography, I suddenly felt “called” to do so, using the language of the Baptist tradition in which both Thurman and I grew up. “It was a cold, foggy day in July when Sue and I shivered into San Francisco,” he remembered of moving there in July 1944, “but the city loomed before us as the loveliest sight we had ever seen.” He felt that he and his wife Sue Bailey Thurman “shared a sudden awareness that destiny rode with us right into the city.”
Image of Thurman courtesy of Noah Griffin; modified, Jacquelyn Campaña.
He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism. And he tested out his ideas in San Francisco… where he risked everything to pursue his central idea—a religious community beyond race.
Thurman was not an activist, as Martin Luther King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism. And he tested out his ideas in San Francisco from 1944 to 1953, a key period in his life where he risked everything to pursue his central idea—a religious community beyond race.
Thurman moved to San Francisco to pursue what he considered one of the great adventures of his life: to establish an interracial congregation that would defy the conventions by which the great majority of American churches operated. He came during an era of rapid transition. San Francisco was a city of some 630,000 just before World War Two; of those, only about 5,000 were African American. By the end of the war, thanks to a migration westward, approximately 32,000 African Americans lived in the city, and a distinct black neighborhood had developed. Many lived in areas with small rooms and apartments recently vacated by Japanese Americans; about 5,000 Japanese Americans from San Francisco ended up in internment camps. One local NAACP leader in San Francisco noted that “Caucasian San Francisco turned to the machinery already at hand for the subjugation of the Oriental and applied it to the Negro,” referring to residential segregation and unequal treatment in nearly all areas of municipal life.
The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, originally located in the Filmore and thus identified as a congregation in a black neighborhood, eventually found its home at 2041 Larkin Street in San Francisco, where it still exists today. It lives now in a very different city than the one Thurman came to towards the end of World War Two. Those stories, that of Thurman in the 1940s and the eventual results of his great experiment, suggest much about what Thurman did and did not accomplish with his dream of a cosmopolitan American Christianity. His venture in San Francisco did not have the long-term results he hoped for; but his life’s work, including his congregation in San Francisco, proved influential in the broader movements of American religion after World War Two.
Born in 1899 in West Palm Beach, Florida, Thurman lost his father when he was seven years old and spent a somewhat lonely childhood communing more with nature than with people. His mother and grandmother were major influences, and he grew up in a Baptist church. But he was somewhat wary of it given that a local Baptist minister initially had refused to give his father, a somewhat-outspoken agnostic, a proper burial. Through hard work and years of struggle and malnourishment, Thurman made his way to a black Baptist high school in Jacksonville, where he was the valedictorian. Early on in his life, he staked his success on books—academic success. His success led him to his early affiliations with the YMCA, and to Morehouse College, which he attended from 1919-1923.
After receiving theological training in Rochester, New York, he served as a nationally prominent minister and educator at Howard University in the 1930s and 1940s. From his post there, he crisscrossed the country on speaking engagements, began some of his first significant writing endeavors, and struggled to balance his thoughts on both the potentialities as well as the limitations of Christianity. He also investigated the dilemmas of the universal message of Christianity and the particular expressions of it within the American racial hierarchy.
During these years, Thurman gradually developed his ideas about nonviolence and religion, and how Christian nonviolence could be part of the Christian solution to the race problem. He pondered how to counter the everyday racial violence endemic in the South. And during this time he developed ideas about what it meant to hate, and the costs of hatred on both sides. For blacks, fighting hatred posed the danger that it was possible to “hate people so bitterly that one becomes like them.”
One focal point in Thurman’s life came in 1935-36, when he traveled to India for six months. He went there with his wife Sue Bailey Thurman as part of a four member “Negro delegation” of the American Christian Student Movement. Initially, he was reluctant. He did not want to be put in the position of defending indefensible practices in American Christianity. Once persuaded, he sought out audiences with prominent Indian thinkers and writers, including Rabinandanth Tagore and Mahatma Gandhi.
The India trip was the turning point, with its two key moments. The first came at the law school of the University of Ceylon, where the principal took him aside after an address and asked him what he was doing there. The principal concluded, according to the account provided in Thurman’s book, Footprints of a Dream, “I am a Hindu. I do not understand. Here you are in my country, standing deep within the Christian faith and tradition. I do not wish to seem rude to you, but sir, I think you are a traitor to all the darker peoples of the earth. I am wondering what you, an intelligent man, can say in defense of your position.” In other cities, people queried him—“why is the church powerless before the color bar? … From a 10,000-mile perspective, this monumental betrayal of the Christian ethic loomed large and forbidding.” 
When Thurman finally met Gandhi, February 1936, much of the conversation hinged on the meaning of the word “nonviolence,” originally Ahimsa in the Sanskrit. Gandhi explained how the word did not come across fully in English, with the negative non- at the beginning. In reality, nonviolence was a metaphysical force, a truth that underlay the seemingly endless violence of human life. Always given to a love for the mystical, Thurman was fascinated. Sue Thurman, however, pushed Gandhi on how to apply these ideas in a context where black Americans faced lynching. By some accounts, at the end of the talk, Gandhi mused that “if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.” By Thurman’s account, Gandhi ended the meeting by pointing out that the greatest enemy of Jesus in the United States was Christianity itself. Leaders at the founding meeting of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference two decades later remembered it; they understood themselves to be carrying out Gandhian principles of social struggle.
By some accounts, at the end of the talk, Gandhi mused that “if it comes true it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of non-violence will be delivered to the world.”
During the same trip, Thurman traveled along the Khyber Pass, and while looking into Afghanistan and trains of camels bringing good along the roadways used by ancient conquerors, he noted the following:
All that we had seen and felt in India seemed to be brought miraculously into focus. We saw clearly what we must do somehow when we returned to America. We knew that we must test whether a religious fellowship could be developed in America that was capable of cutting across all racial barriers, with a carry-over into the common life, a fellowship that would alter the behavior patterns of those involved. It became imperative now to find out if experiences of spiritual unity among people could be more compelling than the experiences which divided them.
By the early 1940s, Thurman was growing restless in his post of Dean of the Chapel at Howard University. In mid-1940s, he staked his life and future on a risky endeavor: the creation of an experimental interracial congregation in San Francisco. He later said, “There was kindling in my mind the possibility that this may be the opportunity toward which my life had been moving.” He thought the vision he had at Khyber Pass might be coming to pass.
In 1943, the Reverend Alfred G. Fisk, a Presbyterian minister and college professor at San Francisco State University, contacted Thurman about finding a part-time divinity student who might be interested in participating in an experiment together to form an interracial congregation in San Francisco. He had been put in contact with Thurman by A. J. Muste, a doyen of peace and pacifist groups. At first, Thurman later said, he did not see a connection between himself and the church, but later realized this was the right time and place, especially in San Francisco, “with its varied nationalities, its rich intercultural heritages, and its face resolutely fixed toward the Orient.” San Francisco was the “ideal center” for his religio-racial experiment.
Together with Fisk, Thurman helped to plan what soon came to be called the Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples. It was one of the first self-consciously multi-racial congregations in American history. There were predecessors from the nineteenth century, including Tremont Temple in Boston, and more recently there had been a variety of interracial religious experiments in Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and other cities. But Thurman had something more permanent in mind. Just before his arrival, Thurman wrote to Fisk that “we must keep in mind constantly that the kind of church that we are building has never been built in the United States before. We must not hamper the creative form that the spirit of God may inspire, by clinging to the patterns with which we are ordinarily familiar.”
His work with the Fellowship Church seemed to embody his thoughts in “The meaning of Commitment,” wherein he wrote the following:
Commitment means that it is possible for a man to yield the nerve center of his consent to a purpose or cause, a movement or an ideal, which may be more important to him than whether he lives or dies. The commitment is a self-conscious act of will by which he affirms his dentification with that he is committed to. The character of this commitment is determined by that to which the center or core of his consent is given.
He got the itch to “establish empirical validation for what to me is a profound religious and ethnical insight concerning the genius of the church as a religious fellowship.” He further wanted to “find out for myself whether or not it is true that experiences of spiritual unity and fellowship are more compelling than the fears and dogmas and prejudices that separate men.” He believed that if every community had such a venture as this congregation, “the Church itself would once again set in motion those spiritual processes which gave to it its original impetus and power.” 
The Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples had a rocky start. Originally connected with, and heavily subsidized by, the Presbyterian Church, Thurman quickly pushed it towards a different vision. The last thing he wanted was a mission church, and even less so a “neighborhood church” when it was clear that racial segregation defined American neighborhoods. If the church remained in the Fillmore district of San Francisco (where it originally was located), he realized, it would quickly become a black church, and non-black congregants would disappear, defeating the entire purpose of the enterprise. In any event, the church soon outgrew its original location, and it became necessary to move simply for practical reasons of space. He continued resisting being made the object of “charity and condescension” by Presbyterians, however well-meaning they might be, because in that case
the crippling disease that has dogged the vitality and the health of the Christian enterprise would have overtaken us—the deadly disease of condescension. Very quickly we would have become a dumping ground for uplifters and the challenge of the development of an integrated religious fellowship would have bounced off the conscience and hearts of the people. For herein lies the great temptation: If a man can feel sorry for you, he can very easily absolve himself from dealing with you in any sense as an equal.
Eventually, Thurman moved the church out of the orbit of the Presbyterians. It became an independent congregation, subsidized in part by a national group of supporters (including Eleanor Roosevelt) and also by fees from Thurman’s near-constant speaking engagements. Thurman lived on trains as much as he lived in the city itself. His star was in its ascendancy.
Thurman consistently resisted several models he had seen in the past: the mission church, which invariably became an object of condescension; the social mission or activist institutional church, which could easily lose its spiritual moorings; and the church with no connection to social life, which could easily lose its ethical imperative. His vision was of a church with strong spiritual grounding that would prepare, strengthen, and fill with God’s love those who would carry on a struggle for justice in the social world. The church had a social mission, but not one that was direct; it was not the job of the church to organize protests, to become social service agencies, or to directly involve themselves in political life. Rather, as Thurman saw it, individuals in the thick of the struggle should have a place to “be able to find renewal and fresh courage in the spiritual resources of the church. … The true genius of the church was revealed by what it symbolized as a beachhead in society in terms of community, and as an inspiration to the solitary individual to put his weight on the side of a society in which no person need be afraid.”
By 1949, the church numbered about 285 members, with whites about sixty percent of the total; a few years later, whites made up about half, and blacks about forty percent, of its 345 members. Some congregants envisioned the church as a center for social activism and protest, more so than was ever the case with Thurman. After an initial period of co-pastoring with Alfred Fisk, the church became Thurman’s own, a kind of trial project for his ideas. The initial commitment spoke of congregants seeking “after a vital interpretation of God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth whose fellowship with God was the foundation of his fellowship with men,” and of people desiring “to have a part in the unfolding of the ideal of Christian fellowship through the union of men and women of varying national, cultural, racial, or creedal heritage in church communion.” The Declaration of the Church called it a
creative venture in interracial, intercultural, and interdenominational communion. In faith and genius it is Christian. While it derives its inspiration primarily from the source of Hebrew-Christian thought and life, it affirms the validity of spiritual insight wherever found and seeks to recognize, understand, and appreciate every aspect of truth whatever the channel through which it comes. It believes that human dignity is inherent in man as a creature of God, and it interprets the meaning of human life as essentially spiritual.
Over the first few years, several versions of “the commitment” evolved, at first more Christian oriented, and then less so over time, reflecting in part Thurman’s own move away from the Christianity of his youth and towards a more universal vision of cosmopolitan spirituality, humanitarianism, and what he called “sensitiveness”—what we might call a kind of mindfulness oriented towards social action.
Thurman also used the church as a venue for experimentation in worship aesthetics, especially music and dance. With the help of noted musician and arranger Corrine Williams, Thurman developed a music program at the church, later to be led by Raymond Fong. Thurman took pride in the choir as evidence of his ideas about worship as “the highest act of celebration of the human spirit,” in which the “worshiper sees himself as being in the presence of God. In His presence, the worshiper is neither male nor female, black nor white, Protestant nor Catholic nor Buddhist nor Hindu, but a human spirit laid bare, stripped to whatever there is that is literal and irreducible.” The key to the church was not the mixture of peoples but rather the “duality of the individual’s religious experience achieved through worship and the effect of that experience on daily behavior.” He saw Sunday morning as a time that “for each person present” was “a moment which becomes his moment in the presence of God.” This was consistent with Thurman’s larger vision of churches as centers of spiritual nourishment, from which people could then be empowered to pursue social transformation.
“As I moved more and more into the center of the process at the church I began feeling the urge to put into written form some of the things that were stirring within me,” he later wrote in his account of the church, Footprints of a Dream. One of those things stirring was the “weekly meditation written out of the heart of my own spiritual struggle,” which appeared in the weekly church calendar. Soon people demanded them for wider distribution, and his written words became a “means for a wider participation in the fundamental idea and an ideal upon which we had set our course.”
In the long-since-gentrified milieu of contemporary San Francisco, it stands more as a symbol of an honored past than as a beacon into any future.
In part through the venue of his church, Thurman was becoming a national celebrity. He and the church were featured in Life magazine, and in 1953 he would be listed as one of the twelve most influential preachers in the country (at a time when such a list still had currency, still mattered). By that time also, he had become known for his book Jesus and the Disinherited, his most powerful work, and one that influenced the thought of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ironically, it was precisely that growing national prominence that made him the object of a number of tempting offers, including the one from Boston. Thurman’s church project over the years tended in the direction of becoming a majority black congregation, something he decidedly did not have in mind. In the long-since-gentrified milieu of contemporary San Francisco, it stands more as a symbol of an honored past than as a beacon into any future.
In 1953, the president of Boston University wooed him away to become the first African American to serve as Dean of Marsh Chapel at BU. By that time, Thurman sensed his major work in San Francisco was at a point of transition, and he sought the opportunity to work again with students. He remained at BU until 1965, and then retired from public life. He lived out his days in San Francisco until 1981, writing his last books, creating the Howard Thurman Educational Trust, and compiling his papers, recordings, and addresses into an archive that is now available online and at the Howard Thurman Papers at Boston University.
Thurman always attempted to balance his mysticism with activism, his reveries toward God with an emphasis on what should happen in this world because of that connection to God. For Thurman, the “true purpose” of spiritual discipline was to “clear away whatever may block our awareness of that which is God in us. The aim is to get rid of whatever may so distract the mind and encumber the life that we function without this awareness, or as if it were not possible.” As well, he emphasized the importance of the “moral essence of vital religious experience” in preparing “those most engaged in sustaining democracy.” Love of God and working to him would strengthen congregants to understand others; they would become “apostles of sensitiveness.” As he told the Christian Century in 1973, “I didn’t have to wait for the revolution. I have never been in search for identity, and I think that [all] I’ve ever felt and worked on and believed in was founded in a kind of private, almost unconscious autonomy that did not seek vindication in my environment because it was in me.”
One of the ironies of Thurman’s work is that his universalist cosmopolitanism ended up exercising its greatest influence on those who came specifically from the tradition of the African American Church, and whose internally focused and ethnically-based churches then empowered the civil rights movement. And this happened in spite of the fact that Thurman was not well known then, and is even less known now, by a large number of African American religious leaders. His influence came from his deep well of intellectual thought, personal mentorship, and quiet prodding, far more than from any public role. Thurman’s universalist vision eventually came to pass in the civil rights years in religious institutions that preached an idiomatic black American theology, and in ways that the leaders of those institutions often did not recognize. One of the aims of the Howard Thurman Papers Project and its corresponding institutions and research facility (also housed at Boston University), in fact, has been to make his work accessible to a generation who did not have personal contact with him, and in many cases would not have studied him in universities or seminaries.
And yet ultimately Thurman moved history. He did so less through his creation of interracial visions such as the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples, but more through his translation of universalist ideas to an American religious idiom. Thurman was a “seeker” before we had such a term, and paved the way for contemporary ideas of religious pluralism. In that sense, he really was (and is) America’s pastor, as much if not more so than Billy Graham. That is because American religious ideals, Trump evangelicals notably excepted, look more like Thurman’s than Graham’s. Thurman labored under anonymity, but ultimately the arc of history is bending his way. His years in California helped to bend them that way.
 Howard Thurman, With Head and Heart: The Autobiography of Howard Thurman (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Jovanovich, 1981), 98-9.
 “Biographical Essay,” in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, vol. III, The Bold Adventure, September 1943—May 1949, eds. Walter Fluker et al. (Columbia: University of South Carolina Pres, 2015), xxiii.
 Howard Thurman, “Relaxation and Race Conflict,” from 1929, reprinted in The Papers of Howard Washington Thurman, ed. Walter Fluker, et al., vol. I, My People Need Me (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2009), 145.
 Howard Thurman, Footprints of a Dream: The Story of the Church of the Fellowship of All Peoples (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 1959), 24.
 For a fuller account, see Quinton Dixie and Peter Eisenstadt, Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence (Boston: Beacon Press, 2011).
 “Racial Roots and Religion: An Interview with Howard Thurman,” The Christian Century 90 (9 May 1973): 533-35.
Paul Harvey received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1992, and since 1996 has taught history of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. He is presently writing a biography of Howard Thurman for the Eerdmans Library of Religious Biography series. For more, see www.paulharvey.org/about.
Contemporary tile fixes intermingle with original adobe construction to maintain the romanticized notions of the Spanish Missions at Mission San Miguel Arcángel.
Years spent exploring the Americas and documenting Pre-Columbian civilizations’ remains eventually brought my work back to Southern California. Through my travels I saw how advanced these societies had become, only to be confronted with the complications that few knew about or understood. Growing up in Whittier as a product of California’s public school system, I inherited the notion that American History started with a blank slate at 1492 and in fourth grade received the romanticized indoctrination of the Alta California mission system. It wasn’t until I started grappling with the colonial underpinnings of this continent that I realized my work with the past segued from the historical to the contemporary—colonization significantly accounting for why these societies were destroyed and why their legacies continued to be suppressed.
My subsequent exploration of the Alta California missions system exposed layers of complexity and irony. How could Mission San Antonio de Padua, sitting so rustically idyllic in the rolling green hills of central California, be the home of a mass grave of Natives? How could these architecturally simple yet striking places be the vehicles of cultural destruction and, ironically, salvation? How does Junípero Serra propagate such a sprawling system, yet harm the people he was trying to save? How do we understand the pain and suffering inflicted in and around these missions, yet still celebrate modern Quinceñeras or weddings in them?
It is easy to be seduced by the romanticized façades of these places, but even more important to understand their complexities and relevance for understanding contemporary California, the land where we dwell. Native history and the missions matter: from the role the missions played in the destruction of Native lives and culture during the Spanish conquest and colonization of Alta California, to the mission revival, and their function as expressions of faith today. We must look at these places and understand their complexities and contradictions, in hopes of more critical conversations that might serve as vehicles of understanding California.
Mission Soledad, with its simple yet poignant architectural lines, was a nexus for the subjugation of indigenous coastal peoples.
Visitors to Mission San Juan Capistrano explore the ruins of the mission church that was destroyed in an 1812 earthquake.
Nestled in a fertile valley surrounded by farms, Mission San Juan Bautista remains a home to a large modern parish.
An idealistic fountain gurgles in a secret garden tucked away behind the chapel at Mission San Fernando Rey de España.
An altar at Mission San Fernando Rey de España showcases ideals of western thought.
Now surrounded by a modern neighborhood subdivision, portions of the original La Purisima Mission.
Native inspired flower and nature motifs decorate the mission walls at Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.
An animal hide dries in the sun at Mission La Purisima as an example of life during the mission days.
The sun sets on Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo, the resting place for Saint Junípero Serra- the founder and a complicated figure in mission history.
Crumbling in the elements, adobe walls at Mission San Antonio de Padua contain a mass grave of Native Californians.
Shining midday sun illuminates the gardens planted around Mission Santa Clara de Asís.
Mission San Buenaventura was personally dedicated by Saint Junípero Serra.
Mission San José’s church features angel cut-outs and other whimsical elements.
Non-native palm trees decorate the exterior façade of Mission San Gabriel Arcángel, contributing to the romanticized notions of California’s Spanish past.
Votive candle offerings burn in Mission Santa Cruz’s church.
Mission San Francisco de Asís, the oldest surviving structure in San Francisco, has been consumed by the urban mass that it created.
Light streams through a window in Mission Santa Inés.
A statue of Saint Junípero Serra is shown with an indigenous Californian, highlighting the complicated facts behind this contentious relationship.
A sharp statue of the Virgin Mary adorns an alcove in Mission San Diego de Alcalá.
Modern traffic streams by Mission San Luis Rey de Francía.
Candles burn in offering to the Virgin Mary in the chapel of Mission San Juan Capistrano.
The last light of the evening sun illuminates a bell tower of Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo.
Oaxacan Folklorico dancers prepare to perform inside Mission San Gabriel Arcángel.
Contemporary religious services continue at Mission Santa Bárbara.
The first of the Alta California missions, Mission San Diego de Alcalá opens for an evening mass.
Matthew Gush is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. His work focuses on Pre-Columbian Native America and chronicles interjections of Colonial Empires. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.
Indigenous Oaxacan Folklorico dancers perform outside of the San Gabriel Mission during a community festival.
Robert M. Senkewicz*
When I left my native New York City to begin graduate school in California almost five decades ago, many things about my new home region struck me as strange. It seemed odd, for instance, that a local Safeway supermarket had the same kind of tiled roof as I could see on Mission Santa Clara, a scant three blocks away. And it seemed unbearably grandiose to call a local street, whose defining characteristics appeared to be used car lots, gas stations, and strip malls, El Camino Real, which I soon discovered meant the Royal Road. But I eventually realized that missions and Spain were apparently crucial parts of California’s popular identity. Combined with another never-far-from-the-surface part of that identity, the Gold Rush, my new home seemed to be constantly trumpeting a kind of California exceptionalism. Things happened here, everything seemed to say, that never happened anywhere else in the U.S. California is different—and by “different,” what’s clearly meant is “better.”
A visitor to the northern most outpost Spanish Mission San Francisco Solano observes the reed and adobe construction of the awning.
I began to wonder about that exceptionalism, but the doubts really came into focus when I was writing my dissertation on gold rush San Francisco. It seemed that the social processes alive in that 1850s instant city were quite similar to developments and tensions that were simultaneously occurring in places like New York, Boston, and Philadelphia. The vigilantism that wracked the city twice (in 1851 and 1856) during this era seemed to have more in common with Eastern violence than with “we’re going to have to take the law into our own hands” vigilantism in places like Montana or other frontier venues.
After I finished with gold rush San Francisco, like a good historian, I went back in time. I ended up focusing on California and the Southwest before the U.S. takeover. And here I saw California exceptionalism strongly at work. Even some scholarly work seemed to be written with scant regard to the origins and foundations of Spanish California. Those origins stretched back over three centuries, but you would never know it by learning that San Diego had been founded in 1769 by a party led by two individuals who seemed to materialized out of nowhere, Gaspar de Portolá and Junípero Serra. And the fact that California had once been part of Mexico was apparently quite embarrassing. This embarrassment was solved in textbooks by focusing almost exclusively on Anglo-Americans who began to arrive in California in the 1820s and began to bring culture and civilization to this benighted region.
Visitors to Mission San Francisco de Asís are reflected in the glass of a model demonstrating what the grounds of the mission might have looked like during the height of religious conversions, early 19th c.
Parishioners pray following a mass at Mission San Juan Bautista. (Reinforcing community bonds.)
A child’s artistic representation of Junípero Serra, underscoring the skewed understanding that school children come away with having gone through the Mission Studies unit in elementary school. (Outside walkway, San Gabriel Mission.)
Popular understanding of California’s pre-U.S. past still suffers from two crucial absences: the absence of context and the absence of people.
First, context. The U.S. state of California was one of the last regions to experience settler colonialism in a Spanish Imperial context. That colonialism had a long and varied history. The Spanish presence worked itself out differently in the Valley of Mexico, the highlands of Peru, the sugar islands of the Caribbean, the Southern Cone, and the arid regions of what is now northern Mexico and the southwestern United States. The indigenous cultures the Spanish invaded and disrupted were radically different and the combination of resistance and strategic accommodation varied region to region. Survival often depended on flexible and creative strategic alliances with other groups and, at times, with dissident elements of the invading group. As was the case with British colonialism along the eastern coast of North America, not all colonial officials saw eye to eye, and indigenous leaders attempted to exploit those differences. European maps showed huge regions as controlled by “ Spain,” but this was hardly the case, as large and powerful indigenous peoples from many regions persisted well into the nineteenth century.
A Polynesian wedding service at Mission San Luís Rey de Francia. (Transcending initial purpose of the missions by becoming sacred space to new ethnicities, meanwhile ironic that these were also other colonized peoples.)
A visitor to Mission San Luís Rey de Francia prays with statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary. (Contemporary Pilgrimage site.)
A Franciscan Padre makes his way behind the main altar at Mission Santa Inés. (Original traditions.)
A priest ministers to a packed mission church at Mission San Juan Bautista. (Latino Community gathering space.)
California was heir to all of these developments and the Spanish colonialism that took root there was diverse, messy, and at times contradictory. It was anything but a story of Spanish control and indigenous acceptance. The extensive writings of the Franciscan missionaries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries bear eloquent testimony to the fact that, even in long-established mission compounds, missionaries knew that they could never assume that external conformity implied indigenous acceptance of subservient status. This part of the story was completely ignored during the “Spanish revival” era, when self-sacrificing, heroic missionaries and happy, contented Indians dominated the narrative. The assumption that California was exceptional meant that California identity could exist in blissful isolation from the issues and tensions that dominated the rest of the Spanish Empire.
Second, people. One of the most striking things about the photographs and paintings that were created concerning the California missions during the latter part of the nineteenth century by artists like Carlton Watkins and Edwin Deakin, is that they were generally bereft of people. The focus is on the structures, generally in various states of disrepair, but hearkening back to their days of glory and prosperity. In this, these later artists were quite different from artists who portrayed the missions who had had actual experience with them. People like Louis Choris, Ferdinand Deppe, and Edward Vischer always foregrounded indigenous, Spanish, and Mexican people in their portrayal of the missions. They knew what contemporary pastoral ministers will be happy to tell you: The “church” is not the building, but the people.
The logical, and sad, outcome of all of this was the fourth grade project that Matthew Gush describes in his introductory essay that follows this one. The focus of that project for elementary school children was on getting the buildings right, the angles precise, the bell towers in the correct place, that sort of thing. When I first learned of this project many years ago, I was as puzzled as I originally had been when I saw that supermarkets looked like churches. After all, we had never made sugar cube models of the Empire State building or the George Washington Bridge when I was in grammar school in New York. When the nuns at St. Columba on West 25th Street showed us New York pictures, they were always pictures of people—of immigrants crowding onto the deck of a boat and weeping for joy when they first saw the Statue of Liberty, of crowds in Times Square celebrating the end of World War II, or of Lou Gehrig saying goodbye at Yankee Stadium. The message was that New York was its people. That was a quite different message from the one that was contained in the fourth grade exercise, that California was its buildings.
Fortunately, this fourth grade project has been discontinued in California schools. I myself hope that its abandonment will lead to the abandonment of another California cottage industry: Picture books, travel guides, and brochures that are filled with “honey shots” of mission façades set against a pure blue sky, bell towers dominating the landscape, and incredibly lush gardens. These productions, in other words, are filled with images of California’s missions that bear absolutely no resemblance to the actual missions that existed from 1769 into the 1840s. These pictures, just like the fourth grade project, do not offer any indication that the California missions were overwhelmingly indigenous locations. Two priests, a handful of soldiers, and hundreds or thousands of native peoples populated the spaces. These venues were places that were as varied, diverse, and contradictory as the three centuries of Spanish colonialism that gave birth to them had been. They were places of pain and joy, of suffering and hope, of violence and survival, of death and birth. Matthew Gush’s photos, which deliberately focus on these places from unusual angles, invite us to enter these locations from different places of our minds. He includes the people who currently worship in these churches, and whose presence demonstrates that the California missions continue to be re-created anew in each generation. Matthew does not tell us in his essay why he decided to begin photographing these missions, but I for one am very glad that he did.
A contemporary offering to a statute of the Virgin Mary.
Candles burn in individual votive offerings to loved ones. (Mission San Gabriel, an active place of worship.)
Members of the Mission San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo parish congregate following a Sunday service. (Contemporary community consisting of wealthy white folks.)
Photography and image descriptions by Matthew Gush; essay by Robert M. Senkewicz.
Matthew Gush is the university photographer at California State University, Fullerton, and is the Boom California 2017-2018 Photographer in Residence. For more of his work see https://www.humanexp.co/.
Robert M. Senkewicz is professor of History at Santa Clara University. With Rose Marie Beebe he has written a number of books on pre-U.S. California, including most recently, Junípero Serra: California, Indians, and the Transformation of a Missionary, and a contribution to Steven W. Hackel, ed., The Worlds of Junipero Serra Historical Contexts and Cultural Representations(UC Press, 2018).
College students universally experience insecurities about life decisions and the uncertainties of the future. In Western and “developing” countries alike, youth are enfolded into prolonged periods of under-employment and unemployment, sinking them into a deep oblivion of change that might never come.
For a majority of students from Vietnam, the journey into adulthood is marked with great uncertainties that lead to a series of actions such as excessive studying or seeking to emigrate to a Western country to ensure one’s educational and occupational future. My ethnographic research in Da Nang City captures the anxiety, emotional and financial investments, and the fostering of social relationships that young adults and their families partake in order to secure a socially and financially sound future. My research sheds light on the urgency of urban students to win admission into state universities as the must-have criteria for constructing a socially desirable public self. This criterion is also a must-have to possess the potential to win meaningful employment in an unpredictable market economy. For those that find themselves unable to win admission into a state university, a reality of start-and-stop career opportunities becomes the norm. For example, students that do not win admission into a university will often spend the next year studying to take an exam again. In the meantime, students find work performing menial labor such as customer service or being a café server to earn some form of income. Some students also fail the second time they take the exam, thus forcing them to continue working to earn a living. For a growing population, however, a life in the United States becomes an attractive viable option to start life anew.
California Dreaming Amid Uncertainty
California plays a focal dreamland in the imagination of young adults in Vietnam when it comes to the good life that America promises. The term “Mỹ” is the common moniker for the U.S., meaning “beautiful.” During my fieldwork, young adults often asked me about college admission in the U.S. More common than not, students expressed that if they were to come to the U.S., they would like to come to California because they have family there or have heard that there is a big Vietnamese community living there. Some also refer to California because of the Hollywood films they’ve seen, thus further amplifying its dreamlike quality.
Students from Vietnam seek entry into the U.S. through several paths. Admission into a college or university stands as the most popular legal route. However, stepping foot onto America is only the beginning of a pro-longed journey of uncertainties in the foreign social landscape. Students that come to the U.S. to study often venture on the journey alone only with limited English training back at home. Most are not equipped with any prior knowledge of the ethnic tension and political tension in the U.S. Some are shocked by the blatant racism that they experience from strangers because of their lack of command of the English language.
California plays a focal dreamland in the imagination of young adults in Vietnam when it comes to the good life that America promises.
For college students coming from Vietnam, adaptation to American life requires the know-how to maneuver the legal apparatus like obtaining an ID, driver’s license, and a legal place of residence. These processes are handled immediately after arrival and are often facilitated by family members, friends of the family, or through the courtesy of the college campus they are attending. However, the struggles of the foreign student become more pronounced after the resettlement process when they have to eventually confront the everyday social landscape with limited language skills, lack of comrades and, most importantly, the lack of resources to be a confident social actor.
Confidence as a tool for adaptation is one of the themes that I observed most among two research informants that I have come to know, Thanh and Huy. I have known Thanh since my ethnographic research in Da Nang City, Vietnam, from 2011-2013. I have continued to stay in touch with Thanh through her different life changes since immigrating to the U.S. Our conversations were in Vietnamese with English interspersed at different points, especially since Thanh has been living in the U.S. Huy is currently an adult returning student attending California State University, Fullerton. He immigrated to the U.S. as an adult in his early thirties when he already had a decent occupation in Vietnam as a lecturer and educator. Conversations with Huy took place in English with Vietnamese interspersed.
Thanh appears in my dissertation at various points because she was one of the most active informants for my research. As a student at the high school where I was conducting fieldwork, Thanh shared her life experience as a student herself and introduced me to her friends. Thanh attended one of the highest ranked high schools in Da Nang city with aspirations of winning entry into the Polytechnic University of Da Nang, but fell short of winning admission. Her scores were indeed high enough for her to enroll into a lower-ranked three-year state college, but why settle? Thanh, like many students in her position, was apprehensive about obtaining a three-year degree because she was worried it would not be strong enough to compete with degrees from other four-year universities. Ultimately, Thanh did not choose the three-year college path. She instead enrolled into a more expensive private university specializing in Tourism Studies. Thanh and her family made the sacrifice of choosing the more expensive private university to make her more competitive in the job market.
Thanh attended the private university only for a year and we kept in contact during that time via Facebook, and I also returned to the field for follow up research. She seemed to pushing along with her studies. It was indeed a great surprise to me when she posted a picture on Facebook one day of a passport and boarding pass. The caption cryptically read, “Goodbye Vietnam, I have to try harder.” I messaged Thanh to ask about the suddenness of her departure and she replied that she had passed her interview to come to the U.S. to study. Her family arranged for her to leave immediately.
In the U.S., Thanh lived with an aunt and an uncle who had immigrated to the U.S. years prior. They lived in the American South for cheaper rent and less competition in the nails industry. Thanh worked for her aunt and uncle as a nail technician while attending a community college taking ESL classes at first with the hopes of moving up to pursue a degree in business or even nursing. It was always Thanh’s goal to obtain a degree to return to work in Vietnam or to permanently stay in the U.S. It was never her objective to come to the U.S. to purely become a manual laborer. Her American dreams exceeded this type of menial work.
As an international student without any financial assistance, Thanh became weary that her status was becoming untenable. Her parents were borrowing money from her aunt and uncle in the U.S. in order to pay for her tuition. The debt was mounting and prospects of employment remained uncertain. Thanh eventually stopped attending classes at the community college to solely focus on working at a nail salon to make a decent living.
Thanh eventually stopped attending classes at the community college to solely focus on working at a nail salon to make a decent living.
Thanh recounted her life as a cycle of work, home, work, and church on the weekends. She often lamented her situation as nothing that she envisioned because her primary goal for coming to the U.S. was for education. She longed to attend school just like peers around her age did. Thanh expressed that she couldn’t achieve much of a social identity with her current, unmapped pattern of living. She relied on her co-workers to take her to work and back home at the end of the day. Outside of co-workers at the nail salon, she did not have many other social interactions. Due to complications regarding her paper work in August 2017, Thanh expressed to me in a conversation at the height of her disappointment. She frustratingly conveyed the following:
I keep thinking I came here to alter my future but everything that has happened has surpassed the limits of my expectations… I cannot continue to sit and be a nail technician forever like this… I would only be willing to endure this (life in the U.S.) for a few more years by going to my cousin (in Texas) to work then I will return to Vietnam and study again. I would rather do that then bury my youth (chôn vùi tuổi trẻ) at the nail salon… I have been here for almost three years and I can’t even name one friend. Increasingly, I have become a depressed individual with no voice and no laughter.
Following the peak of her frustration in Fall 2017, Thanh reached out to me to tell me that she was planning to move to Texas. I was surprised because it was such a bold move for a foreign student to be so brave to relocate. She was willing to pick up her barely stable American life and live in another state. Thanh asked for my advice on this decision and for me to help her with the process or purchasing a Greyhound bus ticket. When I asked why she was making such a drastic decision of separating from her familial base, she simply expressed that she had a cousin living in Texas and there was a much bigger Vietnamese community there. She would no longer feel isolated.
Thanh made the journey from Georgia to Texas as planned, and similar to past life changes, she writes me from time to time with updates and questions. With the passing of time, through our conversations I detected an emerging sense of joy and confidence from Thanh through the content of conversation that she expressed. Thanh was most joyous when she reached out to me to announce that she passed her nail technician exam in Texas: “Anh ơi, em đậu bằng nail rồi.” When I asked how she accomplished this task, she told me a story of the chain of connections set in motion by the local Vietnamese community in Texas that helped her.
Upon moving in with her cousin, Thanh routinely attended a Vietnamese Christian church. She met workers at a nail salon that introduced her to the owners. She expressed that the owners knew that she was in the country by herself and offered to help her with obtaining her license. The owners of the nail salon connected Thanh to a beauty school that they had social ties with. The nail salon owners assisted Thanh greatly because they allowed her to work while concurrently taking classes at the beauty school. The obtainment of a nail technician license with the aid of the community increased Thanh’s confidence. Now she was able to work without the fear of being fined.
The Vietnamese community—especially the Christian community—not only offered Thanh the help she needed to become a certified worker, but they also created social spaces for Thanh to become a realized social actor. In Georgia, her social interactions were restricted to her family members, coworkers, and patrons at the nail salon. But in Texas, Thanh now has expanded her social network by not only working openly, but also by establishing social connections through the church, of which she is also a member of the singing troupe.
From the Family Unit to Political Freedom
Thanh’s slow integration into American life began at the level of the familial unit, but then shifted to her breaking out of that unit to establish a social presence via the assistance of the Vietnamese American community. This highlights how confidence provides an impetus for discovering new political philosophies. The Vietnamese American community in Little Saigon also provides a foundation for the exploration of political freedom. This phenomenon is seen through the educational life experiences of a returning university student from Vietnam name Huy.
Living in Little Saigon, for the first time in his adult life, Huy finally felt the security to vocalize opinions on topics that mattered to him.
Huy arrived in the United States in 2013 at the age of thirty-three via sponsorship from his father. At the time of his departure, Huy was already a legal working adult in Vietnam with a Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Languages and a Master’s degree in Business Administration. Despite holding an advanced degree, Huy was not a contracted full-time worker, but instead found periodic work teaching and tutoring students near his home in District 11 of Ho Chi Minh City. He also taught classes at colleges and universities to make a living. Although the earnings were only enough to “make ends meet,” Huy was employed in a reputable field with a steady, decent earning. This made his living circumstances less arduous than a larger number of the young adult population living in Ho Chi Minh City.
Newly arrived to Southern California, Huy first attended Orange Coast College then later transferred to California State University, Fullerton. Living in Little Saigon, for the first time in his adult life, Huy finally felt the security to vocalize opinions on topics that mattered to him. While living in Vietnam, Huy expressed that he was very active in choral societies and music clubs, often performing at school and political functions. However, he shared that he only participated in those activities as an avenue to express his passion for music, and not an act of support for governmental ideologies or practice of socialism in Vietnam. In fact, Huy felt stifled by the politics in Vietnam because he did not feel free: “mình không thấy tự do.” One of Huy’s main contentions is that he is a firm believer in Buddhism, but religion can only be practiced quietly in Vietnam and must not interfere in any form of politics. Huy’s family is also from the south with no connection to the northern power holders, and thus he has not personally reaped any rewards from socialism.
As an adult university student in the U.S., Huy continually seeks opportunities to put his English communicative skills to use. In our conversation about adapting to American life as a latecomer, Huy articulates that the reality of living in America is not the dreamland that he once “saw in the movies.” Huy recounted his early experience of arriving to the United States:
When I first came here, things were strange. The reality here was different from what I saw in the movies. Spoken language was difficult. It was hard for me to express my ideas. I remember I asked a man for direction to my school, and he shouted at me! These experiences made me more of introvert.”
Huy expresses great gratitude for the presence of a strong Vietnamese community in Little Saigon, especially for the many Buddhist temples that are in operation so that he can practice his faith. Most important, he feels lucky that the community has given him the support and confidence to exercise his political ambitions, a freedom that he never felt in Vietnam. Per our conversation, I discovered that Huy possessed a strong desire to be an active political actor fighting for causes of democracy. Huy expressed the following in his own words:
I urged myself to study at any cost and get more involved in the surrounding communities… I choose to give before getting. Hence, I have joined a variety of community activities. I have co-founded a club of religion and democracy called Trần Nhân Tông club, co-founded and directed a musical band to entertain nursing homes and communities, joined the direction board of a scholarship fund to support poor and diligent students in Vietnam, co-founded a Vietnamese student fellowship of Fullerton, which is joined and supported by some Vietnamese professors and officials from CSUF, and recently started participating in some programs by a Vietnamese television.
Huy’s revelation forefronts the role of the Vietnamese American community in facilitating his goals of becoming an active social actor. By participating in the Trần Nhân Tông Club, Huy aims to promote discussions and practices that link Buddhism and traditional Vietnamese philosophies of democracy cohesively. Huy, like many Vietnamese Americans living in Little Saigon, hopes for a Vietnam that one day applies more democratic values to its governance in order for the citizenry to express their agreement or displeasures with the government. For the time being, participating in the Trần Nhân Tông club allows Huy to explore the democratic teachings of the former king divorced from political ideologies that he learned in Vietnam. Vietnamese American communities throughout the United States play significant roles in not only assisting new immigrants to establish a legal presence, but also the role of equipping them with the confidence to become social and political actors. Through the stories of Thanh and Huy, attention focuses on the often-overlooked struggles of foreign-born college students to become active members of American life. By linking the building of their confidence to the labor of past Vietnamese American generations, Vietnamese American communities continue to be vital forces in ensuring that newer generations benefit from and further contribute to the accomplishments of the Vietnamese diaspora.
Pollak Library, photo from Flickr user Brooke Williams.
 Phuoc M. Duong, “Unpredictable Agency: An Analysis of Youth and Educational Practices in Times of Political and Economic Precarity in Contemporary Đà Nẵng City, Việt Nam,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Riverside, June 2017. This research conducted ethnographic research on young adults, education, agency, and governance in Da Nang City from December 2011 through March 2013. I then conducted archival research in Ha Noi City from October 2013 through January 2014. After that, I conducted archival research in Ho Chi Minh City from January to March 2014. I have returned to Da Nang City to follow up with informants in the summer of 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Phuoc M. Duong holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology, and teaches in Asian American Studies and Cultural Anthropology at CSU Fullerton. His current research interest focuses on the labor of young adults in promoting the economic and political “success” of Da Nang City, Vietnam. He is also concurrently researching the development of alternative philosophies of “democracy” within the Vietnamese American population in Little Saigon.
Every two years, more than 200,000 pilgrims make their way to La Vang, a poor farming village in central Vietnam. They come from the around the world to pay homage to the Virgin Mary, whose apparition visited the village in 1798 and gave comfort to persecuted Catholics. From Vietnamese American Catholics to Thai Buddhists, they come seeking her blessings, solace, and comfort.
“She is not just the mother of Catholics in Vietnam but also anyone who comes and prays to her,” an Indonesian Protestant once told me during a visit to La Vang. His comment echoed the feelings of many who made the long, arduous journey to the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang. Although the Vatican has not recognized the historical apparition, Our Lady of La Vang has become a global religious and spiritual symbol.
Over the course of a few days, pilgrims pray to a large statue of Our Lady of La Vang holding a figure of the baby Jesus. She stands under three large banyan trees, adjacent to an old church building, wearing traditional Vietnamese attire composed of an áo dài and a crescent-shaped headpiece. With her black hair, dark eyes, and porcelain skin, she reflects an ideal image of beauty in Vietnamese society.
This Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of La Vang can now be found wherever Vietnamese people have emigrated, including: Japan, Taiwan, Canada, France, Australia, and the United States. This Vietnamization of the Virgin is a recent development. Until 1998, statues of Our Lady of La Vang were modeled on French representations of another Virgin Mary figure, Our Lady of Victories. But the new Our Lady of La Vang did not come from Vietnam. She came from Orange County, California.
Vietnamese Americans represent the largest Asian American Catholic group in Orange County. In 2010, there were nearly 70,000 Vietnamese Catholics in the region, according to the secretary of the Bishop of Orange. They constitute the largest Asian Catholic group in Orange County. The community has been growing since the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the first large wave of 125,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States.Many Vietnamese chose to resettle in Orange County due to its warmer climate, employment opportunities, and close proximity to Camp Pendleton, where many Vietnamese refugees first arrived.
As Vietnamese Catholics struggled to rebuild their lives in the United States, many sought comfort from the Virgin Mary. In 1978, more than 1,500 Vietnamese Catholics across the country attended the largest Feast of Assumption celebration in Carthage, Missouri, during a blazing hot August.The multiday pilgrimage became known as “Marian Day,” attracting mostly Vietnamese of different religious backgrounds from throughout the world. In Carthage, pilgrims worshipped a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and one of Our Lady of Peace (Đức Mẹ Nữ Vương Hòa Bình). For many Vietnamese Catholics, the statues symbolize miracles but also have strong anticommunist connotations.
Like the original Our Lady of La Vang, the statues of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Peace depicted the Virgin Mary with European features. European images of the Virgin Mary had long been the norm in Vietnamese Catholicism.
Then in the 1990s, when multiculturalism was being promoted by the Catholic Church in the United States, the bishop of Orange County permitted Vietnamese Americans to create a Vietnamese statue of the Virgin Mary. In 1994, this image, known as Our Lady of Vietnam, was completed and placed at the entrance to the Vietnamese Catholic Center in Santa Ana. Our Lady of Vietnam joined a growing collection of ethnic representations of the Virgin Mary in Orange County, including Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Korean Virgin Mary, and Our Lady of Czestochowa from Poland.
Created by sculptor Van Nhan, the white statue represents the Virgin Mary dressed in the Vietnamese national costume. She holds the baby Jesus in front of her with both hands, “as if she wants to hand her most beloved child to Vietnamese people in order to save them and their race,” according to the Vietnamese Catholic Center. She represents the “peace and tranquility” that Vietnamese American faithful seek as they adapt to life in a new country.
Our Lady of Vietnam also reflects Vietnamese American Catholics’ connections to coreligionists in Vietnam during a time in which the country was isolated from the United States after the Vietnam War. She stands on a grotto in the shape of an S that depicts Vietnam and its mountainous ridges. The Vietnamese Catholic Center explains that this representation of the Virgin Mary “guides the spirit of Vietnamese people to return to their homeland roots” and to pray for their coreligionists who are suffering under communism. This is another reason she is referred to as Our Lady of Peace.
In 1995—three years before the two-hundredth anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang—the United States reestablished diplomatic ties with Vietnam. This timing helped to revive interests among Vietnamese American Catholics to reconnect to their homeland. In an article published in 1996, Vietnamese Americans were urged to visit the Our Lady of La Vang in Vietnam: “Now is the time for overseas Vietnamese Catholics to be spiritually united and connected with the Catholic Church in the homeland. This is our affirmation that, despite being far away from the homeland, we will never forget our spirituality as a Vietnamese faithful and a citizen of a country and a peoplehood.”
Our Lady of La Vang became Vietnamized through collaborations and agreements that reached across the Pacific. Clergy from Vietnam had seen the Our Lady of Vietnam statue during a visit to Orange County following the US-Vietnam normalization. They were impressed by Vietnamese Americans’ commitment to the well-being of Catholics in Vietnam, and their commitment to the preservation of Vietnamese Catholic culture and history despite decades of separation from their homeland. As a result of the trip, the visiting Vietnamese clergy commissioned Nhan Van, creator of Our Lady of Vietnam, to create another Our Lady of La Vang for the anniversary of her apparition.
Pope John Paul II blessed this Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang statue in Rome on 1 July 1998. He also proclaimed Our Lady of La Vang the patroness of the Catholic Church of Vietnam. Although this religious honor did not officially recognize the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang, it was a source of inspiration for Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world. For the first time in history, a Vietnamese icon of the Catholic faith was officially introduced to the global Catholic community. On 13 August 1998, two hundred years after the apparition, more than 200,000 attendees gathered in La Vang to worship Our Lady of La Vang as represented by a Vietnamese woman.
Since her transformation, there have been several visual reinterpretations of Our Lady of La Vang to represent the unique faith and experiences of Vietnamese Catholics. In La Vang, in 2002, the Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang was replaced with a new version wearing a headdress decorated with twelve stars. Although some believe that the stars are an allusion to the twelve apostles of Jesus, Vietnamese Catholics abroad have interpreted them as the stars that Vietnamese refugees used to guide themselves to their new homes. In the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in Washington, D.C., completed in 2005, stars are used as a decorative motif throughout the sanctuary as reminders of the Vietnamese diaspora.
Today, statues of the Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang are popular diplomatic gifts often exchanged between Vietnamese Catholic communities in different countries. In 2002, Pope John Paul II blessed six statues of Our Lady of La Vang in Rome and gave them to Catholics in Orange County, who were responsible for distributing them to representatives of six different continents. Through the Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of La Vang, Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world have become reconnected to each other and have transformed the face of the Catholic Church in their image. In 2010, a stone engraved with the phrase Cộng Đồng Hải Ngoại (Overseas Diocese) was placed at the Our Lady of La Vang Pilgrimage Center during the start of the Holy Year. It recognizes the Vietnamese Catholic diaspora as the twenty-seventh diocese of the Catholic Church in Vietnam.
The growing global popularity of Our Lady of La Vang has spurred the construction of a number of parishes named after her outside of Vietnam, including two in California. These transnational ties are not simply nostalgia for the homeland but an effort among Vietnamese Catholics to heal the wounds of war and displacement. The Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang represents re-connection among Vietnamese Catholics in the diaspora and the homeland after decades of separation.
Min Zhou and Carl I. Bankston, Growing Up American (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998), 29.
Peter Phan, “Mary in Vietnamese Piety and Theology: A Contemporary Perspective,” Ephemerides Mariologicae 51 (2005): 457–472.
Van G. Bui, “Huong Ve La Vang” [Toward La Vang], Ky Niem 12 Nam Thanh Lap Cong Doan La Vang [12 Year Anniversary of the Establishment of the La Vang Community] (Orange County, CA), 13.
Thien-Huong T. Ninh is an assistant sociology professor at Consumnes River College and a scholar with research interests in race, gender, religion, and in immigration, particularly forced displacement as in the case of refugees. She is the author of Race, Gender, and Religion in the Diaspora: Ethnic Vietnamese in the U.S. and Cambodia (Palgrave Macmilllan).
Editor’s Note: This Boom conversation brings together an English literature scholar and an urbanist American Studies professor to reflect on Orange County’s role in the California imaginary. Beginning with reflections on literature and geography, the particular and surprising stories come to life within the diverse landscape that breaks through the common clichés of one of the Golden State’s most important places defining both California’s present and future.
Orange County and the Written Word (Tom Zoellner)
I teach a class at Chapman University on the literature of Orange County that covers the historic poems, stories, and nonfiction portraits, which give this newish megalopolis a sense of place and continuity. Since the class is listed as a creative writing class, I also ask undergraduate students to write their own interpretations of what they see around them.
“Uniformity” is a constant theme: the perceived sameness of the physical landscape, as well as the nagging sense that the region—despite its documented levels of racial and economic diversity—works too hard to promote the image of a palm-sculpted and surgically-aided paradise for affluent Anglos, reminiscent of the “California dream” marketed nationwide in the 1950s.
But just as often, students write about themes of “uncertainty” when it comes to Orange County—a sense of bewilderment about what the region is supposed to mean for them as either a temporary address for their education or as a possible place to start a career, a family, and a meaningful life. For young adults about to join what sociologist Richard Florida described as the “creative class,” the tract-home-and-freeway vocabulary of Orange County does not immediately seem to offer the accouterments that have attracted artists, actors, designers, and small business entrepreneurs to cities with more dense clusters of older architecture and walkable public spaces with interesting street-level retail. One of my students described the county as a “string of contradictions” as puzzling as the interconnected and similar looking municipal groupings that were, as he put it, “moonlighting” as a real city.
The syntax of our built environment, which tended to fall on the geometry of square-mile farm roads and fallen orchard subdivisions, is attractive to retired couples and young families, and generally not those who hunger for unorthodox methods of expression.
One recent set of events here in the City of Orange is illustrative of how geography and culture conspire against the forces that make places interesting. Weary of loud parties and of historic homes chopped up into multi-unit dwellings, the city council made it easier to police to levy stiff fines for both: an action that many perceived as taking direct aim at Chapman’s student culture and of Old Town Orange for welcoming anybody but established families of high income.
When you add in the previous worries about uniformity and uncertainty, it makes for an ominous diagnosis: expensive, yet uncool
“This is a conservative town,” Mayor Tita Smith said when the ordinance passed, and she meant that descriptor to go beyond the usual binary political definition. Orange was a place that embraced the status quo, resisted the influx of young people, preserved existing neighborhoods to the point of inaccessibility and stagnation and clung to its identity as a nineteenth century railroad village surrounded by a postwar ranch-house grid spread out in all other directions.
This may not be a formula to build cultural capital in the twenty-first century. Orange County’s cities risk the impression of tastelessness—in the bland sense, not the rude sense—if they wholeheartedly embrace the idea of freezing the 1950s or the 1980s in a snow globe. Demographers believe that half of the county’s millennials do not plan to stay here beyond their early adulthoods, mainly because of the lack of quality affordable housing and the flight of jobs from the high-technology sector. When you add in the previous worries about uniformity and uncertainty, it makes for an ominous diagnosis: expensive, yet uncool.
The high housing costs not tethered to an “interesting” local narrative is a deadening factor when it comes to recruiting new companies that bring in creative workers, as well as artistic entrepreneurs looking for funky cheap spaces. Economic data from this university’s former president Jim Doti, also a distinguished economist, indicates that Orange County lost 16.3 percent of its high-tech jobs since the beginning of a 2008 recession. This happened even as the region suffered a decline in the growth of its population with university degrees. A report called, “OC Model: A Vision for Orange County’s Future” from Chapman’s Center for Demographics & Policy ends on a note that would sound at home in a Dickens novel, predicting the current economic winds might leave the county “like some aging but still attractive dowager, into long-term stagnation and eventual decline.”
Economic lassitude, and a lock on the door to the fresh and the cool, can create a cultural lacuna. In the opinion of Marshall Toplansky and Joel Kotkin, the authors of the OC Model report, the traditional prescriptions of New Urbanists—spending big money on mass transit, dense apartment blocks and walkable downtowns—may have some beneficial effects on legacy cities with nineteenth century street patterns, but would have little salvific effect on a multi-polar geography like Orange County. Competitive comparable cities with a strong local narrative and recognizable iconography—Boulder, Austin, Raleigh, even Detroit—at least have a “sense of place” that invites new residents to participate. Orange County has an obvious and immortal beach culture as an attractive signifier. But is there anything else here that tells us who we are?
Countering the oncoming cultural malaise may not require building something new, in the way that “The Block at Orange” or “Downtown Orange County” were physical attempts at slapping a band-aid on our self-inflicted wound. When it comes to literature, the point is to engage in a rediscovery process of what already exists—“shopping your own closet,” to borrow a retail clothing term. Because despite the perception of a bland homescape free of any history except Mission Revival architecture and a railroad, Orange County has a robust literary tradition that remains all-too underappreciated.
The textbook in my Southern California literature class has the title, Orange County: A Literary Field Guide, which some might consider a joke if they look only at the surface. But there is a rich sense of literary place and continuity here that may elude the casual observer. Literature can provide both a portal and a foundation for uncracking the seeming randomness of where we happen to have taken a new job, or bought real estate, or moved to retire in the sunshine, or even have been fated to be born.
This anthology—published last year by Berkeley’s Heyday Books—was edited by the married couple Lisa Alvarez and Andrew Tonkovich is a much-needed statement that Orange County has an intricate soul and that beauty can be found in its unexpected places. Some of the literature within functions as a retort and a rebuke to those would write off Orange County too quickly as a place too new to have an indigenous literary tradition, or even anything worth writing poetry about. In fact, the utilitarian core of the county’s visual aesthetic is a rich vein to be mined. Just as Edward Hopper tapped into to the darkness on the margin of cities as a powerful animating force in his paintings, Orange County writers make ample use of the plainspoken California sunshine and repetitive housing vocabulary as a source of narrative energy in their writings.
The poet Grant Hier, whose poem “Untended Garden” is included in the anthology, writes of running down a concrete-clad river, its walls “rising on either side like wings.” The author Victoria Patterson—who spent a turbulent adolescence in Newport Beach—uses the Fashion Island shopping mall like Charles Dickens used London: it is a spiritual center and locus of action for her novel, This Vacant Paradise. In the Orange County anthology, she writes of the San Onofre nuclear plant (now decommissioned but still an inescapable sight for anyone driving The 5 down to San Diego). Patterson writes of the “breast-like” domes covered in bird dung “like frosting on cupcakes”—a startling image. “At the tip of each dome,” she writes, “there was a red light blinking slowly—like the bell buoys—not in unison, and never completely off: barely red, and then all lit up red.”
Literature will not save the county. But it will enrich the perception and the experience of those who live here and choose to engage in a personal process of dialogue with their environment.
Another unexpected lovely set of images appears in the poem “Santa Ana of Grocery Carts” by Aracelis Girmay. “Santa Ana of AquaNet,” she writes, “altars, the glitter & shine of 99 cent stores, taco trocas, churches, of bells, hallelujahs & center fields, aprons, of winds, collard greens, & lemon cake in Ms. Davenport’s kitchen, sweat, sweat over the stove.” This takes the banal and forces it into fresh new light.
I was asked to contribute an essay to this anthology and chose to focus on a subject that I wanted to learn more about—the influence of the citrus business in shaping the enduring culture of Orange County, even though the orange orchards are long gone. As a result of reading old newspaper clippings and the reminiscences of the old fruit-packing lords, I now see the physical environment differently and perceive the lurking ghosts of the megaranch archipelago that we used to be.
Literature will not save the county. But it will enrich the perception and the experience of those who live here and choose to engage in a personal process of dialogue with their environment. We “make” the places where we live based on a sense of history and narrative, both of which can be supplied by the animating force of literature. In the concluding lines of his book, The Geography of Nowhere, the social critic James Howard Kunstler writes that we are all on a lifelong journey towards an unknown destination and that along the way, we yearn to experience an environment that means something and has intrinsic significance. He was speaking about the need to enrich public spaces, but the exhortation also applies to the interior life of the mind, which experiences the world as an unfolding story. Lifting up an Orange County literary tradition and a habit of “belonging through words” is not necessarily going to summon high-wage jobs or instantaneous high culture. But we can mine the record for old words, and create new words, which gives some distinction and texture to the streetscape. We have more than we know.
It is worth remembering that Orange County’s residents are not just the folks who want manicured suburban lawns, but also those who want to work as landscapers of those lawns. People come here from across the Pacific Rim and beyond the U.S.-Mexico borderlands, filling Orange County with the diversity that makes it interesting and with the workers that make it possible. As Tom Zoellner pointed out, this county flourished during the Cold War because of military-industrial jobs but also international refugees. Now that the Cold War has ended and some of those military-industrial and high-tech jobs have evaporated, I believe there is still a strong economy, including banking and mortgage-lending, real-estate development, higher education, service-workers in the tourist economy, and vibrant religions.
Although Tom’s students perceive the risk of tastelessness in this expensive yet uncool space, I wonder whether Orange County cares about their departures. For every “creative class” person who finds this space unhip, others keep pouring in. Property-values do not suffer here; I am not sure this space is declining. There is, in fact, now an “Orange County” gated community outside of Beijing and another “Orange County” pair of luxury resorts in India: our reputation as a name brand is that appealing, transnationally.
Some of my students do share Tom Zoellner’s disappointment in the lack of public space and paucity of community here. Yet, maybe because I’m in an American Studies department and not an English department, my students look for more than literature to anchor themselves here. For them, family stories, subgroup’s stories, and cultural history stories help provide a sense of place. Let me mention a few of my favorite Orange County stories that I have discovered while conducting research for the forthcoming, A People’s Guide to Orange County.
If you are black in Orange County, there are very few places you can get your hair done. The Cut & Curl at 4th and Bristol Streets in Santa Ana was one of those places. In the early 1960s, Dorothey Mulkey was getting her hair done and chatting about the challenge she faced finding a decent apartment to rent. The hairdressing customer next to her happened to work for the NAACP, and encouraged Mulkey to bring her case to court. In 1967, in Reitman v Mulkey, California’s supreme court overturned Proposition 14, California’s anti-fair-housing bill, the first time the supreme court had overturned a voter-approved initiative. It is the basis for our fair housing laws today—and it is thanks to one Navy veteran, Dorothey Mulkey, and one conversation at a Santa Ana barbershop. Stories like that are worth remembering.
It is neither a simple dream nor absolute nightmare, but a more complex vernacular worth getting to know.
It is too easy to drive past the parking lot of the former Hunt/ConAgra/Val Vita packing factory without knowing that in 1943 the Latina women who worked there successfully fought for onsite childcare because before that time they had to lock their children in their cars during their 8-hour shifts. Knowing that story, a vacant parking lot suddenly has resonant depth.
Orange County has also led the way in privatization. We have the first modern gated community in Rossmoor, Seal Beach; first age-segregated community in Leisure World; first modern Home Owners Association in Huntington Beach (quickly followed across this county and nation); and first toll road in California. Yet we also have resistance to those forces, from the nineteenth-century utopian experiments such as the Placentia “Grass Eaters,” Societas Fraternas, to the seminal school desegregation case Mendez v Westminster, to the recent defeat of a toll road proposed for Trestles Beach. That proposed toll road was defeated by a coalition of surfers, environmentalists, and some indigenous activists concerned with protecting Panhe—but Panhe is a story that very few people know.
Panhe is a 9,000-year-old village mentioned in the baptismal registry of Mission San Juan Capistrano. Whenever a developer’s bulldozer unearths a skeleton that is many centuries old, in most of America, this brings a halt to construction. We have rules against building atop indigenous graves elsewhere, but not in Orange County. Here, many of the coastal and canyon spaces where the Acjahmen/Juaneno people lived are incredibly valuable real estate. Since the 1970s, Orange County’s developers have worked with Acjahmen people to ceremonially rebury any skeletons found across the county, placing them at Panhe. You can see Panhe from The 5 freeway if you know where to look, near Camp Pendleton, the closed nuclear reactors, and the immigration checkpoint—but all there is to see is a chain link fence. Without knowing the story, you might drive right by.
Just up the road from Panhe is the former TRW/Northrop Grumman test facility, a military-industrial research site which a 1988 forest fire exposed as the secret location of Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars Initiative lasers. That, to me, is the story of Orange County. The Acjahmen activists who regularly gather at Panhe do so in the shadow of the Star Wars missiles. Our county may look like the Geography of Nowhere, and indeed the hypercapitalistism, attenuated community, and amnesiac history that James Kunstler describes is here—but it is also the site of deeply fascinating history with a wonderfully mind-spinning diversity.
From the quotidian Fullerton apartment made famous in The Adolescent’s 1979 punk song, “Kids of the Black Hole,” to the easily-overlooked Placentia river channel whose flooding killed forty people, forgotten for a long time except for a 1939 corrido—we have a history remembered in songs, murals, and some family stories, if not in widely-recognized literature.
In her seminal, Suburban Warriors, Lisa McGirr writes that, perhaps because the built environment is not designed to foster community, Orange County’s postwar newcomers sought community in evangelical Protestant megachurches, which aimed to moor themselves with conservative ideas of tradition, even as they also used cutting-edge technologies. She may be right, but others of my students find community in the underground music scenes here, or in traditional Mexican dance troupes, or niche sports, or other subgroups that do not make it into the mass-cultural representation of this space.
We are not just the county that developed Taco Bell and Botox, as Tom Zoellner mentioned. We also developed the science-fiction genre of steampunk—appropriate to this alienating, high-tech landscape—and the Vietnamese diaspora’s musical revue extravaganza videos. There is much to be proud of, and a deep heterogeneity lurking beneath a surface that can appear homogeneous.
Orange County is full of the kinds of spaces that D. J. Waldie has called the “sacred ordinary”: flawed, human, commonplace, often overlooked, and, arguably, even holy. It is neither a simple dream nor absolute nightmare, but a more complex vernacular worth getting to know. As Waldie wrote in the 2005 afterword to his memoir, Holy Land—set just over the border from Orange County, in Lakewood—“Too many accounts of a suburban life fall into the trap of sentimentality or contempt. I have no desire to romanticize my past or set fire to it. This suburb hasn’t any barriers to tragedy. It’s a place that’s just as mortal as me.” It is mortal, not a perfect paradise nor a despicable hell, but a very human middle ground.
The idea of the “sacred ordinary” brings us back to Eritrean-American poet Aracelis Girmay, whom my students embrace as much as Tom’s students do, especially her description of her childhood home, Orange County’s capital city of Santa Ana:
Santa Ana of grocery carts, truckers,
eggs in the kitchen at 4 am, nurses, cleaning ladies,
the saints of ironing, the saints
of tortillas. Santa Ana of cross-guards, tomato pickers,
bakeries of bread in pinks & yellows, sugars.
Santa Ana of Cambodia, Viet Nam, Aztlán….
Patron saint of kitchens, asphalt, banana trees,
bless us if you are capable of blessing.
We need more literature about this space, as Tom Zoellner suggests. We need more understanding of the sacred ordinary—if only because it is, often, extraordinary.
 Joel Kotkin and Marshall Toplansky, “OC Model: A Vision for Orange County’s Future,” 43.
 James Howard Kunstler, TheGeography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993).
 The term “Holy Land” draws from D. J. Waldie’s magnificent memoir, Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005).
Tom Zoellner is a journalist, Associate Professor in the English Dept. at Chapman University, and Politics editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. He has written five nonfiction books, including Train: Riding the Rails That Created the Modern World–from the Trans-Siberian to the Southwest Chief (Penguin, 2014), and his book Uranium won the 2011 Science Writing Award from the American Institute of Physics. His portion of this essay was adapted from a white paper delivered at a conference on the future of Orange County at Chapman University on 23 February 2017.
Elaine Lewinnek is professor in the department of American Studies at California State University, Fullerton. She is the author of The Working Man’s Reward: Chicago’s Early Suburbs and the Roots of American Sprawl (Oxford, 2015), and is currently working on a bottom-up history of Orange County with Gustavo Arellano and Thúy Võ Đặng, titled A People’s Guide to Orange County (UC Press, forthcoming).
In the thirty-fifth chapter of the Book of Numbers in the Hebrew Bible, the writer lays out a remedy for a social and legal problem. In ancient Israel, the penalty for murder was death, “a life for a life.” Family members of the slain person normally carry out the sentence. However, the writers of Numbers recognized that it would not be fair for accidental killers to receive the same punishment as those who kill intentionally. Raging family members could not be expected to stop midstream and investigate; the community is instructed to create cities of refuge where the accused can be kept safe until they can receive a fair hearing. The cities of refuge are the solution for people who committed a crime and received an unfair penalty.
This ancient remedy is the root of the sanctuary church tradition. Since the fourth century in England, churches have offered protection and shelter to those accused of a crime but who would be likely to be punished unfairly if left unprotected. Christians and churches along the Underground Railroad followed this example, as did Christians in Nazi Germany who protected Jews and churches in the 1960s who protected draft-dodgers avoiding service in Vietnam. The most prominent movement using the term “sanctuary” in the twentieth century was the Central American sanctuary movement of the 1980s and 1990s.
In Tucson, Arizona, Reverend John Fife of the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. and Quaker leader Jim Corbett encountered Central Americans running for their lives from death squads who were targeting not only revolutionaries but also Christian leaders of justice movements. These asylum-seekers were facing different criteria than individuals escaping Communist countries; the United States was an ally and funder of the governments supporting the death squads. When Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International were documenting government-sponsored massacres, a very small percentage of Central Americans were winning asylum cases. The sanctuary movement began at Southside Presbyterian Church in 1982, under Reverend Fife’s leadership, and ended up involving around 500 congregations across the United States. By risking legal penalties themselves, these congregations brought public attention and added credibility to the Central Americans’ testimonies. The sanctuary movement changed hearts and minds, contributing significantly to major policy changes in the asylum system (such as the awarding of temporary protected status to Central Americans in 1990) and in stopping the funding which sustained the civil wars in Guatemala and El Salvador. While the sanctuary movement was infiltrated and the leaders faced a grand jury trial in 1986, only two leaders received prison sentences for illegal transportation and six others were convicted of alien smuggling with suspended sentences; none were convicted for the actual provision of shelter.
While a young seminary student in Berkeley during the Central American sanctuary movement, I belonged to University Lutheran Chapel, one of the first sanctuary churches. During this time, my husband and I also welcomed a refugee from Central America into our home, which was a formative experience, displaying the potential power of the church as a force for social justice.
Years later in 2006, I became one of the leaders of a new sanctuary movement. The Sensenbrenner Bill had passed the House of Representatives in December of 2005; if it had also passed the Senate, it would have made it a felony to be undocumented or to help or serve an undocumented person. Shock waves went through immigrant communities and congregations alike. For many years, the U.S. immigration system had already proven to be ineffective, illogical, and inhumane. For example, since 1995, the number of visas available for unskilled labor has been a flat limit of 5,000 per year; since the 1800s, the U.S. has imported 70 to 80 percent of our farm labor. The numbers do not match and therefore as a result, the majority of those whose labor feeds the country cannot enjoy the benefits of legal residency.
Faith communities felt compelled to respond to their plight, both from compassion and because our traditions are clear about the call to do so.
This broken system has created a situation over the past thirty years in which undocumented immigrants are woven into the fabric of communities in many regions of our country. When they suddenly saw themselves as potential felons, the anguish, anger, and terror became overwhelming. Faith communities felt compelled to respond to their plight, both from compassion and because our traditions are clear about the call to do so. There are ninety-two texts from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures calling us to welcome the stranger. The Sensenbrenner Bill also put church leaders directly in danger; it was written so loosely that churches could have been liable for the provision of both humanitarian and religious services to the strangers in our midst. Faith leaders throughout the country struggled to figure out the best response to the crisis.
Then, in his Ash Wednesday sermon of 2006, as the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Los Angeles at the time, Cardinal Roger Mahony called on Roman Catholics across the nation to continue to minister to everyone regardless of their immigration status… even if they were to go to prison for it. Religious leaders from different faith traditions in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles decided that it was time for a new sanctuary movement. We wanted to replicate the impact of the late twentieth century movement—to call attention to the brokenness of our immigration system and the need for reform rather than unjust punishment. We believed that the willingness of immigrants and non-immigrants to engage in a potentially sacrificial partnership could have the capacity to again change hearts and minds, and to ultimately affect legislation. However, we also realized that the situation was very different than the ’80s. We realized that we did not have the capacity to shelter millions of people indefinitely. Nor did most of the undocumented immigrant population want to live in churches; unlike the Central American refugees they were established in the U.S.—complete with jobs, homes, and children in school. The strategy we developed focused on inviting families whose stories would communicate the brokenness of our system to enter publicly into sanctuary, taking risks and making sacrifices for the sake of a greater goal. At its height in 2007, coalitions of congregations in thirty-seven cities were participating in some form. While Adalberto United Methodist Church in Chicago kicked off the movement, Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice of California became the national lead agency for the new sanctuary movement, and the New York City New Sanctuary Coalition served as a national model. This was a movement that also went beyond Christian congregations—there were too many individual leaders and congregations to name: Catholic, Protestant, Evangelical, Unitarian, Jewish, and Muslim.
The new sanctuary movement received massive publicity, and an equivalent bill to Sensenbrenner’s did not pass the Senate. By June 2007, a comprehensive immigration bill with strong bipartisan support was polling at 75 percent in support. We thought that we would win and our families could go home. Unfortunately, the calls to legislators were 50 to 1 against the bill. The majority of Americans usually do not call their representative unless the proposed legislation directly affects them. Most of those whose answers to the surveys were positively in favor of the bipartisan immigration reform bill did not call their legislators and those who thought immigration negatively affected their lives called repeatedly. There was not enough political will to pass immigration reform.
The new sanctuary movement changed direction and worked on a temporary alternative to reform, seeking a regulatory safety net that could soften the impact of the jagged edges of the broken system while the immigrant rights movement continued to strive for legislation over the long haul. Immigration field office directors have prosecutorial discretion to delay deportation for specific cases; they can even grant work permits and temporary authorization to reside in the U.S. Over the next ten years, the sanctuary movement (in collaboration with other immigrant rights advocates) pushed for national criteria for the granting of deferred deportation and temporary permissions. In August 2010, the “Morton Memo,” named such after then-director of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) John Morton, established a new policy that prioritized immigrants who represented threats to public safety for detention and deportation, and authorized deferred deportation for immigrants who met certain qualifications. This gave annual protection from deportation to tens of thousands of people who met the criteria, which amounted to having ties to residential U.S. citizens, making contributions to U.S. society, and/or having dangerous conditions in their countries of origin. The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, was the extension of this logic by President Obama’s 2012 Executive Order, prioritizing this for a group instead of requiring a case-by-case process. DACA, which gave 800,000 “Dreamers” temporary authorization to reside and work in the U.S., built on the foundation laid by the Morton Memo.
The sanctuary movement also successfully advocated for the creation of sensitive zones where ICE would not enter without a judicial warrant, including congregations, schools, and hospitals. In 2014, Church World Service took on a coordination role and the new sanctuary movement experienced a resurgence of families living in churches publicly. Over the years, the new movement developed a high level of expertise in using the new regulations to enable these families to have their deportation orders suspended or removed.
Since the election of President Donald Trump, somewhere between 800 and 1,000 congregations have declared sanctuary across the country—double the size of any sanctuary movement to date. New coalitions continue to spring up weekly. However, the vast majority of these congregations do not have families taking shelter inside them. Any standard for prioritization of enforcement is gone; the new administration’s Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvement Executive Order treats immigration offenses as crimes equal in importance to other serious criminal offenses. Living inside a church is, in effect, an indeterminate sentence of house arrest and a potential financial disaster for a family. Publicly living inside a church can invite bullying for the children and death threats for the adults. While a few immigrant families make this choice, the more common form of sanctuary is private. Individuals or families move into a church building or a private home to escape an address that ICE knows, ideally in a community where they can start over again and hide in the shadows. Their stay in sanctuary is temporary; as soon as possible they move into their own lodging and a new life in greater obscurity. These private cases, however, do not serve to change hearts and minds of legislative officials or those in the wider U.S. culture, nor do they offer any real solution to the broader problem. Member coalitions of the interfaith PICO organizing network have been particularly involved in developing private sanctuary options as well as engaging their congregations in other aspects of sanctuary work.
Beyond Sanctuary: Advocacy and Accompaniment
Although a movement had been renewed, or reborn, the failures to pass the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Act of 2007 and the Dream Act (multiple attempts in 2001, 2005, and 2007) could be seen as evidence that the coalition supporting immigrant rights lacked the breadth and depth necessary to create the political will for reform. There are too few American citizens who feel that the lack of humane immigration law affects them personally. At this point, evangelical leaders in various places in the country, including Willow Creek leadership in Chicago and several megachurch leaders in Orange County began to ask, “What role might the church play today in broadening and deepening this coalition because of our mandate to care passionately about people who are not ‘us’?” This group reasoned that if the church does not care passionately about the well being of all people, including immigrants, then the church is not faithful to Jesus. We realized that the evangelical churches were uniquely positioned to make a difference in the stalemate. Evangelical churches are passionate in their discipleship; and evangelicals are known for being willing to make great sacrifices for obedience to God and for mission. The international Hispanic community is one of the fastest growing evangelical constituencies in the world. The 2014 study by the Pew Research Center “Religion in Latin America” states that the Central American countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras are is now estimated to be over 50 percent evangelical. In the U.S., immigrants from Latin America and Asia are the fastest growing population within evangelical churches. Evangelical churches are also often associated with the Republican Party because of their stance on abortion. As a result, they are uniquely equipped to work on organizing conservatives to work with liberals to pass immigration reform.
In 2011, I was one of the co-founders of the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT), along with Jenny Yang from World Relief, with significant leadership provided by a diverse set of national evangelical organizations and denominations, including Sojourners, the National Association of Evangelicals, the Southern Baptist Convention, Esperanza USA, and the Christian Community Development Association. (The National Immigration Forum served as a resource for the EIT.) The EIT became the broadest coalition of evangelical leaders for justice since the slavery abolition movement of the mid-nineteenth century. At its height, the coalition engaged immigrant and non-immigrant evangelicals in peer partnership; the signatories to its principles included famous megachurch pastors, denominational leaders, seminary presidents, and traditional evangelical organizations like Focus on the Family and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. When the Table was formed, polls showed that 83 percent of white evangelicals were against immigration reform. Just three years later, however, polls in 2014 showed 72 percent of white evangelicals were for immigration reform. The EIT has also given birth to G92, a movement based in Christian colleges and universities, and Bibles, Business, and Badges, a coalition of law enforcement, business leaders, and church leaders supporting immigration reform. While there is still strong conservative support for immigration reform, the advent of the Trump movement has certainly weakened that movement—both through the stimulation of strong nativist impulses and the fear created in moderate Republicans.
When the new Executive Orders appeared in January, many of us who had been involved with the EIT knew that evangelicals who had voted for Trump might still be interested in standing with immigrants in the face of the unjust policies and practices which separate families and destroy dreams. The leadership of the Christian Community Development Association and Sojourners, along with the National Evangelical Latino Coalition, leading African-American organizations like the National African-American Clergy Network, the Progressive Baptists denomination, and the Christian-Muslim dialogue organization Shoulder2Shoulder came together around what we called the Matthew 25 Pledge. In Matthew chapter 25 of the Christian New Testament, Jesus says that our welcome, or lack of welcome, for strangers is the same as welcoming, or not welcoming, him. Signatories to the Matthew 25 Pledge agree to protect and defend the vulnerable in the name of Jesus. Immigrants are not the only vulnerable people potentially covered under the pledge; the Matthew 25 website has resources for standing with immigrants, young people of color experiencing discrimination in the criminal justice system, and Muslims experiencing discrimination as immigrants, refugees, or citizens. Matthew 25 has a signal committee of leaders for the purpose of sounding a national call to action if needed.
In Southern California, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 has become a vital coalition of evangelical and moderate mainline Protestant congregations in which immigrant churches, Millennial Latino leaders, multicultural churches, and primarily Anglo congregations have engaged in a broad range of advocacy and accompaniment activities. Matthew 25/Mateo 25 SoCal has actively educated congregations, trained leaders, and joined the broader movement in advocating for policies which protect and support immigrants, such as the Dream Act and public sanctuary legislation. It has also met with ICE leadership for dialogue, advocating for individual cases of egregious injustice, partnering immigrant and non-immigrant churches to provide legal resources and spiritual/psychological support to families facing deportation, and helping with family plans to care for citizen children whose parents are deported.
Our church partnerships with individual family cases are fueling the exchange of hope and passion in ways that grow participation in the movement. Two to three churches can handle the needs of a family, with one providing emotional and spiritual support and the others providing financial and professional support—allowing for many more families to be served than the typical model of getting everyone in a network to work on every case. The two to three congregations that accompany that family can then call on the resources of the broader network as needed.
Recently, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 SoCal created a national campaign to support Pastor Noe Carias, a Guatemalan immigrant who came to the U.S. at age 13 after escaping kidnapping. After being deported multiple times before he turned 21 years old, he eventually married a U.S. citizen and had two children, managed a construction business and became an Assemblies of God pastor, founding a thriving church in Echo Park. In his attempt to have his deportation orders removed so that his qualifying cases could be considered, he was detained for two months in Adelanto—a detention center in the Mojave Desert known for its various inhumane conditions,. Brave New Films produced a documentary on Pastor Carias’s situation, which has gone out widely through social media. The Anglo General Superintendent of the Assemblies of God (the fastest growing Pentecostal denomination in the world, with 3.5 adherents in the U.S.) went to the White House to advocate for Pastor Carias, who was released 22 September 2017, even while his case continues.
Matthew 25 and the interfaith sanctuary movement collaborate closely without adherence to the partisan lines that currently divide the country. In doing so, they stand on common ground in the defense of those who suffer unjustly.
In Southern California, leaders from the Southwest California Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. developed another accompaniment and advocacy mechanism, which is particularly focused on a group targeted by the current administration. The unaccompanied migrant children and youth who have arrived seeking asylum from Central America are a particular target of the Executive Orders. The situation in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) is especially difficult currently, with the Marasalvatrucha functioning an international mafia that survives from the proceeds of gun, drug, and human trafficking, as well as the extortion of small businesses (over $600 million USD a year). They tell young men that they have three choices—join, run, or die. If they join, they have to show that they are serious by killing a family member (per the reports we have been recently hearing from specific youth). Girls are expected to become “girlfriends of the gang.” Younger children are targeted for kidnapping and selling to get small business owners to pay the daily “renta” (literally, rent payment). In the increasing geographic area targeted by the Mara, the police are corrupt, and controlled. One woman recently shared that she was raped repeatedly by a group of Mara and police when she complained to the police about the threats and extortion. Unaccompanied children and youth who pass a credible fear test at the border (about 60 percent) have historically been allowed to be investigated by a special asylum office which determines whether they meet the criteria for asylum (which is the same as the criteria for refugee status—valid fear of violent persecution in one’s home country as a result of race, gender, political opinion, religious belief, etc.).
In November of 2017, the State Department made an announcement ending the potential for that designation for Central American children and stopping the option of processing them through a refugee center in Costa Rica. The current administration has also targeted sponsors of undocumented children, often targeting extended family members who agree to care for children without compensation while the undocumented children are processed through the court procedures, which permits them to be free from incarceration. Beyond this, the administration has detained and deported children who turn 18 years old even if their court cases are in process; they have cut off all federal funding for legal assistance and have charged non-profit legal services providers with malpractice if they coach families on representing themselves; and they have charged family members in the U.S. with human trafficking if they helped with the cost of a smuggler to bring the child safely. (A young girl on the road heading north without any protection is very likely to be raped by Mexican police and criminals.) We recently had scheduled a youth to speak at an event; he was detained, deported and shot on arrival. His mother came to speak instead; she could not speak; she could only cry.
The current administration’s enforcement policies trash the twenty-year development of rational and humane regulatory policies, creating instead various levels of individual and family destruction, which is difficult to bear.
In 2014, when the numbers of these children and youth began to climb, we started the Guardian Angels Project, engaging church volunteers in accompanying these children and their families in court. We wear brightly colored t-shirts with an image of a guardian angel and we refer these families to legal assistance and social services while monitoring the courts to ensure that their rights are respected. When we began, the courts were regularly practicing “rocket docket,” rushing the cases through whether or not legal representation was available. Our presence stopped that practice within months. We also protect families from the unscrupulous lawyers and notary publics who take their money without providing effective representation (on the principle that a deported person cannot take them to court for fraud). We urge the families instead to use reputable resources, even if they have to wait in line. The Guardian Angels Project began in Southern California but has since spread to Chicago and is in the process of development in Atlanta and Houston.
Other faith leaders and networks also minister to these children, youth, and their families. The United Methodist Church organizes “welcome centers” in some of their churches, and provides a summer camp experience specifically focused on them and their needs, whereas the Lutheran and Presbyterian churches provide the backbone of the Guardian Angels Project. The Episcopal Church supports and advocates for these families as well. All of us participate in the Southern California-based coalition UCARE (Unaccompanied Central American Refugee Empowerment), an association of faith leaders, community organizations, and legal services providers who are concerned about this situation, which is coordinated by CLUE (Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice.)
Where from here?
The faith-based movement for immigrant rights and immigration reform is the one of the best-kept secrets in the country. In spite of ongoing press, most Americans still do not know that a diverse and significant group of faith leaders in this country, regardless of their political party affiliation, care passionately about justice for immigrants targeted unfairly by the current administration. At times, belonging to this group can feel like Moses, so close to the promised land of immigration reform and fair policies, and yet regularly sent back into the desert. The current administration’s enforcement policies trash the twenty-year development of rational and humane regulatory policies, creating instead various levels of individual and family destruction, which is difficult to bear. The recent abandonment of the DACA youth (children and youth who have had special regulatory status because they were brought here as children and have already demonstrated their actual and potential contribution to this society) is just one instance of this kind of senseless viciousness.
However, every aggressive step by this administration creates a stronger reaction. Recently, Matthew 25/Mateo 25 organized a press conference to support the Dreamers at Fuller Theological Seminary, led by the Latino Pastors’ networks of Southern California and attended by sixty Latino Christian leaders and evangelical Dreamers. Many of these people had never come out publicly before to stand for a justice issue. The sleeping giant of the immigrant evangelical churches is waking up and awakening other evangelical churches in the process. When all fourteen of the Hispanic Superintendents of Assemblies of God districts went to Dr. Wood, General Superintendent, asking for help in advocating for Pastor Carias, they obtained a positive response, which has historic significance.
Those who have labored in the vineyard of faith-rooted social justice for many years are encouraged by the growing breadth and depth of the movement—even if it is still in its early stages. And so in our advocacy and labors for the undocumented among us, including undocumented Californians, we resonate with the eloquent words of St. Paul in 2 Corinthians in the Christian New Testament: We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.
 Southern California signatories included the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, the largest evangelical seminary west of the Rockies, and megachurch pastors Kenton Beshore of the 18,000 member Mariners Church in Irvine, Dave Gibbons of the 11,000 member New Song Church, Jerry Dirmann of The Rock in Anaheim, Tim Celek of the Crossing in Costa Mesa, Jim Tolle of Church on the Way in Los Angeles, and Greg Waybright of Pasadena’s Lake Avenue Community Church.
Reverend Alexia Salvatierra is an ordained Lutheran Pastor, the co-author of Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World, affiliate Professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and adjunct for five other Christian academic institutions as well as an international trainer and consultant. She has been organizing churches to engage in social justice for thirty-five years, and has been a co-founder of multiple immigration initiatives.