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Community Opposition to Lawndale Charity


Sister Michele Morris is in the middle of a phone call when Angie, an Inglewood widow suffering from diabetes, comes in with her latest problem.

The 52-year-old woman, who cannot read or write, has just received notice that her Social Security check has been cut by more than $100 a month. She also has a cold but no money to buy cough syrup.

Sister Michele gives her $20 for some medicine, and runs next door to ask a co-worker to get in touch with social welfare officials about the reduction in Angie's benefits.

On her way back to the office, Sister Michele meets a homeless youth whose car will not start and an elderly man who was mugged last week and needs help getting new identification.

"My entire life is an interruption," says Sister Michele, the executive director of House of Yahweh, a private, nonprofit social service agency in Lawndale that provides free meals, clothing, groceries, furniture and referrals for the poor and homeless.

"The minute I stick my head out the door, I'm always besieged," she says, breezing into the cramped cubbyhole of an office she shares with two other people. "There's always someone who needs something. . . . Sometimes it's fine but sometimes it wears me out."

By any standard, it's an emotionally draining occupation, but one for which the 57-year-old South Gate woman has four decades of training as a member of the Catholic order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a religious sisterhood devoted to performing acts of mercy.

The most demanding part of her job, however, encompasses something far removed from the human dramas that daily cross her doorstep. The biggest challenge she faces today is winning political and community support for the two-story building she wants to erect next to the agency's soup kitchen and thrift shop at 4430 W. 147th Street.

Set in the heart of the Lawndale Civic Center, the 9-year-old agency is just steps from City Hall, a public library that is slated for expansion and a local shuttle stop. The area is considered a prime target for redevelopment.

Sister Michele says the Mediterranean-style building she has proposed was designed to fit in with the city's vision for the neighborhood. It would also provide badly needed storage space on her 9,600-square-foot corner lot and would include bathrooms and showers for the homeless men and women she serves.

But the planned improvements have mired the House of Yahweh in controversy for months.

The charity, which weathered a series of public hearings before winning approval to build the new facility, finally celebrated a groundbreaking ceremony in April, 1990. But just days after workers had begun to dig trenches to lay the foundation, construction was halted when city planning officials discovered they mistakenly had overlooked landscaping and setback requirements.

Despite a loss of more than $35,000, House of Yahweh was forced to start over and submit new plans, which were approved by the Planning Commission. Neighbors, however, appealed the decision, and the matter is scheduled for a hearing before the City Council today.

Residents opposed to the project contend that the showers and bathrooms would draw more street people to the agency, which feeds between 125 and 200 people six days a week. And nearby business owners say customers are afraid to come in when scruffy-looking people--some smelling of alcohol or appearing to be on drugs or mentally ill--loiter in front of their shops.

While some neighbors say the new building would be a welcome alternative to the dusty, open-air patio where Sister Michele now stores old refrigerators and sofas under tarps, others say the agency would be more suitably situated in an industrial area, out of the path of the children and elderly people who use the nearby community center.

A native of South Dakota who moved with her parents to Los Angeles when she was 8, Sister Michele says she was drawn to the religious life as a teen-ager because she "loved being around happy people (and) you can't find a happier group of people than priests and nuns."

Although she felt "called" to join a convent in the seventh grade, she says, she tried to ignore the impulse through most of her teens. But by her 18th birthday, four years after her only sister was killed in a bicycle accident, she was ready to dedicate her life to religion.

She became a novitiate in the Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, a Catholic community with about 2,000 members worldwide. In 1959, after vowing a life of poverty, chastity and obedience, she became a full member of the order.

For the first 20 years of her career, Sister Michele worked as a teacher at Catholic elementary schools. But in 1982, while working as a parish coordinator at St. Catherine Laboure Catholic Church in Torrance, Sister Michele was deeply moved by the plight of a homeless couple that had sought shelter at the church during a rainstorm. She soon had another calling: to open a neighborhood agency for the poor.

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