Sinbad the comedian gently and carefully broke the news Friday afternoon to the scores of people amid the sea of blue cots in the basement of First African Methodist Episcopal Church.
"I know this is going to scare some of you but we are going to have to pack you all up and move you to Dorsey High School," he said into the microphone at the front of the room. "Nobody is abandoning you. Nobody is forsaking you."
Nevertheless, frightened gasps escaped from some of the scores of people who had found shelter in the church in the West Adams district for up to two days. For some it felt like being forced from the safety of a hospital emergency room back to the scene of the disaster, even though better accommodations had been found for them.
Indeed, as much as any place in embattled South Los Angeles, African-American churches have become trauma centers for neighborhoods that have been hit the worst by violence.
From tiny storefronts to ornate cathedrals, churches immediately began to replace the government, social service agencies and in some cases the family in filling every need of people caught up in the fury.
Churches are where the frightened, the displaced and the desperate are calling first to find out how they can get their electricity restored, where they can go to get prescriptions filled or where to find a hot meal or a cot for the night.
They are also where distant Anglo congregations and residents from as far as Palm Springs have either come or phoned to offer help.
In the first hours of the rioting, the 8,000-member First AME Church, run by the Rev. Cecil (Chip) Murray, became home to a Red Cross disaster shelter and food center and was the place other clergy, politicians--including Gov. Pete Wilson and the Rev. Jesse Jackson--came to meet, make announcements or offer help.
The church also was the command center for emergency street patrols of pastors from all over the city who had been attending a peace rally after Wednesday's not guilty verdicts in the case of four Los Angeles police officers charged with beating black motorist Rodney G. King. Many of the pastors, still dressed in their Sunday suits, linked arms and strode onto the main thoroughfares near the church, placing themselves between rioters and police officers to prevent confrontations.
It took some other churches--from St. Brigid Catholic Church on Western Avenue to three tiny congregations in the Crenshaw district--a little longer to get organized. But by Saturday, most of them had mounted relief efforts.
Church workers operated informal referral services for people who no longer had markets, restaurants and pharmacies near them or who need to know how to get their mail. They also began to organize people to help those without transportation so they could get to work or make other urgent trips.
With the worst of the violence over, some pastors have organized emergency cleanup patrols and refined plans for the days ahead--when food runs out and people must confront the reality of neighborhoods without many essential services. Without realizing it, some churches had begun long ago to prepare for the roles they are playing, said many of the nearly two dozen pastors interviewed. Some said they saw the violence coming.
"About a year ago we started reorganizing our ministries to focus on unemployment, housing, anything that spoke to the long-term needs that we believed had been ignored and would lead to something like this," said Father Paul Banet of St. Brigid on Western Avenue at 52nd Street.
"Eventually we knew we were going to have to face this," he said. "We just didn't know it would happen so soon."
The Rev. Edgar Boyd, pastor of Bethel AME Church farther south on Western Avenue, said the economic deprivations in some neighborhoods was "just a powder keg ready to blow."
Months before the verdicts, he said, he and other clergy had begun to formulate a plan of economic survival for residents in South Los Angeles.
"We're not just fighting the monster of the immediate needs," Boyd said. "We are fighting a greater social and economic monster of racism and injustice that is unseen."
But on Saturday and the three previous days, the immediate needs occupied scores of ministers who individually or in groups ministered to communities consisting mostly of African-Americans and Latinos.
They have been joined by Anglo and Jewish congregations from around Southern California that have pledged to ask their congregations to aid in the relief effort.
"We want to do whatever we can to help out," said the Rev. Byron Hiller Light of the First Congregational United Church of Christ in Pasadena. "People are just shocked. I think it is therapeutic to reach out."
Myron J. Taylor, minister of the Westwood Hills Christian Church in Westwood, said church members are working closely with the South Los Angeles churches to make sure needed goods are distributed quickly. Like others, he said he will use his sermon today to discuss the jury verdicts and the violence that followed.