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THE NEXT LOS ANGELES / TURNING IDEAS INTO ACTION : Human Relations : Will Los Angeles create a model of vitality by shaping common goals, or will it disintegrate into a modern-day Babel? : 'We Are in the Baby Steps Right Now'

July 17, 1994|DIANNE KLEIN

The Rev. Mother Altagracia Perez, as she's called in high Episcopal, came to Los Angeles just over a month ago to minister to this city's spiritual needs, special-ordered from above, bearing enthusiasm and hope.

She laughs a lot, with a kind of gusto that puffs up her cheeks and crinkles her eyes. "The things about me that were seen as a problem before are now seen as an asset in Los Angeles," she says, letting you in with her smile.

Polite company doesn't usually talk about such things in this wildly multicultural Los Angeles, 1994. Or at least it doesn't talk across cultural lines.

These are such things as skin color (Perez's is black), and language (she speaks Spanish and English) and culture (hers is Dominican-Puerto Rican-South Bronx). Polite company is too scared to talk about such things, or too angry, or indifferent.

Polite company is making a mistake.

Perez can see this in her church, St. Phillip's Episcopal in South-Central Los Angeles, which offers a take on the problems--and opportunities--of the city as a whole.

St. Phillip's was the first black parish west of the Mississippi in the history of the Episcopal church. But that was because the white church wouldn't have their kind.

Now 80% of St. Phillip's parishioners are Latino. And Perez says the black members have come to resent what they see as the takeover of their church, a safe place that was uniquely their own. "Eventually, it got to feel like a competition between groups," the reverend mother says.

So Perez, 32, has rolled up her sleeves and begun breaking down walls. What she's found are bridges that have been obscured by years of misunderstanding.

Did you know that black Latinos were among the founders of Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles, otherwise known as L.A.? Or that Mexican President Benito Juarez refused to turn over runaway American slaves to their owners in the United States? The congregation of St. Phillip's knows: Perez has made sure to spread the word.

"We are in the baby steps right now," she says of her church in transition. "We are learning how to dialogue with each other."

And Los Angeles, too, needs to talk and, more important, listen to the different voices that make up the city now. Listening can transform. Hearing merely registers noise.

The voices of Los Angeles are angry, cynical, anxious and afraid. But other strains are enthusiastic and optimistic: The entire nation is looking west.

Will Los Angeles create a model of vitality by shaping common goals or disintegrate into a modern-day Babel, with each group realizing too late that isolation doesn't lead to heaven but can indeed lead to hell.

Good intentions are hardly enough to ensure a harmonious future for L.A. "Can't we all get along?" is too simplistic a scold for even children now. The real question, of course, is how?

No 12-step program, court-ordered desegregation project, affirmative action plan or college scholarship program offers a magic cure for inequality, racism and fear. Resentment and violence have become part of the equation too.

Integration, mostly in the limited arenas of the classroom and on the job, has brought only piecemeal success. A minority of citizens believes that segregation is the way to go.

Taken as a whole, the problems can overwhelm, suffocating initiative and excusing indifference as a reasonable choice. It is not.

Every day, people in Los Angeles are taking steps--often unnoticed beyond the neighborhood, the synagogue, the workplace--to make bettering human understanding anything but trite. History has taught us that harmony cannot be legislated. It starts small and builds from there. It is a journey that opens minds and changes hearts. Children are often excellent guides.

Genethia Hayes, assistant executive director at the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Los Angeles, tells the story of a little girl, fair-haired with big blue eyes, who trailed her and her husband down the aisles of a grocery store in Bear Valley, mesmerized by what she saw.

Hayes bent down to talk to her and the little girl, not much beyond 2, rested the palms of her hands against Hayes' cheeks. "But you're not warm!" the child exclaimed.

When Hayes told her she was right, the little girl said the color of her skin looked just like the warm cookies that her mother took from the oven. And Hayes' husband, she went on, had skin that looked like the cookies that burned.

The little girl's mother, mortified, came flying when she heard the exchange. The child had never seen black people before. But her mother told her not talk about such things, that it wasn't nice.

"But the child was telling the truth," Hayes says.

The mother was right to be embarrassed, but not for her daughter. Tolerance, just like bigotry, is taught.

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