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Of Recovery and Discovery

In countless rites of their day of leisure, Angelenos connect with themselves and each other


It's Sunday in Los Angeles, one chapter in a seven-part weeklong story, a mini narrative with millions of variations. At the New Millennium Sports Beauty and Barber Salon on Crenshaw and 43rd, Jay Byrd, a barber who takes only half a day off every week, says that Sunday is time to be with the family and get ready to "knock down the trees on Monday." Father Greg Boyle, who lives and works in East Los Angeles, sees the day as a time to "engage at a full level," in communal and spiritual outlets. At the farmers market on Main Street in Santa Monica, Gary Gordon arrives early on Sundays to grab a table and wait for his "community of co-thinkers" to join him, ready to test his values through conversation and debate. And in North Hollywood at the Wat Thai Buddhist Temple, Pamela Susslin brings food, candles and incense as a "merit" offering to the monks who live and practice there.

What we do on Sunday in Los Angeles, a day that for most of us is our own, reveals what we regard as precious and where we go in search of it. A city that detractors say lacks a soul is surprisingly full of people who have crafted a sense of community, spiritual depth and creative engagement from the expanse of this weekend day.

Writers, historians and even psychoanalysts have explored and dissected the richness of Sunday, sensitive to its historical, emotional and symbolic meaning. F. Scott Fitzgerald looked out at the Pacific Ocean with its "colorless ... sluggish sunset" and observed dismally that Sunday in Los Angeles was not a day but a "gap between two other days." Historian Alexis McCrossen writes that Americans have debated the purpose of Sunday since the country was founded. Would Sunday be a holy day or a holiday? And Sandor Ferenczi, a psychoanalyst and contemporary of Sigmund Freud, theorized that a "Sunday neurosis" afflicted his patients with depression and other guilt symptoms brought on by a loosening of the psychic repression necessary to make it through the work week.

Divining the meaning of this day, it seems, can be an exercise in self-or even cultural revelation. And pausing to observe Los Angeles on a Sunday, it's possible to see and sense the city's essence. On Sunday the soul has time to think and feel for itself, giving earthly form to our transcendent yearnings. It's the day when the city becomes manageable, recognizable and human.

Father Boyle believes that a critical difference exists in how Eastsiders and Westsiders approach Sundays. In contrast to their more affluent and status-obsessed counterparts on the Westside, people in East L.A. don't "fall into the trap" of defining themselves by what they do during the week, he says. "There are a lot of doctors and lawyers who don't know who they are when the weekend comes. In East L.A., Sunday is a joyous thing, the opposite of alienation, because we define ourselves by what we do on Sunday."

At Dolores Mission Church, the church parish just across the 1st Street Bridge that separates East L.A. from downtown, Sunday is a day of communal purpose. The locals call the Dolores Mission area the "flatlands," set apart by the hills of Boyle Heights and the freeways, a kind of sacred space and axis around which people orient their lives. Every Sunday, dozens of parishioners gather in the parking lot of the church for a venta de comida--a food sale run by local women that benefits the neighborhood school, homeless shelter or a needy family.

The small church is full for the early morning Mass. Teenage lovers hold hands in the back of the room while the rest of the congregation sings together, the words of the hymns projected slightly off kilter on a blank white wall. Three ceiling fans are silent and still, but poised for the afternoon heat. Here the Sunday finest includes suits and ties but also the casual attire of a Dodger shirt and a Deportivo Cruz Azul soccer jacket.

Margarita Amador, who works for the Los Angeles Housing Authority, prepares food outside while waiting for the service to end. "Sunday is a day to meet new people and gather information for the week ahead," she says, summarizing her desire to integrate work and life in a community she says she will never leave.

Sundays at Dolores Mission reflect what biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan says was the heart of the original Jesus movement--"shared egalitarianism of spiritual [healing] and material [eating] resources." At the church each week, that profound story is reenacted in its own intimate way through the sharing of food and the offering of emotional support, the symbols of Christian mystery observed in a small parking lot next to a humble church.

Teresa Mejia, who waits for her daughter to exit Sunday school, says simply, "It's food that brings us together. We don't have therapy or counseling. If I feel bad, one of my friends here will comfort me."

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