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A blessing or a purse, it's your choice

April 16, 2006|Diane Winston | DIANE WINSTON, Knight chair in media and religion at USC, can be reached at

THIS WEEK, Jews and Christians observed major holidays that celebrate freedom. Jews held Passover Seders, the ritual meal commemorating the exodus from Egypt and the Jews' long march to freedom. Christians marked Easter, the resurrection of Christ and his triumph over death.

Marking liberation, be it physical or spiritual, raises a question: Released from slavery, we are free to do what? Free to choose a latte or frappucino? Free to select the next American idol? Free to buy a McMansion, a Hummer or a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes?

We're casual about our "freedom to" even as we take for granted "freedom from" -- hunger, poverty, discrimination, oppression -- as our political right.

I'm not casting the first stone. I'm as guilty as the next person of limiting my freedom to outcomes I can control. I'm overwhelmed by the tragedy in Darfur and deeply worried about our multitrillion-dollar national debt. But I can tutor at my daughter's school or volunteer at a soup kitchen.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday April 23, 2006 Home Edition Current Part M Page 3 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 27 words Type of Material: Correction
Faith Front: In the April 16 Faith Front column ("A blessing or a purse, it's your choice"), Adele Lander Burke's name was misspelled as Adele Lender Burke.

Or I could go shopping.

While I doubt that the founding fathers envisioned freedom as the unalienable right to choose between Coke and Pepsi, I know for sure that's not what the Bible has in mind.

The Rev. Clyde Oden Jr., pastor of Bryant Temple AME Church in Leimert Park, agrees.

"We've been blessed, but we're not being a blessing," he said. "When we look at the exodus story and the resurrection, there's an implicit expectation to do something."

Oden and his congregation did. They joined One LA-IAF, a coalition of 100 schools, congregations, unions and nonprofits dedicated to improving city life. IAF stands for the Industrial Areas Foundation -- the oldest and largest community organizing group in the United States.

The group encourages members to solve their neighborhood's problems. By pursuing change and winning small victories, members experience the freedom to make a difference. Members of One LA-IAF have blocked the demolition of low-income homes in Pomona, fought the expansion of the Bradley dump in Sun Valley and registered 1,500 new voters in Maywood in a campaign to undo city policies that discriminated against undocumented workers.

Oden and his congregants are part of a multi-faith coalition within One LA that has taken on organizers of the Los Angeles Marathon. Held on a Sunday, the 26.2-mile race requires many street closures, preventing thousands of Angelenos from getting to church. The group's goal is to move the marathon to a holiday Monday when the road closings would not interfere with worship services.

The coalition intends to take the fight to City Hall and, given its size and the righteousness of the case, plans to win. Then what?

"There seem to be so many issues we have no capacity to affect," said Daniel May, an organizer with One LA-IAF. "What's powerful about the exodus narrative is that it tells us we can change, and that we have the capacity to change our communities."

For Adele Lender Burke, what's needed in her mixed-income L.A. neighborhood is more affordable housing and better public transportation.

A congregant at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills, Burke joined One LA-IAF because there's strength in numbers. She also liked its organizing principle -- one person talking to another person talking to another person. But talking to temple members has yet to coalesce into a goal, much less a plan of action.

"It's a long process," Burke said. "But so was coming out of Egypt. Reaching the promised land didn't happen overnight, and I am taking the same approach to fixing this city."

As my neighbors carried palm fronds last Sunday, and I prepared for the Seder, I thought about Burke, May and Oden. Concurrent with holy week was news of more deaths in Iraq, debates over immigration reform, nuclear jitters, drive-by shootings, higher gas prices, avian flu and corruption in Congress.

One LA-IAF is a good start, but what about exercising responsibility for a larger community and for bigger problems? Might we need a One Nation or One Globe-IAF?

Or maybe that's just what Jesus and Moses had in mind.

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