To those who know it only by reputation, the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts is a forbidding place, plagued by violence and poverty and ruled by African American gangs.
So naturally, Father Peter Banks brought 200 Latino parishioners there in December for a posada, a Christmas ritual that re-creates Joseph and Mary's search for a place for Jesus to be born.
Banks, pastor of St. Lawrence of Brindisi Church on Compton Avenue, thought the visit could help burst preconceptions and break down prejudices. His Latino congregants might be surprised to learn that violent crime was down at Nickerson, that gangs were not as pervasive as they once were and that, contrary to stereotype, a majority of the residents are Latinos.
If African American residents turned out in decent numbers, the service would be another small step toward mutual understanding.
The Latino visitors walked briskly through a parking lot and into Nickerson's gym, some casting nervous glances over their shoulders. Inside, mariachis in black outfits and gold ties tuned their violins. A small group of black community leaders helped prepare champurrado and chicken tostadas.
"The big struggle is the black and the brown. How do we get them together," Banks said before changing into white robes and leading a prayer service in Spanish. "We can bring them together with music and food."
The posada drew several hundred people, but they were almost all Latinos, not the integrated crowd Banks had hoped for. Still, he considered the event a small victory.
"This is major, getting some of our parishioners to come to Nickerson, because they don't go," he said. "They won't come here. They're afraid."
Banks, 63, a Catholic priest from a tiny Irish village, has become an unlikely force for racial understanding in Watts. Over more than three decades, he has watched as the community changed from predominantly black to predominantly Latino. He's seen racial tensions lead to segregation within his own congregation.
His efforts to bridge the divide have been marked by humility, patience and modest expectations. He believes the key to reconciliation is not grand projects but a multitude of small gestures. During meals at St. Lawrence, he will ask blacks to serve Latinos and vice versa. Without fanfare, he lends support and cash to people working to curb violence and promote understanding in the neighborhood.
When he realized that African Americans and Latinos shared a passion for gospel music, he made gospel standards a centerpiece of Sunday services.
"He's able to walk between the raindrops," said Oscar Neal, 72, owner of Jordan's Cafe on Wilmington Avenue, a neighborhood gathering place.
In a typical gesture, Banks recently enlisted Michael Wainwright, an African American parishioner, to help recruit black students to St. Lawrence's elementary school. Then he asked Wainwright, who runs a job services program in Watts, to speak with Latino teenagers about how to find work.
"He's so concerned about the community. Not only Catholics, but Protestants also. Not only blacks, but Latinos, Asians and everybody," Wainwright said. "He walks in the developments, all through them: Jordan, Nickerson, Imperial, Gonzac, and he talks to the Spanish people about the importance of getting everyone together. He's very unifying."
Banks' vision is embodied in a mural he commissioned that covers a wall behind the church. It shows scenes from Latino and black civil rights struggles and a diverse group of children surrounding the Virgin of Guadalupe and holding the flags of many nations.
In reality, many of Banks' efforts to bring blacks and Latinos together have ended like the posada at Nickerson Gardens, with less interaction than he would have liked.
"It's a constant struggle," Banks said. "I think it's a misunderstanding and lack of knowledge of each other. The food is different, but when you scratch the surface, we all have the same heart, only one pair of lungs, one liver and a couple of kidneys."
Banks grew up in Collooney, Ireland, a village of 1,100 people. "I'm one of a family of 13," he said. "I know what it is to be poor. We had no television, no running water, no electricity for many years."
As a seminarian, Banks dreamed of serving in Zambia, but the church had other plans. "You're going to the United States," a superior informed him one day in 1973.
Most of what Banks knew about Los Angeles came from watching television in the common room of St. Bonaventure seminary.
Dean Martin. Frank Sinatra. Marilyn Monroe.
"I had only one image of Los Angeles. It was white, it was wealthy and it was by the beach," he said. "There was Hollywood and Disneyland. . . . The TV did not show Watts."
He was 27 and had never met an African American. "I didn't even know Watts was black," he said.