Churches struggle to overcome racial tensions, poverty, and inner-city violence.

Los Angeles is a city on edge. Police helicopters patrol nightly, circling buildings, shining their searchlights into dark corners. The ominous sound of helicopter blades along with the firing of handguns and automatic weapons makes sleep difficult for residents in neighborhoods where gangs battle each other.

Yet sleep may be difficult for all of Los Angeles’s 12 million inhabitants. The tensions that led to last year’s riots remain unresolved. Two court cases, the retrial of police officers in the Rodney King beating and the three teenagers accused of beating Reginald Denny during the 1992 riots, uncanny in their parallels, have unfolded in the California court system in the glare of intense media coverage.

In the meantime, committees, coalitions, task forces, prayer teams, and watchdog organizations gather in board-rooms, church basements, and city hall council rooms to ponder how Los Angeles will face its future, asking themselves: Why has so little of the promised federal money come in? How will it be distributed among the various ethnic communities? How well has the Los Angeles police force prepared for the possibility of more rioting when the trials are over? Should Korean liquor store owners whose businesses were burned be allowed to reopen their stores in black neighborhoods?

In all these discussions, the 7,000 churches of Los Angeles play an important role. Churches are often mentioned in the same breath with community and civic organizations when participant lists are drawn up. However, despite the church’s visible efforts immediately after the riots, those outside the church community perceive the church as marginally effective in its ...

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