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Section II: Now

Redeeming the city: Los Angeles in the social imagination of an urban social ministry

Richard Flory and Bradly Nabors


Where ordinarily neighborhood young people can be found playing pick-up basketball games, instead, every Saturday morning finds 500 volunteers assembled on an aging gym floor at the Los Angeles Dream Center, a largescale Pentecostal social outreach ministry that also includes the historic Angelus Temple.1 The majority of the volunteers are young adults, several of them Dream Center staff members, but most are volunteers who have driven in from communities across southern California. Others are from other states across the US, here on “short term mission trips” organized by their churches, and still others are longer-term volunteers from places like the UK, Australia, and Norway. This being Los Angeles, there is even a celebrity quotient in the volunteer crowd, including stars from the local professional sports teams, or television and movie actors often there to serve with everybody else. They all come to participate in the Dream Center’s “Adopt-a-Block” ministry, in which volunteers spread out to neighborhoods across the city to lend their assistance to residents, performing household chores, providing food, baby supplies, and furniture to families in need.

In the time since its founding in 1996, by then 19-year-old Matthew Barnett, the Dream Center has become an important institution that reflects the traditional evangelical emphasis on the gospel, but has developed its ministry model through prioritizing social outreach, life transformation, and conversion, in that order. This emphasis on social ministry has tapped into the larger currents evident among younger Pentecostals and evangelicals who are seeking out venues through which they can “put their faith into action” and pursue what they frame as “social justice” oriented ministries.2 The sheer size of the Dream Center and the large range of its ministry efforts make it one of the key destinations for younger evangelicals and Pentecostals who are looking to deepen their Christian faith through these kinds of ministries.

Situated on a hill overlooking the Hollywood Freeway and downtown Los Angeles, the Dream Center occupies the 1920s-era buildings of the former Queen of Angels Hospital. The complex’s nine buildings - totaling 360,000 square feet and 1,000 rooms - take up a full city block. Each week the Dream Center’s 250 outreach programs serve over 40,000 people in neighborhoods across Los Angeles. Its leadership and staff are primarily in their 40s or younger. By far the majority of the individuals and groups that come to volunteer and provide the daily labor for the Dream Center programs are also younger people, primarily from Pentecostal and evangelical churches, with some mainline Protestants and a few with little or no church background.

Dream Center outreach ministries include programs that serve children, families, and the homeless. Among the many different ministries are recovery' programs for drug addicts and gang members, and temporary' housing for victims of sex trafficking. In 2012, a floor was dedicated to transitional housing for homeless families, and there is also a training program for college age people interested in how the Dream Center organizes and operates its many social outreach programs. In addition, the Dream Center operates a church from the historic Angelus Temple, the original location of Aimee Semple McPherson’s ministry. Further, the Dream Center has developed the Dream Center Network that is currently made up of 84 other, smaller, “Dream Centers” in 29 states and 11 different countries. Each of these operate as separate and self-sustaining organizations, while maintaining a close connection with the leadership in Los Angeles.3 In August 2008, the Dream Center staff established a sister site in New York City where they adapted outreach programs developed in Los Angeles. And, in the fall of 2012, the Dream Center established a satellite congregation in Long Beach, California, with first worship services held there in February 2013.

All first-time visitors the Dream Center are instructed to meet their tour guide on the roof. It is an unusual place to begin a tour of any' facility, especially' since the labyrinthine nature of the former Queen of Angels Hospital makes finding access to the roof a bit of a challenge. After a brief, personal testimonial, the tour guide narrates the birds-eye view, pointing out key' features of the campus against the backdrop of the city:

That building houses our discipleship program. The men walking through the parking lot with black t-shirts are members of the program; you can see that they are working. The building next to that is our gymnasium. On the other side, over there, you can see where our mobile medical unit is parked. Next to that is parked our small fleet of “food trucks.”

The view is impressive, and not what one would imagine from one’s impression formed at street-level. The rooftop vantage point frames the Dream Center as almost a city in itself, visibly' differentiated by' the specialized ministries, administrative offices, chapels, and basic services, mapped out over the city block it occupies.

Pointing northwest through the trademark Los Angeles smog, the tour guide directs visitors’ attention to the Hollywood hills and its iconic sign. Directly opposite sits Los Angeles’ downtown core, to the east sits the San Gabriel mountain range, and urban sprawl fills in most of the gaps in between. However, the tour guide does not elaborate much on these landmarks, instead punctuating his description of the entire area with a grand, sweeping motion of his arm, gesturing toward a “city that needs saving.” This could reasonably be interpreted as a sentiment echoed in a long tradition of Protestant ministry efforts in urban centers across the United States, as exemplified by groups like the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, the Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago or the Bower}' Mission in New York.

However, through our research we have discovered that for the Dream Center and its volunteers, Los Angeles is not just any city. On the one hand, the Dream Center is able to render Los Angeles as the urban area, and one uniquely qualified to offer an authentic urban ministry experience for volunteers from far and wide. On the other hand, Los Angeles’ own “place-ness” - its constitutive intersections of geographic location, built environment, and cultural imaginings - works in ways especially sympathetic to new forms of American, experience-based ministry organizations.

In this chapter, we focus on the success of the Dream Center in attracting mostly younger Pentecostals and evangelicals to volunteer to serve others in need, in particular how its leaders have utilized Los Angeles, its geographic location, built environment, and the meanings attached to these, as a way to promote itself and attract volunteers to participate in its outreach programs. This chapter is one piece of a larger ethnographic study in which we were primarily interested in how Dream Center staff and volunteers were developing significant social outreach programs directly linked to their traditional Pentecostal/evangelical theology, and in the process attracting large numbers of younger people to serve in those programs. We participated in the many different programs, spent significant time on the Dream Center campus, and conducted over 100 structured and unstructured interviews with Dream Center staff volunteers, and others associated with the organization.

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