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Material form

As cultural geographers have long noted, the built form of the environment -architecture, landscape, etc. - can have an important reciprocal relationship with culture (see e.g. Rapaport 1982, Zukin 1995). In terms of classic theorizations of the spatial dimensions of the “city,” the built environment of Los Angeles is an anomaly of sorts. Michael Dear posits that Los Angeles is prototypical of “postmodern urbanism” (Dear 2001). Unlike the classic theories of urban development which assume a central city “core” (Burgess 1925, Hoyt 1939) or “nuclei” (Harris and Ullman 1945) which serve as starting points in terms of both temporality and logic of peripheral expansion, the spatial layout and built environment of Los Angeles has been described as “Keno capitalism,” with no necessary relationship between adjacent parcels of land other than an underlying capitalist logic that renders any sort of city “core” or “center” irrelevant. This model runs counter to previous urban models that assume a dialectic relationship between social and spatial differentiation. This material form, described as a “postmodern city,” benefits the Dream Center as it seeks to attract volunteers to serve in its outreach programs in multiple ways.

First, the Dream Center ministry/outreach model is one of temporary but intense forays into poverty “hot spots.” The spatially incongruous layout of Los Angeles enhances what would otherwise be understood as “plug-in” volunteering as deeply meaningful; there is a clear break between the “Home Base” of the Dream Center and its dispersed ministry locations, enhanced by the ritual bus ride to and from these locations. In this, the Dream Center functions as a sending place - its own material form a relative sanctuary in comparison to the locations where the volunteers are sent to serve.

Second, the Dream Center is a ministry of choice located within a city of options. Indeed some of the Dream Center promotional material utilizes references to the opportunities for recreation that the area provides, such as the beach or Disneyland, to offset, or provide respite from the intense ministry experiences of the outreach programs. But there is also a set of options between ministries at the Dream Center, each of which are closely tied to particular places, whether providing hot meals for the homeless on Skid Row, Pershing Square, or MacArthur Park, or providing fresh food for residents of the Pueblo del Rio and Nickerson Gardens housing projects. In this formulation, short-term social ministry options in Los Angeles are but one of many different consumption options.

Finally, the Dream Center is able to detach itself from certain facets of its Los Angeles context. Within the context of the relative autonomy of land-spaces, it makes perfect sense for the Dream Center to be a city all its own, without any obvious connection to adjacent neighborhoods (Dear 2000, 3). This is particularly exemplified through its particular location from which it sends volunteers to other parts of the city, and in turn, endows the Dream Center as somehow being free of context. To borrow and modify a phrase from Pentecostal/evangelical Christianity -the Dream Center is in many ways, in Los Angeles, but not really of Los Angeles.

Interpretations of Los Angeles

Although there are doubtless many images and interpretations of Los Angeles, each in their own way related to Los Angeles as place, the theme consistently expressed in Dream Center documents and promotional material, and regularly repeated by staff members and volunteers, is Los Angeles as a spiritual wasteland. In large part, the Dream Center depends upon the image of Los Angeles as an exceptional case of urban godlessness and suffering in order to promise, and deliver on, an authentic urban missionary experience. In interviews and public appearances, Dream Center founder Matthew Barnett has referred to Los Angeles as “a spiritual wasteland” and “a place where ... all the churches have fled.” The Dream Center website described the Dream Center’s mission as it also presented a dire portrait of the city:

Located in the heart of poverty, hopelessness, and violence, The Dream Center is surrounded by gang members who actively recruit young children into lives of violence and drugs. Poverty and addictions have sent many to live on the streets. Each night in Los Angeles, over 11,000 people sleep on the sidewalks. Today in LA, one of six families is living below the poverty line. The average family income for the poor has declined 24% since 1967.6

In LA, the rate of poverty among children is almost 50% higher than the poverty' rate among the city’s population as a whole. Most of these children will experience lives of gangs, drugs, crime and illicit sex.

Robert, a youth pastor from North Carolina who brought his church’s youth group for a week-long stay at the Dream Center, extolled the virtues of Los Angeles for outreach work in a way that indicates that not only is it as spiritually empty as the Dream Center proclaims, but is filled with vapid substitutes, trifles, and vices as well:

I love LA. There’s such a spiritual oppression here, you feel it when you get off the plane. It wasn’t real intense, but you just can feel how lost this city is. They put so many other gods before the real God, LA does.

Robert suggests an “in this world/of this world” distinction to include local churches that are exempt from aspersion/criticism/these shortcomings, yet still renders them as implicitly ineffectual:

That’s the thing about LA, it’s just like there’s so many gods that are being worshipped here. That’s why the Dream Center is such a light because they’re preaching the gospel, dude. Not many people are. You know, the local churches are, but I’m just saying as far as the city, just talking to people in the city, they worship other gods.

Of course, the Dream Center could not conjure an effective image of Los Angeles as exceptionally dangerous or godless all on its own. Social movement theorists have shown how powerful motivating representations and symbols are not selfgenerating, nor do they derive their power strictly from the qualities of their referent; they must have a certain “resonance” within the existing cultural imagination in order to be effective (Snow and Benford 1988). Widespread cultural ideas about Los Angeles - those which often consider the city to be synonymous with wealth, greed, poverty, violence, and crime - endow the Dream Center’s rendering of Los Angeles as not just plausible but likely.

Timothy, who serves with the Dream Center’s City Help mobile medical unit, is exceptional in that he links his mission with a particular conception of the city that brings together both of these extremes:

Well Los Angeles is kind of interesting since I’ve been here. I learned it’s the rich, rich, rich and the poor, poor, poor. See, the devil is here for real, and God is here for real. All nationalities, all religious people, everything.

Yet, since Los Angeles is thought to embody such polar extremes, visitors can arrive with a range of expectations about Los Angeles’s particular brand of spiritual emptiness, and get drawn in by whichever ministry strikes a spiritual-experiential “chord.” For Kristen, a young adult volunteer from Alberta, Canada, the Dream Center experience confirmed her prior understanding of Los Angeles as a place of unseemly wealth, yet added another, deeper dimension. Says Kristen, “Before [volunteering at the Dream Center] all I ever thought of [Los Angeles] was Hollywood or Beverly Hills, or like wealth and fame.” She had even been invited to take part in a Beverly Hills ministry, which she imagined as consisting of “going to a bunch of big ritzy parties” to talk to those in spiritual need. Kristen’s experiences with the Skid Row ministry changed that perception. In fact, she was so moved by her experiences on Skid Row that she started her own feeding program in her hometown. For Kristen however, the spiritual blight of wealth and fame still define Los Angeles, but she says, “that’s such a small part of what LA is ....”

Some of the most powerful widespread images of Los Angeles are those arising from the poverty-stricken area of South Los Angeles - which has in the last several years been officially changed from “South Central,” although the latter name continues to circulate. For many, the mention of “South Central LA” brings to mind a host of images of violence and unrest: the infamous and deadly gang war between the Crips and Bloods; riots (notably the Watts Riots of 1965 and again in 1992 following in the wake of the Rodney King verdict); the documenting of hard street life by hip-hop artists; films that mythologize the area (Colors, Boyz n the Hood, Menace II Society), and gritty television law-enforcement dramas (Southland) that are set in Los Angeles and take as their inspiration actual crimes committed in Los Angeles.

This reputation proves a powerful draw for the Dream Center, especially since many of its long-term staff spent their pre-salvation lives in South Los Angeles. Alfred7 is a former gang member who attributes his salvation to the Dream Center, and at the time we first met him, was directing one of the Dream Center’s most popular ministries, the “Food Truck Ministry.” Each morning, volunteers for this program would meet up with Alfred and his staff on the Dream Center campus for a quick briefing prior to carpooling to the housing projects to deliver free groceries to families. A typical introductory speech for each day’s ministry outings opens with a short but attention-getting joke that immediately establishes Alfred’s credentials as a source of authenticity: “You know, I got my PhD from USC ... the University of South Central!” This is followed by a history of the region as especially relevant to the ministry, focusing on the area as the “birthplace of gangs,” which in turn has created “generational hatred and violence” in the neighborhoods and in the housing projects themselves.

At times however, volunteer expectations and interpretations of what their experiences might be in the “projects” run up against the hard reality of life in these places. On one occasion, we observed volunteers with the Food Truck ministry who repeatedly expressed their desire to pray with residents and were asking how to do so in Spanish. After cleaning up and preparing to move onto the next site, Alfred gathered the group in a circle. He said, “Although we are all very excited to go out and spread the good word, we also want to gain trust. Many of these people are the victims of generational hatred and may not be ready for the church. We have to respect that and just be prepared to give ... you have to trust me. If you lived in Wisconsin and I was visiting and wanted to go run out onto an icy lake, you’d tell me not to do it, and I would listen to you because that’s your environment. Please trust me. I know South Los Angeles, and I want to keep everyone safe.”

Of course, some volunteers’ impressions of Los Angeles are more mundane, and not necessarily tied to the Dream Center and its mission. Ray, a youth group pastor from Texas, is typical of the few volunteers whose impressions are tied to more practical living: “I’m not a fan. Hate the traffic. I grew up in Vancouver Canada, with 2.2 million so I know big traffic, but I moved from there for that reason and now visiting here is fine but living here ... you know, God has a sense of humor, he’s likely thinking about moving me one day but I would hope not to LA. If I had a choice it wouldn’t be here.” However, this kind of talk about Los Angeles as decoupled from the particular experience of ministry is surprisingly rare.

Conclusion

There are many different ways in which “place” matters in how religious groups operate in society. This chapter is an attempt to approach one aspect of place, in how it works together with the conceptions of the religious group and its supporters to create a particular type of religious experience within the context of a particular place. Other efforts will need to look more systematically at other elements of place by investigating other characteristics such as racial and ethnic diversity, relative degrees of wealth and poverty, and the relationship of religious groups with each other, and with non-religious organizations which are all operating within the same geographic place.

Our emphasis in this chapter has focused on how the Los Angeles Dream Center has successfully utilized place - geographic location, material form, and the meanings and interpretations attributed to those elements - in how it frames and approaches its various outreach programs. By situating its efforts within the “place” of Los Angeles, the Dream Center and its supporters build on these elements of place to create a unique ministry experience for volunteers that simultaneously functions as a stand-in for urban ministry locations anywhere. That is, regardless how unique Los Angeles may be in the presentation, it is also an “every-place” location in that if the model is successful in Los Angeles, it can be successful in any other place.

Notes

  • 1 The Angelus Temple was founded by Amy Semple McPherson in 1923 as the home of the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel. See Sutton (2009) for an analysis of McPherson, her church and its role in Los Angeles.
  • 2 See Steensland and Goff (2014) for a good introduction to the variety of different evangelical social engagement.
  • 3 See https://dreamcenter.org/dc-network/ for a description and list of Dream Center Network members.
  • 4 Although evangelicals and Pentecostals have long maintained different forms of outreach ministries, more recently, ministries have been established, particularly among Pentecostal/charismatic groups, that emphasize personal experience and engagement with both service to others and bringing “supernatural power” to bear in serving different populations. See Christerson and Flory (2017) for a description of several larger of these groups.
  • 5 Names of interviewees have been changed unless otherwise noted.
  • 6 www.dreamcenter.org (accessed July 25, 2011).
  • 7 Alfred has since moved on from the Dream Center to form Inner City Visions, a Christian non-profit organization that is focused on serving at-risk young people in South Los Angeles.
 
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