Spotlight: Jesuit Ministries in Boyle Heights
The latest facts and figures released by the federal government on poverty and unemployment reflect the realities known by our survey participants for quite some time – the impact of lost jobs has had a ripple effect on the communities their ministries serve.
Dolores Mission Parish is in the economically and politically-disenfranchised Boyle Heights section of Los Angeles — where unemployment was approaching 20% this summer. Fr. Scott Santarosa, SJ, pastor of Dolores Mission Parish highlights the compounding nature of the unemployment problem, “Lack of jobs seems to be the main catalyst of it all — unemployment and commonly ‘underemployment,’ with people’s hours being reduced to the point that they can’t make ends meet. For many, losing a job has also meant losing their housing.” The largely Hispanic immigrant population his parish serves was already “on the edges of poverty before the recession”, with many often working two or three jobs to stay afloat.” But with the economic downturn, many of those jobs have disappeared.
While Dolores Mission and its associated ministries at Proyecto Pastoral have always provided services and accompaniment to the homeless through their Guadalupe Homeless Project, Fr. Santarosa is now being approached by more and more families with children seeking services for the homeless — with a nearly 25% increase in the last six months. They are providing hotel vouchers and referring them out to other agencies and ministries that specialize in services for homeless families. The parish has also utilizing resources from the Archdiocesan Cardinal McIntyre Fund to provide emergency assistance to those families who need help with utilities or temporary housing assistance. While Fr. Santarosa expects that the fund will run out this year, and knows that they cannot fund every request that comes to them, they are trying to make the assistance go as far as possible, giving to those “most in need” and trying to give at least a portion of what people are seeking.
Despite the economic crisis, or perhaps because of it, the parish has started two new fundraising campaigns aimed primarily at people in the community. The first initiative appeals directly to women. According to Fr. Santarosa, “so much of what Dolores Mission does is for and by women. For the parish, women are the primary leaders of the base communities, the catechists, the community organizers and the direct recipients of many of the services provided by the parish and its associated ministries.” The Mission seeks to highlight these successes and is appealing to women in and outside of the parish to support their efforts, with the goal of finding 500 women to each give $200 thus raising $100,000, about a third of their overall fundraising goal. Their second initiative is to get more parishioners involved in fundraising and in donating to the parish. They are taking a “community organizing approach with this effort so that even if people can only contribute a small amount, they can feel like they have greater ownership in their own parish.
Next door at Proyecto Pastoral, the non-profit organization started by Dolores Mission to facilitate the community organizing, leadership training, educational and outreach programs of Mission, Executive Director Cynthia Sanchez tells of stories of resilience in the community — stories of families taking in other families who lost homes and jobs. But overcrowding in small housing units and instability in family housing situations have had their own compounding social ramifications including psychological and educational impact on children. Further exacerbating the problems facing youth in the community, the State of California recently enacted huge cut-backs in summer, educational and after-school programming. In response, Proyecto has worked to increase its own youth programming. While their foundation grants have been reduced by 15% to 35%, the ministry was able to host a 10-week youth summer program and has provided additional food to the children who are in their after-school program. “We do this in case they are not getting adequate food and nutrition at home” says Sanchez. They also began a program of Friday Night Peace Walks and a Family Movie Night to combat neighborhood violence and to provide a safe haven for parents and children to spend quality time together.
Sanchez asserts that despite the serious consequences of the economic downturn for her community and her ministry, “Proyecto has a history of doing much with very little. We began with little in terms of resources and finances but our strength has always been in the power of the people.” They work on a “community organizing model” and believe that individual members of the community can be part of the solution. “We talk with the people themselves about what can we do for our own youth, our homeless, our families and seek to empower them to find creative solutions,” says Sanchez.
Nearby, Homeboy Industries, founded by Jesuit Father Greg Boyle, S.J. over 20 years ago to provide job training and assistance to youth who have been incarcerated or involved in gangs, has been struggling to stay afloat in this difficult economy. For the last two decades, the ministry has provided a myriad of services for these at-risk youth including job training in various industries; such as culinary enterprises, food service, landscaping, and silk-screen operations. They run several businesses, such as the HomeGirl Café and the Homeboy Bakery to provide on-the job training. Homeboy Industries also provides comprehensive job counseling services, mental health counseling, and tattoo removal for former gang members. However, in this economy, the increased demand for services is being met by a major drop in funding for the ministry. Says Development Director Mona Hobson, “funding from private foundations is the bulk of all funding and most foundations have cut back 25-50% in their giving. Some of our best funders have had to decline gifts this year altogether.”
For a ministry like Homeboy Industries, the cutbacks in funding are particularly painful at a time when the very vulnerable population they serve is even less likely than others to find jobs in this economy and previously placed clients are often the first to be laid off. ”The people who walk through our door are often leaving prison and gang life. They have burned all their family bridges through the behavior that landed them in prison, so many of them don’t even have a place to live when they get out,” says Hobson, “They are in very precarious situations and without assistance; it is easy for them to revert to a life of crime just to survive.”
Like their neighbors at Dolores Mission, Homeboys has also begun an ambitious and creative new fundraising campaign in the midst of the recession — a virtual carwash. The idea is rooted in the cultural context of the people served by Homeboy Industries. “In the Latino community, people will often hold a carwash as a fundraiser to assist families, particularly with things like burial expenses,” says Hobson. “We are hoping that the virtual carwash will create a community of support for Homeboy Industries and allow people in the nearby community to become involved and support programs, as well as people from outside the immediate neighborhoods.”
It is clear that Jesuit ministries in the Boyle Heights area are facing tremendous challenges to their ministries and to the lives of the people they serve with tenacity, grace, faithfulness and hope. But it also clear that current recession is affecting some more than others. The decrees of Jesuit General Congregation 35 remind us that ”Our commitment to help establish right relationships invites us to see the world from the perspective of the poor and the marginalised, learning from them, acting with and for them” (GC 35: Decree 3:27). We hope these stories invite further reflection on what it means for all in Jesuit ministry and mission to further this commitment.