L.A. turns out for holiday prayers Worshipers await King trial verdict

April 12, 1993|By Bill Glauber and John Rivera | Bill Glauber and John Rivera,Staff Writers

LOS ANGELES -- They were 20 minutes and three encores into "Great Day," the church shaking with the sound of gospel music and the rumble of stomping feet and clapping hands.

The Rev. Cecil L. Murray of the First African Methodist Episcopal Church was smiling now, looking to the dozens of children sitting on the steps to the pulpit, looking to the 2,500 worshipers who jammed nearly every inch of the sanctuary, looking, too, at television cameras lined against the walls.

Finally, he was ready to speak yesterday about the best and the worst of Los Angeles as the city anxiously awaited the jury's verdict in the federal trial of four policemen charged with violating the civil rights of Rodney G. King.

"It seems like someone has shaken up the tree of life and all of the nuts have fallen off and landed in Los Angeles," he said.

And then, he added: "Don't let the nuts tell us that thousands are going to die. Don't let the nuts tell you the city will burn down. In the first place, what's left to burn?"

Welcome to Easter Sunday in Los Angeles.

They prayed under a setting chunk of moon in a tree-lined amphitheater by the Hollywood Freeway.

They prayed in a Roman Catholic cathedral on the edge of Skid Row.

And they prayed in churches that were beacons of hope and safety in and near neighborhoods ravaged by riots last April 29 following the acquittal in a state trial of the four police officers in the beating of Mr. King.

Even five members of the jury of eight men and four women attended an Easter service before resuming a second day of deliberations on the fate of Officers Theodore J. Briseno, Laurence M. Powell, Sgt. Stacey C. Koon and former Officer Timothy E. Wind.

Today, 600 National Guardsmen are expected to settle into armories around the city. And the Los Angeles Police Department will again operate on a heightened state of emergency.

But yesterday was a time for celebration and prayer. Yet even this brief holiday interlude was dominated by the jury's deliberations and the potential impact of its verdict.

At the 73rd Easter Sunrise Service at the Hollywood Bowl, thousands arrived in the pre-dawn darkness carrying blankets and coats and jugs filled with coffee and hot chocolate.

They listened to eight choirs. They watched the sun rise over the Hollywood Hills. And they heard Dr. Kenneth C. Ulmer, pastor of the Faithful Central Missionary Baptist Church, say "We need unity in a city that is strangling with fear."

As hundreds of homeless men lined up for Easter supper at a nearby mission, Cardinal Roger Mahoney told worshipers at the downtown St. Vibiana's Cathedral to remain calm.

"What is the most effective way for you and I, members of the Southern California community, to bring that same message of hope and peace to this community?" he said. "Simply . . . to offer a sign of hope."

The cardinal, wearing a mitre and carrying a crozier, added, "If you bump into someone who says, 'You know, I'm so fearful, I am afraid,' speak words of comfort, consolation, hope and peace."

At the Bethel AME Church, just blocks from the epicenter of last April's rioting in South Central Los Angeles, the focus was on the resurrection of Christ, not the deliberations of a jury.

In a two-hour service, only five minutes was devoted to prayer for peace in the city.

"The mayor [Tom Bradley] has asked us to pray for peace and tranquillity," said the Rev. Cheviene Jones. "What we're going to do is pray for the mayor. The Bible says to pray for all of those in positions of authority, that they do well with us."

Some of those who attended the service said they do not expect any violence, whatever the outcome of the trial.

"I don't care what the verdict is, I don't think it will be like last time," said James Martin, a church steward. "People are calm in the community. The news media want to get things started. If we can help it -- the community and church groups -- there won't be anything."

Jay Register, 16, a junior at Glendale High School, north of downtown Los Angeles, said a second riot is unlikely because the community is still reeling from the first.

"The people down here, they saw what happened," he said. "They're trying to clean it up now. So, why would you want to go through that again?"

To ensure against another riot, 25 city churches will remain open after the verdict is announced. Church members will offer food, water, clothes and spiritual and emotional support.

"The men will leave their jobs, they will come here [Bethel AME Church], they will immediately be dispatched out to different sections of the city," said James Moss, president of the Men of Bethel AME. "We will go into the streets as Christian men and do whatever we can, to make sure no blood is shed."

For one day, at least, there was talk of peace.

At the First AME Church, it was Mr. Murray, who held his audience spellbound, who spoke of race and redemption, of "cleaning up a mess," and following "the hand of God."

"We cannot afford to lose our city," he said. "We can not afford to lose a life. We can not afford to burn things."

He was far from fatalistic. The title of his sermon: "The Fat Lady Ain't Sung Yet."

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