My latest in The Los Angeles Review of Books, an in-depth look at evangelicals’ evolving views about their foundational text, the Bible. Yet another signal that American evangelicalism is fracturing along generational and ethnic lines.
My latest in The Los Angeles Review of Books, an in-depth look at evangelicals’ evolving views about their foundational text, the Bible. Yet another signal that American evangelicalism is fracturing along generational and ethnic lines.
My latest story in Boom: A Journal of California…
Saturday mornings, as the sun rises over the master-planned streets of the city of Irvine, a fleet of dusty pickup trucks bearing peaches, carrots, tomatoes, bok choi, and other farm-fresh produce trundles into the parking lot of one of California’s largest evangelical megachurches.
Therein lies the future of American Christianity.
The farmers in the trucks set up stands for the Irvine Certified Farmers Market, staged weekly by the ninety-eight-year-old Orange County Farm Bureau. The market—the largest in Orange County—moved to the church in December 2014. Before then, the farmers had leased a shopping center parking lot across the street from the nearby University of California, Irvine, where for two decades well-heeled customers “in everything from burkhas to bikinis,” as market manager Trish Harrison put it, stocked up on produce grown on local farms. Harrison said the shopping center welcomed the market in the 1990s, when the city was half its present size. But the market grew and the city grew until “people were saying, ‘I can’t find a parking space, I’m going home.’” Merchants complained. The shopping center complained. “I knew we had to move,” Harrison told me.
The farmers couldn’t afford to move. “It’s a high-rent district, let’s be honest,” Harrison said. She tried the university. “So much bureaucracy.” She considered a nearby high school. Too small. Then, one day, Harrison thought of a parking lot that “looked like Disneyland.” The 2,100-seat space, tree-lined lot sloped gently from a fifty-acre landscaped campus of glass and steel buildings arranged around a lake, a stream, waterfalls, and a playground with a climbable Noah’s Ark and a smiling life-sized whale opening its mouth to swallow little Jonahs. The lot belonged to Mariners Church, one of the most influential evangelical megachurches in the United States, with more than 13,000 members, four worship centers in Orange County, and a network of global church partners in Kenya, Uganda, Congo, China, Egypt, Haiti, Mexico, Sri Lanka, and Germany. Harrison checked out the lot one Saturday morning and noticed something else. “They have tons of bathrooms.. . . We [wouldn’t] have to wait to pee.”
Harrison told customers that she was thinking of calling the church. “They said, ‘You will not get an appointment with them. They will not speak to you.’” Harrison called the church. A few days later, she was touring the parking lot with senior pastor Kenton Beshore and some other staff members. “You want this lot?” they asked. “I said that would be perfect. They looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do it.’ I almost fell on the floor.”
There is nothing outwardly remarkable about a farmers market in a church parking lot—not even a Southern California farmers market, with its requisite nonsectarian kaleidoscope of aging hippies, Persian soccer moms, skate punks, Vietnamese restaurateurs, immigrants in minivans, and real estate flippers in Audis. Mariners Church doesn’t profit from or proselytize at the market, although church volunteers do run a free miniature train ride for kids. What is remarkable in this scenario is the chain of events that led to Kenton Beshore’s casual “Let’s do it.” A few years ago, no one at Mariners would have seen the point of welcoming a secular institution onto its grounds. But that was before the missionaries arrived, and before Mariners, once dubbed by a Los Angeles Timesreporter “the Dallas Cowboys of churches,” began modeling itself on a thriving, social-service-oriented megachurch in a middle-class neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya. The story of that unlikely transformation—which happened to prove fortuitous for Trish Harrison and her farmers—is a California story, a story of America’s immigration bellwether showing the nation’s churches a possible path forward in a rapidly secularizing nation. “God is throwing a global party, and it’s in the southern hemisphere,” Beshore told me when I asked him about the immense changes Mariners has undergone since the day eight years ago it hired a young Kenyan pastor to help with missionary work. Actually, the global party has been coming to California for years. That an evangelical megachurch noticed and decided to throw open its doors to the multitude might give the rest of America’s beleaguered Christians something to celebrate—and emulate.
By evangelical megachurch standards, Mariners is a venerable congregation. It began in 1963 as a Bible study group in a Newport Beach tract house. The study group grew, expanded to other nearby houses, and then hired a full-time pastor in 1967. The church took its name from a local elementary school where early services were held in an auditorium. The congregation was classic Orange County—white, well-to-do, informal, fond of worship services at the beach, and prayer breakfasts with the mayor and city officials. The church remained medium-sized until 1984 when Kenton Beshore, a native Southern Californian who had arrived at Mariners six years earlier as a college pastor, was promoted to lead the church. Beshore, who at the time looked and talked like the star of a 1960s surfing film, transformed Mariners into a magnet for spiritually seeking baby boomers. The church joined other notable innovators—including Saddleback Church, also in Orange County, and Willow Creek Community Church in suburban Chicago—dubbed by a 1996Atlantic magazine story as exemplars of an emerging “Next Church” movement. These churches, super-sized with thousands of members, had experienced spectacular growth by sweeping aside fusty church traditions to make way for up-tempo music, sleek sanctuaries, and a seven-day-a-week menu of activities and programs designed, in Beshore’s words in the Atlantic, to give people “what they want.” By the early 2000s, Mariners had more than 10,000 members and a multimillion dollar budget.
It was then that Christian Mungai, born in a village in Kenya and raised near a Nairobi slum, appeared in Mariners’ 3,400-seat worship hall as part of an African gospel group called Milele. The five-year-old group, modestly successful on the African gospel circuit, was touring American churches to sing and, in Mungai’s words, help American evangelicals “learn how to do missions” in twenty-first-century Africa. Mungai had recently returned to Nairobi after earning a divinity degree at Claremont School of Theology in California. His time in America, he said, had solidified his view that many American evangelicals’ understanding of contemporary Africa was woefully out of date. “It’s a form of neocolonialism,” he said of some Americans’ approach to missionary work. “For someone to come and think they can bring the gospel and God—previous generations of Western missionaries already did that. They did their job and raised up leaders. We don’t need people coming to do that anymore. Why not support the leaders already there?”
After their concerts, Milele’s members—Mungai and three childhood friends—sat down with host pastors and urged them to shift the focus of their church’s missionary work toward supporting African-led efforts to ameliorate the continent’s problems. The message was not well received. “It’s hard for Americans to learn from other people,” Mungai said. Mariners Church was the last venue on Milele’s 2003 tour. Given the chilly reception the group had just received at nearby Saddleback Church, Mungai said he was not surprised when Mariners’ pastors politely told him they saw no need to alter their approach.
Mungai returned to Kenya discouraged but unwilling to give up. He remained in contact with American pastors and booked more concerts, including a 2004 reappearance at Mariners recorded live for a music video. As before, Milele’s music was more warmly received than its post-concert lectures.
Then, in 2006, Mungai learned that Mariners had hired a new director of international missions, a thirty-three-year-old pastor named Matt Olthoff. Mungai emailed Olthoff to ask if he’d like to meet. Later that year, the two sat down in Olthoff’s office. To Mungai’s dismay, even this new, young pastor was uninterested in pursuing partnerships with African-led Christian social-service initiatives.
Walking out of the meeting, Mungai wondered whether he was partly to blame for his lack of success. “I went in with an agenda just like the Americans do,” he said. “I needed to lead from a place of relationship.”Impulsively, he called Olthoff back and asked to meet again—no agenda, just to get to know one another.
Olthoff, it turned out, had just gone through a divorce. “I was broken, feeling isolated,” he said. Mungai, thirty-two at the time and single, was and remains an ebullient personality, with a ready smile and a head sometimes shaved, sometimes topped with finger-sized dreadlocks. Sitting in the Mariners’ campus café, Olthoff found himself telling Mungai the story of his divorce. Mungai, in turn, shared his frustrations about American missionaries.
“Who else talks like you, about a new Africa?” Olthoff asked.
Mungai mentioned the pastor of his church, a rapidly growing Nairobi megachurch called Mavuno, which had expanded in part by encouraging its members to become what the pastor, Muriithi Wanjao, called “fearless influencers of society”—people who solve local problems by harnessing the resources of the church. Mungai said he wished more American evangelicals were willing to learn what churches like Mavuno were already doing and join them in that work. “Americans offer strategy and resources,” he said. “But Africans offer a sense of resilience. They are the most resilient people in the world. They love music and culture and dance and family and community, things that in America are breaking down.” Mungai said to Olthoff: “I can help you. Come to our church and see what we’re doing.”
A few months later, Olthoff was in Nairobi. He spent time with Mungai and met Wanjao. Taken aback by the size of Mavuno Church and the number of members who had committed themselves to social service projects, Olthoff impulsively offered Mungai a job. “I’m like, what if we brought Africa to Mariners?” he recalled. “We’re always sending people to Africa. But that person would change our church forever. I remember thinking I was new on the job and I was going, ‘I don’t know how to do African ministries. Wouldn’t it make sense to bring someone who knows the culture? Wouldn’t that make sense? Maybe this is crazy.’”
Mungai said yes. “I literally went home and cried,” he said.
Mungai started work at Mariners in November 2007 as coordinator of missions to Africa. Soon after, Muriithi Wanjao, pastor of Mavuno Church, invited Kenton Beshore and other senior Mariners leaders to visit Kenya and learn more about how Mavuno worked. A group of Mariners pastors, including Kenton Beshore and his wife, Laurie, traveled to Nairobi in early 2008. Arriving amid widespread violence following a contested election, the pastors were as struck as Olthoff had been by Mavuno’s size, rapid growth, and level of spiritual commitment. They were even more surprised when the Kenyan pastors delivered a blunt lecture about the changing power dynamics in global Christianity. “Churches in the western hemisphere are dying,” one of the pastors said. “But in the global south they are growing. Shouldn’t it be that we should be the ones sending people your way and revitalizing your churches? Your world is post-Christian. We are growing.”
Oscar Muriu, the Kenyan pastor who delivered that message, was in fact not from Mavuno, but rather was the leader of another even larger church called Nairobi Chapel, which had spun off Mavuno as one of numerous start-up congregations a few years earlier. Beshore and the other Mariners pastors realized that the megachurch they had come to visit, growing faster than their own, was just a small part of an even larger and more rapidly growing Christian network.
“Kenton felt like Oscar slapped him,” Mungai recalled. “He says to me, ‘I have never heard anything like this.’” The Mariners pastors attended raucous worship services at Mavuno. They met church members who had started a micro-finance loan network in a nearby slum. Beshore said he realized Mavuno thrived not by giving its members what they wanted, but by demanding from them a total commitment to Christian life, especially Jesus’ call to serve others. “They have things we don’t have,” Beshore told me. “They’re killing it doing what they’re doing.” At the end of the visit, Beshore invited Muriu to come to Mariners to show him how to make his church more like Mavuno. “It’s so arrogant to say we’re the best country in the world,” he said. “It’s so unattractive. And it’s not true.”
Beshore’s—and Muriu’s—assessment of global Christianity is correct. Roughly 60 percent of the world’s Christians now live in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, according to a recent Pew Research Center analysis of the world’s religious populations.1 That share is forecast to grow to nearly three-quarters by 2050. Meanwhile, in the United States, Christianity is steadily contracting. Just two-thirds of Americans are expected to be Christian in 2050, with a quarter of the nation claiming no religious affiliation at all. Already 35 percent of Americans born after 1980 are nonreligious. The unchurched are America’s fastest growing religious demographic.2
American Christianity is changing as it shrinks. Smaller, older churches, especially those affiliated with once-dominant Protestant denominations such as the Southern Baptists and various Presbyterian groups are struggling. Catholic dioceses in the Northeast and Midwest are closing parishes and schools. Only two kinds of churches continue to grow: those that attract immigrants, such as Pentecostal congregations and Catholic parishes in the Southwest; and megachurches, whose big budgets and robust programming have drawn Christians fleeing smaller, dying congregations. Studies by Leadership Network, an evangelical research organization specializing in large churches, show that over the past decade megachurches have grown and remained financially stable even as smaller churches shrink and struggle to make their budgets.3
The trend toward consolidation has been good for megachurches but not for Christianity as a whole. Megachurches have proven adept at wooing Christians dissatisfied with traditional forms of religious expression. But like evangelicalism itself, megachurches mostly have not adapted to America’s rapidly changing demographics and cultural mores. More than four-fifths of megachurches are majority white, according to a 2011 Leadership Network study.4 Hispanics and Asians—America’s fastest-growing demographic groups—are underrepresented in American evangelicalism by wide margins.5 Millennials are the least likely of any age group to be Christian.6
At a time when America and Christianity are globalizing, most evangelical churches are organized to meet the needs of an older, whiter population that, in a few decades, will no longer be the American majority. “The West has the money, but the numbers are in the non-west. That’s our context,” said Ryan Bolger, professor of intercultural studies at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena.
A decade ago, Mariners Church was mostly indistinguishable from America’s other successful megachurches. The budget was big, the programming was robust, the worship services were high-tech, and the congregation was mostly white and financially well-off. Mariners differed from other megachurches in supporting a robust array of local community service initiatives both at the church and in four church-run community centers in low-income areas of Orange County. The initiatives were largely overseen by Laurie Beshore, wife of Kenton, the senior pastor. They were popular in the congregation but not central to the church’s agenda. “The irony is, my husband doesn’t have a big heart for the poor in the community,” Laurie told me. She meant Kenton’s focus at the time was on bringing people to Jesus, not solving Orange County’s economic problems.
When Oscar Muriu arrived at Mariners with several other pastors from Nairobi, he brought with him an approach to Christianity that is difficult to categorize in American terms. According to historian Philip Jenkins, who has written extensively about the global shift in Christianity’s center of gravity, African Christians combine beliefs and practices that straddle—and sometimes transcend—Western churches’ often debilitating divide between liberalism and conservatism.7
African Christians have supported repressive anti-homosexuality laws in Uganda and practiced forms of spiritual healing that, to Western observers, verge on witchcraft. But churches in Africa also have played prominent roles in struggles against colonialism, and they continue to view themselves as engines of social and economic development for their communities. The unifying thread is their wholehearted response to the Bible—to Scripture’s traditional sexual mores, its call to redeem the world, and its assumption that God is powerfully active in everyday life. That unreserved embrace of faith as a means of both personal and social liberation has contributed to explosive growth in non-Western churches.
While visiting Mariners, Oscar Muriu immediately asked why the church’s community outreach initiatives were not center-stage. “Why do you have Laurie where you have her?” he said, referring to Laurie Beshore’s social service ministry. “She should do things at an all-church level.” (Laurie now serves as a senior pastor alongside her husband.) Muriu preached at Mariners’ weekend services, telling the assembled Orange Countians what he had told Kenton Beshore in Nairobi: “There’s a global party, and the American church has not been invited.” Beshore warned the congregation to expect changes. “I want to be part of this global party,” he said. “I don’t want to be left behind.” Muriu received a standing ovation.
Change in the church world, especially at large churches, is generally slow. Churches are inherently conservative institutions, run by governing boards of longstanding members often wary of innovation. By these standards, the changes at Mariners following the arrival of Christian Mungai have been rapid and far-reaching. A year after Muriu’s first visit, Mariners implemented a spiritual development program pioneered by Mavuno Church called Mzizi, a Swahili word meaning “rooted.” For ten weeks, Mariners members met weekly in small groups to help one another discern how they were being called by God to serve their community. The goal was not simply to produce a new crop of soup kitchen volunteers. Mungai said Mariners wanted its members to “become known for their radical generosity. You give and there are no strings attached to people who never give to you or don’t have an ability to give to you. We want people to say, ‘I’m a fearless influencer of society wherever I am.’”
The church began offering no-strings-attached money and volunteers to local nonreligious service organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, a local public continuation high school, and a nonprofit called Women Helping Women that helps formerly drug-addicted or incarcerated women find jobs. Two Mariners members, one a former Muslim, formed a group to visit local mosques and forge ties with Muslims. The group helped to stage a series of forums about Islam at Mariners and at a mosque in Mission Viejo. Mariners then partnered with mosque members to feed the homeless in downtown Santa Ana. When the pastor of Templo Calvario, a Spanish-language megachurch in Santa Ana, asked Laurie Beshore if she and Kenton would consider joining a national group of evangelicals to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform, the Beshores said yes, breaking a longstanding vow Kenton had made to himself to keep Mariners out of political debates. “It’s a dangerous subject, no doubt about it,” Laurie told me. But conversations with the Kenyans had changed the Beshores’ view of advocacy work. “Our strategy is to serve, starting with the poor, the marginalized, and the forgotten,” Kenton said. “In this church, there are lots of wealthy people. I tell them, ‘You need the poor more than the poor need you. You’re poor in spirit.’ People who come to this church think money and power is the solution to everything in this world. Jesus said by being willing to get down and serve, you’re transformed.”
Mungai began taking groups of Mariners members to visit Mavuno Church. Some were initially confused when Mungai told them they would not be bringing money, food, school supplies, or any of the other donation items typically offered by American evangelicals traveling to Africa. “I had to say, ‘This is not just what you’re going to do. You have to ask what is God going to do in you?’” The Mariners visitors attended services at Mavuno, learned how the church worked, and met laypeople who had started successful community service initiatives. Bob Drobish, a technology startup CEO and member of Mariners’ board of elders, recalled his surprise meeting Daisy Waimiri, a Mavuno member and mother of three who had started a thriving community-based micro-loan program in Kibera, Nairobi’s—and Africa’s—largest urban slum.
“Isn’t she a force of nature?” Drobish said of Waimiri. The loan program, called Maono (“Vision”), grouped local businesspeople—hairdressers, coal sellers, sweepers—into accountability groups who borrowed and repaid collective loans together. Waimiri said she conceived of the program after attending Mavuno’s Mzizi classes. “My church has this thing. . . they take you through trainings, and at the end they expect you to go to the community and do something,” she told me via Skype. Waimiri’s first investor was her husband. When she met Drobish, she told him she needed more investors to expand the initiative. Five years later, with help from Drobish and other Mariners’ members, Maono has loaned roughly $100,000 to more than one thousand businesspeople in Kibera. “They haven’t imposed anything on us,” Waimiri said of her Mariners partners. “They don’t tell us what to do. Even when they give the money they say, ‘You’re on the ground, you know better.’ Which is very rare with Western donors.”
Robyn Williams, a forty-three-year-old former corporate publicist who attended Mariners as a child, said she remembered returning to the church after college in the 1990s and thinking, “Everyone here drives a Mercedes. . . they’re not really doing much for the poor.” Williams was one of thousands of Mariners members who signed up for the Rooted spiritual development program, inspired by Mavuno Church’s Mzizi program. In her Rooted meetings in 2011, Williams began “exploring what has God created me to do and how am I going to make an impact on other people’s lives in the community?” She joined Christian Mungai on one of his trips to Nairobi, where she met a Mavuno member named Ken Oloo, a marketing executive who had helped children living in Kibera earn money as videographers by supplying cameras and teaching the children how to use them. Suddenly, Williams said, her work for a mid-sized Orange County public relations company seemed disconnected from social justice by comparison.
Returning home from the Nairobi trip, Williams began looking for a new job. Through a banking client, she met the CEO of Women Helping Women. A few months later, Williams was hired as the nonprofit’s program director, working longer hours for less money but feeling “at the end of the day, what brings me the most joy and reward is that I’m making a difference and helping someone else become who God created them to be.” She has returned several times to Nairobi, where she says she now hopes one day to start an equivalent of Women Helping Women. Earlier this year, Williams was in the Women Helping Women booth at a clinic in Anaheim where mostly Muslim refugees from Syria and Iraq were offered free medical care and job assistance. The clinic was a partnership between Mariners and an Anaheim Arabic-language church. “My friends tease me and say I’m half Kenyan,” Williams said. “What’s exciting is, it’s not just happening in Nairobi. It’s happening in Newport Beach.”
Encouraged by the results of exchanges between Mariners and Mavuno, Mungai sought out other international church partners. Those partnerships—now with nine churches on three continents—are not structured like traditional missionary relationships. Mariners’ members visit partner churches and help with local service initiatives. But the partner churches also send members to Mariners. A residency program Mungai started two years ago invites pastors of partner churches to live and work at Mariners for one year, mostly for the purpose of broadening Mariners’ international perspective. It was one of those visiting clergy residents, a Mexican pastor named Daniel Nuñez from a church near Tijuana, who happened to remark one day last year, “I can’t believe the grass at Mariners is always so green.”
Puzzled, Mungai asked what Nuñez meant.
Nuñez said that in Mexico, no church lawn stays green for long because it is always being trampled by “people playing, eating. and doing community.”
Mungai gazed with embarrassment at Mariners’ immaculately landscaped grounds. “What he was saying is that to have green grass means it’s not being used,” Mungai said, “Whereas to us it means beauty. It’s a totally different mindset. We realized we have to use our campus for community.”
Not long after that exchange, Trish Harrison from the Irvine farmers market called looking for a parking lot.
Mariners has lost some members since it began its Nairobi-inspired transformation. Volunteers have left the missionary program because “they’ve resisted working alongside African leaders. They want to be the leaders,” Mungai told me. Kenton Beshore said “a few hundred people” walked out of the church when an evangelical immigration-reform activist was invited to preach. Three years ago, when Beshore and other Mariners pastors joined the national evangelical immigration-reform movement, enough Mariners members withdrew financial pledges that the church ended the year with a $500,000 budget shortfall.
And yet, the changes continued. Today, bolstered by new members offsetting the departures, Mariners is larger and more ethnically diverse than it was a decade ago. (The church does not track the ethnic identity of members. Pastors I spoke to estimated the church’s nonwhite population at anywhere from 20 percent to 35 percent of the congregation.) Church staff members speak Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and Swahili. Mariners remains a leading partner in the Evangelical Immigration Table, a national coalition of evangelical churches and para-church organizations advocating comprehensive immigration reform. “We got crazy tight Republicans to change their views,” Beshore told me. While volunteering at Mariners’ outreach centers, “They get involved with kids and the kids grow up and their parents get deported and they say, ‘This isn’t right.’ They’ve had a change in their world view.”
It is a change that could happen anywhere in America but was most likely to happen in California. Orange County today, like neighboring Los Angeles and California’s other major immigrant landing zones, is a spiritual gazetteer, one of the most religiously diverse places on Earth. The county is home to one of America’s fastest growing Catholic dioceses, where three-quarters of parishes celebrate at least one mass in a language other than English; one of the nation’s largest mosques; Buddhist temples and a Buddhist university; Korean- and Spanish-language megachurches; and a predominantly Asian megachurch, called NewSong in Irvine, started by a half-Korean pastor who envisioned a Christian community that transcended race entirely. The ideas brought by Mungai and his mentors from Nairobi felt revolutionary when they arrived. But, really, they were inevitable. What historian Philip Jenkins calls the “Next Christendom” has been taking shape in Orange County for years. The Kenyans simply helped the rich, white Christians at Mariners Church wake up to their new demographic reality.
Now it is Mariners’ turn to help. Three times each year, the church hosts a conference teaching other congregations how to implement their own Mzizi spiritual development programs. To date, roughly fifty churches, some from Southern California, others from as far away as Wyoming, have attended the conference. Mariners’ partner churches abroad also have adopted Mzizi programs. Last year, inspired by Mariners’ example, Concordia University, a conservative Lutheran college in Irvine, began hosting annual gatherings of international clergy and scholars to teach students how to minister in a globalizing America. Christian Mungai, Pastor Wanjau from Mavuno Church, and historian Philip Jenkins headlined the inaugural gathering. This year, speakers included the director of research for the Southern Baptist Convention, the pastor of one of Orange County’s largest African American churches and the director of faith formation for the Catholic Diocese of Orange.
“Our engagement with the global south has taught us that we don’t have all the answers, that there’s much to be offered by the rest of the world,” Mungai said. “It’s not from west to east. It’s from everywhere to everywhere.. . . The vision for the church starts with the vision of a lost world, and the church is not for the church but for the world.. . . The Kenyan way of looking at discipleship is a lifelong process. It’s not a few weeks and you’re done. It’s a whole life transformation.”
Photographs by Matt Gush.
1 Pew Research Center, “The Future of World Religions: Population Growth Projections, 2010–2050,” 2 April 2015.
2 Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 12 May 2015.
3 Warren Bird and Scott Thumma, “A New Decade of Megachurches: 2011 Profile of Large Attendance Churches in the United States,” Leadership Network, 2011; Warren Bird, “The Economic Outlook of Very Large Churches: Trends Driving the Budgets and Staffing Activities of North America’s Biggest Congregations,” Leadership Network, 2013.
4 Bird and Thumma, “A New Decade of Megachurches,” 7.
5 America’s evangelical population is 76 percent white, 6 percent black, 2 percent Asian, and 11 percent Hispanic (Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 52). By comparison, according to the U.S. Census, the United States as a whole is 62 percent white, 13 percent black, 5 percent Asian, and 17 percent Hispanic.
6 Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” 70.
Ten years ago, I covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans for the New York Post. I spent more than a week in the city, interviewing survivors, witnessing damage, seeing dead bodies, sometimes paddling in abandoned boats to get to flooded areas. Stories for the Post, obviously, are written in a particular style. When I returned home, shaken by what I had seen, I wrote about my experience in my own style. These words are 10 years old now. But they are still vividly present. This is what it was like to be there.
A human body, left dead in the sun, makes more of itself. Heat expands air in the organs, distending the stomach and enlarging the limbs. Swollen skin tightens, dulling to a waxy sheen. Fingernails protrude in bullet-shaped pieces of amber. The face, once lithe with animation, puffs, staring. It is larger—the entire body is larger—but the growth is denaturing, a sign of loss, not gain. Whatever personhood once animated this piece of creation has drained away, leaving only a silhouette of dark liquid staining the pavement.
I learned all of this in the city of New Orleans, during the days I spent there covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina as a newspaper reporter. I saw my first dead body a few hours after arriving, then saw them continuously, several per day. When I could—when they weren’t floating or wedged in a high window or trapped in a flooded school kitchen—I knelt beside those bodies, examining their faces, searching for remnants of the life that had lit them. Their expressions, mostly, were neutral, as if death had come as a passerby, unremarkable. Their limbs, though, were not relaxed, but stiff, even braced. Next to some were hand-lettered signs: “THIS PERSON DIED HERE.” One was draped in a blanket. Another wore a gold watch and chains. All were alone, and several remained, unclaimed, two days, three days, a week after I found them. They became for me quintessential signs of a city extinguished. Forgotten, as if the person they once embodied had never existed—never been born, never died.
I was at my desk in the Brooklyn courthouse when the phone rang. It was my editor. “Can you be on a plane to New Orleans this afternoon?”
“Um,” I said. It was Tuesday, two days after the hurricane. I was a reporter for the New York Post, covering courts. The Post had sent a reporter and photographer to New Orleans, but they had detoured to Biloxi, thinking, as the rest of the nation did at first, that damage was greatest there. They were now stranded somewhere in the Mississippi delta. National Guard trucks had sloshed water over the hood of their SUV, shorting it out. Would I be willing to replace them?
I thought for a moment of my father. He had graduated from Louisiana State University and worked one of his first newspaper jobs at the Times Picayune. He had spoken often and nostalgically of New Orleans. I had never been there. But the city’s saturated American character, its gauzy, sultry habits, were etched as an imperishable fact in my memory.
“Yes, sure,” I said. “Let me call my wife.”
Summer days dawn gently in the Mississippi delta. Sun filters through oaks and mosquitoes trace lazy circles in the shade. The air, thickening with heat and moisture, muffles noise and stills the will. It is a gracious, decadent season. The hurricane upended it. Wind stripped the trees or felled them altogether. Leaves carpeted the streets, piling against porches, settling into ragged holes left by uprooted trunks. The sun burned with autumnal sharpness. I was reminded of the high Sierra, where glacial basins and whitebark pines brood in isolation. The whole city felt isolated — streets emptied of people, clocks stopped, buildings moldering in trackless time. The river rolled past on its way somewhere else. Sunsets dwarfed the horizon. At night, in total darkness, stars carpeted the sky.
I met my photographer, Matthew McDermott, an ebullient, moody mountain of a man, at the Baton Rouge airport. He had just returned from a photo assignment in Africa. “Ready to rock and roll?” he asked me, slapping a pack of cigarettes against his palm.
We rented a red Ford Explorer and stopped at a Rite Aid, two Wal-Marts and an auto supply store, where we bought water, Gatorade, energy bars, canned spaghetti, nuts and (my contribution, greeted with utter bewilderment) soy milk. I took from a shelf Wal-Mart’s last pair of rubber wading boots. We bought bug repellent. At the auto parts store, Matt plucked from one aisle a flashing orange emergency light that affixed magnetically to the car roof. “This,” he said with satisfaction, “will get us in.” To his disappointment, Wal-Mart was out of guns.
Matt knew a photographer in New Orleans named Tom, whose house, in the Algiers neighborhood directly across the river from downtown, was intact. We would head there, Matt said. We drove onto a traffic-clogged highway and soon were gliding through the Louisiana countryside. We passed vine-choked forests, oil refineries and sugarcane fields bristling in late afternoon heat. Warm, wet wind blew in the windows. It began to rain, and I saw a dead dog at the side of the road, its legs in the air, then a girl skipping down the highway. A sign on an empty bar by a riverbank read, “Katrina aftermath party!” On the radio, a doctor called from the roof of University Hospital in New Orleans, where 200 patients were trapped. “There’s sewage flowing through the hospital,” he said.
At a Shop Rite gas station at the intersection of state highways 1 and 182, owners had locked themselves inside and were requiring customers to hand twenty dollar bills through a crack in the door. A line of cars snaked away from the pumps. Seven children huddled in the bed of a sagging pickup. While we waited in line, a man with Jheri-curled hair and a Budweiser in each hand ambled over and asked where we were going. “If you have a gun, use it,” he said when we told him.
We turned on our emergency light and, as Matt had predicted, were waved through a police checkpoint at an interstate. Beyond, the highway was empty, darkening in approaching night. Occasional caravans of police cars passed—but always away from the city. Soon they stopped and we were alone, our headlights swirling with a snowfall of insects, the woods resounding with croakings and buzzings.
The outskirts of New Orleans appeared, empty convenience stores, gas stations and restaurants. The highway lifted onto stilts and we took the exit for Algiers. At the bottom of the off-ramp, branches, leaves and pools of water showed in the headlights. Somewhere to the left, fire burned. “Stop for no one,” Matt said. It took us some time to find Tom’s house—streets were blocked by trees or downed power lines. Finally we pulled up to a two-story craftsman bungalow 500 yards from the river. The windows were boarded. A few doors down, a house had been reduced to splinters.
We unloaded the Explorer and felt our way into Tom’s house, up a flight of stairs, past a small shrine of Buddhist statuary, through a kitchen that smelled of cigarette smoke and rotting food, and into a stifling, pitch-black living room. Tom had spent his youth in Tibet and was now writing a biography of the Dalai Lama. Other photographers camping at his house were asleep. I found a sofa and lay down. A short while later, the house shook with a series of rolling booms. Everyone fumbled outside in their underwear and clambered atop a nearby levy. A chemical warehouse was exploding downriver, sending jets of flame into the sky. We stood and watched in silence as more explosions rocked the empty city. Then we walked back to the house and waited for morning.
New Orleans follows the curve of the Mississippi, as if leaning or surrendering into it. Streets twist with the banks, curling the city into a shell that spirals ever more tightly about itself. For most visitors, the center of that spiral is the blend of food, jazz, partying and well-groomed Southern living that expresses the city’s persona. During my two weeks in New Orleans I did not encounter that persona. Nearly empty of people, devoid of lifestyle, drowned, the city presented itself as pure geography, differentiated only by random, derelict landmarks. I remember one remote harbor canal for the metal warehouse where a hook, blown by wind, banged ceaselessly against a metal wall. Highways mattered only to the extent that they were above or below water—they rose and fell like sea creatures. A purportedly dangerous neighborhood to the north of downtown distinguished itself by the stagnant pool we had to cross to reach it. The pool was deep and had already stalled a few police cars. Beyond ran a wide, four-lane boulevard bisected by a grassy median and lined with charred storefronts, motels converted into camps and smashed cars. I named what I later learned was the Garden District the nursery. Its graceful, largely untouched homes (built on higher ground) were nevertheless surrounded by detritus blown from trees—like the nursery of a spoiled child, I thought, who has thrown a fit and wrecked his toys.
I awoke in darkness. The heat, trapped at night behind the sealed windows and doors of Tom’s house, had abated somewhat. I picked my way outside over cans, bottles, clothes and expended candles. Matt was already up, and we loaded the Explorer with food, water, Gatorade, cameras, rubber boots, his cigarettes and my backpack. Algiers links to downtown New Orleans via the I-90 bridge over the Mississippi, a solid yet graceful cantilevered steel arch. We drove onto the bridge past a checkpoint of lounging state troopers (the flashing orange light again) and stopped at the apex, where we had our first look at the ruined city. It appeared blue—sky reflecting in water. Then we saw fires—the chemical factory, still burning, and another fire downtown. A vast dome of smoke drifted north, partly obscuring military helicopters taking off and landing from the Superdome parking lot. Below, a crowd swarmed in and out of the Convention Center amid a confetti of garbage and debris.
We drove on and passed freeway encampments on hot pavement, women cradling babies, a man barbecuing in a trash can, wheelchairs. “We’re glad y’all are here!” someone shouted. We followed a National Guard caravan to the Convention Center, where the air smelled of urine, beer and sweat. A man was crushing glass bottles in a parking lot with his bare foot. A woman wearing two left shoes said to me, “I lost my last dollar yesterday.” A 72-year-old man named Roynell Joshua, seated by the curb, pillow at his back, legs thin as baseball bats propped on a banquet chair, flagged me down. He wore a collared shirt and cracked leather shoes. He had hung a faded fedora on his chair arm. “I’m old,” he said. Someone reached behind to help him up. “No! No! No!” he shouted. As he settled back, his pants slipped, showing green underwear. The odor of tuna, inexplicably, drifted past.
Soldiers, for reasons they wouldn’t explain, began clearing the street. The crowd slowly moved, but Roynell remained, patiently, almost laboriously, telling his story. He and his wife, Joyce, had lived in New Orleans East, where waters rose fast. They had climbed out a window to a boat, which took them to the I-10 freeway. There trucks arrived to ferry them downtown. Boarding, he and Joyce had somehow become separated. “I’m kind of worried about her,” he said. The guards tried to lift Roynell. He protested, then reluctantly, shakily rose, his pants slipping again. Grabbing them, he lost his balance and sat down. “This is the kind of help we get?” someone cried. More guards gathered and cradled Roynell in their arms. He wobbled between them, jerking a hand from their shoulders to his pants. Finally they sat him in a broken office chair with three wheels and scooted him across the street. I followed, but the crowd surged and I lost him.
A city is like a body. Left dead in the sun, it becomes unrecognizable. Whatever personhood it expressed vanishes. This is hard to understand because cities, like bodies, like our own bodies, seem permanent. At least in the moments we experience them, their identities, the life that animates and differentiates them, appears fixed, inhered as if by right, outside time. I grew up in Los Angeles, and to me, Los Angeles feels a certain way, expresses a certain personality different from other cities. Now I live in New York and I sense that personality in neighborhoods, on streets—this street feels alive, that street is rich, that neighborhood, the one with the cobblestones nearly swallowed in asphalt, reeks of old New York and Clipper ships and scampering boys. My natural assumption is that these identities, these feelings exuded by cities and their parts, pre-exist me, are there to be encountered. They were there before I arrived, they will be there when I leave. They are.
In New Orleans I discovered this is not true. The personhood of cities, I learned, is made up moment by moment. It is the sum of the actions and intentions, the desires and aspirations, of the people who inhabit a place. Take the people away, cover the streets with a thin layer of water, and the personhood vanishes. In Los Angeles, when I was in high school, I sometimes drove home from concerts late at night. The freeways were nearly empty, and, speeding along, I often felt a temptation to weave madly across the lanes. In New Orleans, the freeways were always empty, and so we drove wherever we chose, weaving across lanes, jumping medians, speeding up off-ramps or waiting with fascination while a helicopter landed, unloaded drinking water and rose into the air like a heavy-winged bird. At night, when rescue workers had left, we were sometimes the only thing moving on an entire stretch of highway. Wet wind flapped through the windows and we passed remnants of others’ joyriding expeditions—wrecked cars crumpled against retaining walls, their engines ripped out, their tires slashed, their sides streaked with graffiti. I felt resentment when New Orleans began filling up again, about a week after we arrived, with reporters and more rescue volunteers and visiting politicians. The freeways, my freeways, grew crowded. Lane directions were enforced. Helicopters stopped landing. A new personhood, like a skein of ice melting and then reforming over a pond, took shape in New Orleans. To last, or not last, as long as the newcomers willed.
Three days after arriving in New Orleans, we drove to New Orleans East, the neighborhood reached by crossing the deep pool of water. There, just past a bridge over a shipping canal, on a street called Chef Menteur Highway, we came to a motel with a sign reading, “The Friendly Inn.” Across a driveway leading to the motel’s flooded courtyard someone had erected a barricade of shopping carts, bed frames and a piece of plywood spray-painted with the words, “WARNING: GAURD.” We stopped the Explorer and approached the barricade, where a few men, one bare-chested, eyed us suspiciously. Behind them, water lapped in and out of lower story rooms, faces peered from upstairs windows and dogs paced and moaned on a balcony. We introduced ourselves as journalists and the men relaxed.
“We’re just surviving, that’s it,” said the bare-chested man, whose name was Danny Phillips. “We’ve got a little community going on here. We’re taking care of each other.” Phillips said he had ridden out the storm on the bottom floor of the motel, where he had been paying weekly rent to live. “It came up to my chest and I got out and went upstairs.” Other residents had joined him up there, and the tiny community began venturing out to a nearby Winn-Dixie market to loot food and supplies, which they kept in rooms stacked with soup, chili, water and candy.
A large man in a red baseball cap and sweaty blue t-shirt—his name was Robert Rickman, but he told me to call him Tiny—said he and the others had been wary of us because earlier that morning police had engaged in a gun battle with six drug dealers who had fled into the courtyard. One of the dealers was shot and killed at the entrance. The others fled. Tiny showed me a red stain on the driveway surrounded by shell casings and a few tubes of lip balm—fallen from the dealer’s pockets, he said. He pointed across the street to a large Econo-Lodge and explained that it had become a haven for drug dealers and users, who had amassed a large stockpile of narcotics. Once, he said, a man apparently hallucinating ran across the street, jumped in the Friendly Inn’s courtyard lake and began swimming.
A man named John Hickey ambled over. Tall and courtly, Hickey had outfitted himself in surgical scrubs and a pair of plastic bags wrapped around his legs. He told me he didn’t know where his family was—his daughter, his granddaughter and his sister, who had lived on the ground floor of a flooded housing project. “We’re 50 percent black, 50 percent white, and no racial tensions here,” he said. “We all get along.”
A man named Darrell Perkins chimed in, “The name of the motel held true. We just decided to get together because we knew we had to survive. … Most of us are from the old school. Survival instincts kicked in. Everyone has to eat.” He pointed to a second story room. “Miss Anne and her husband. She’s 61 and we’re making it comfortable for her. I was going to get ice and I cut my leg and split it open. John got his Neosporin.”
“It’s been that kind of thing,” said Hickey. He paused, then said, “Can you put my name out there so my brother and sister and grandchild know I’m okay? Let them know John’s still at the Friendly Inn and let them know he’s okay?”
“Can you do that for Darrell Perkins, too?” Perkins asked. I said I would and, before Matt and I left, the men insisted we stand for a group photo to prove they had been interviewed by journalists from New York. Then they suggested we go to the Winn-Dixie down the street, where a few other people had started a small community.
We got back in the Explorer and drove to the market, a wide, low-slung building gleaming in the hot, bright sun. A pair of sliding glass entry doors was open and we ventured into a vast, cool, fluorescent-lit interior. An emergency generator had apparently turned on and was still powering lights and air conditioning. The smell of rotting meat hung in the air. Helium balloons bobbed against the ceiling. “Get well soon!” one read. In the produce section someone had split open a box of Apple Jacks cereal and ground it to powder on the tile. Elsewhere the floor was slick with tomatoes. Most of the fruit was gone, except for a large table stacked with furry plums. A deli bin tottered with drooping wedges of gourmet cheese and boxes of Monet Elegant Table Crackers. Bread, potato chips, crackers, grits, instant coffee, jam, pickles, canned soup and vegetables, diapers, cooking utensils, baby formula, toilet paper and magazines were mostly gone. Wine, hard liquor, candy, cereal, syrup, frozen food and a row of milk separated into white solids and clear liquid remained. Near the front, a rack was filled with copies of the Times Picayune. “Katrina Takes Aim,” read the headline.
To our disappointment, the store appeared uninhabited. But as we walked back toward the door, we heard a noise. Someone had emerged from an office in the rear of the store and was approaching. She drew nearer and we recognized Connie Conway, a woman we had met the day before at a gas station. There, she had been perched atop a shopping cart piled with luggage (clothes, a suitcase full of soda and two paddles), waiting for her brother, who was rooting around in the station’s cash register. She seemed not the least surprised to see us in the market and commenced talking as if our conversation had been interrupted by only a few moments.
“I want to get out” of the city, she said. But her brother wanted to stay, and so they were camped on mattresses in the manager’s office. The proximity to food was nice, she said, but the air stank, forcing her outside “every now and then” for fresh air. The bathrooms, too, had turned “nasty”—she, her brother and his wife were using a bucket with bleach in it. “I’m not getting much sleep,” she said. “We watch DVDs” on a television in the office. “We watched three movies last night.” Suddenly, she urged us to leave. Her brother was in a bad mood and might become violent if he found us.
Five months after Katrina, I returned to New Orleans to report a magazine story. While there, I drove to the Gentilly neighborhood northeast of downtown. In September, Gentilly had been under several feet of water, inaccessible to all but rescue workers with boats. Getting aboard one of those boats was tricky—government officials generally shooed reporters away. Desperate to penetrate the silence of a deeply flooded neighborhood, Matt and I had come across an abandoned fishing boat washed up against a freeway on-ramp. The boat had been stripped of its motor, but a wooden paddle lay in a pool of fetid water in the hull. Matt sat on a swiveling fishing chair near the prow while I pushed off and paddled into a serene, rippling lake—the intersection where the freeway on-ramp and off-ramp connected with surrounding streets. Poking through the water at about eye level was a large Chevron gas station sign. Below, gas pumps wavered in the murky depths.
It was in Gentilly that we talked to a man named Warren Reckser, a genial hotel bellhop who sat with four rottweilers on a raised porch washed by boat wakes. “I’m going to stay here till I clean up,” he said, dismissing National Guard orders to leave with a wave of his hand. “I have to take the rugs outside my house. Do you have any double-A batteries? I need some for my TV.” We also welcomed aboard a man wearing a bus driver uniform whose power boat engine had stalled, leaving him drifting tantalizingly close to the freeway. “These people are crazy out here!” he had shouted as he clambered in. “They’ll hunt you!”
Mostly, though, I remember Gentilly for what we found at the top of that freeway on-ramp. Lying against a concrete retaining wall, near where the on-ramp and the freeway formed a V at their meeting, was the body of an elderly man, uncovered, his stomach distended to the circumference of a beach ball. He wore a gold medallion around his neck and a gold watch and two gold chains on his left wrist. Someone had wedged a flowered pillow under his head. A metal folding chair lay on its side next to him. A short distance away was a patch of graffiti: “8/30/05 RIP S.B.P.”
By the time I returned to New Orleans in February, I had spent many nights thinking about S.B.P., worrying about his soul, wondering what his last moments were like. His body had not been moved the day I left New Orleans, which means he had waited more than a week for cremation or burial. Days and days in that hot, relentless sun. Where did he end up, I wondered? What happened to the watch and chains? The pillow? Did the presence of the pillow indicate that someone had sat with him while he died? Or had he wedged it under his own head before sinking into a frightened, painful sleep?
Driving back from the Friendly Inn, we passed a man and a boy standing beside an abandoned mail truck on the highway. The truck was wrecked, and on its side someone had spray painted, “THUG LIFE. BLACK POWER. FUCK DA CITY WHITE BITCHES.” The man, short and grizzled, wore a tennis shoe on one foot and a plastic sandal on the other. He told me his name was Hurey Esteen, 62 years old. The boy, Uri, was his 13-year-old great-grand-nephew. While we talked, Uri poked through looted merchandise strewn inside the truck.
“Me and him been holding on by our fingertips,” Esteen said. The two had stayed behind in New Orleans “to take care of the animals.” They had narrowly escaped drowning when Hurey used a rope to pull both of them from rising flood waters. “Me and him are the last two. The women are gone. The sissified men are gone. We should have left, too.” He narrowed his eyes at Uri. “For a child, he ain’t shit. I love him. I don’t like him too much.”
Uri, a scrawny boy wearing shorts and high top sneakers with no socks, climbed out of the truck holding something in his hand. It was a lighter. He flipped it open and a music-box tune played as the flame appeared. “I don’t miss going to school,” he said. “I get to eat chips and junk food.”
He climbed back into the truck. Esteen, rooting around for another shoe, grunted, “This ain’t nothing. He’s on the retarded side. God will take care of him. But I know him. He just aggravates me so much. He wants to go to the Special Olympics and run track. He could run all day and never get tired. He’s had a lot of fun but he doesn’t know the danger we were in. … We sleep on the street. We found some pillows floating, something soft so you can lie on your side. I’ve been trying to keep him comfortable. I slept two nights on a chair to keep an eye on him. This lets me know how the homeless feel.”
Esteen, who had failed to locate a shoe, heaved himself up from the guard rail and leaned into the truck. “C’mon Uri, let’s get off the highway.” The boy leaped down and the two walked away, toward an off-ramp. Uri flicked the lighter as they went.
The next day my editor called. Somehow, John Hickey’s sister had seen my story about the Friendly Inn on the internet and called the Post newsroom. Get back there, my editor said. Let’s put these two in touch. Matt and I drove through the deep puddle, over the shipping canal bridge and stopped at the motel driveway. The courtyard was empty. The barricade had been knocked down and a toy boat floated in the water. Upstairs, a pit bull paced the balcony and barked. Matt climbed to the second story and shouted that the rooms were empty, still stocked with food. He opened a can of Chef-Boy-R-Dee ravioli and fed the pit bull. A small dog emerged from somewhere and dove into the courtyard lake. He swam across and shook himself dry on a parking median. I noticed a Winnie the Pooh doll lying on its side in the entry port. Matt came back downstairs and we watched the little dog sniff at a urine stain. Across the street, wind clanged a cable against a pole. We called out one last time. No one answered.
“Let’s go,” Matt said. We got in the Explorer, started the engine and drove back the way we came.
A year ago, I published this story in Politico Magazine about evangelicals’ rapidly changing attitudes toward same-sex marriage. That story was prescient! Now, not a week goes by without news of prominent evangelicals coming out in support of same-sex marriage or engaging in constructive dialogue with gay and lesbian activists. (For example, here.) The days when conservative Christians believed they had the power, and the obligation, to dial back the cultural clock in America appear to be ending. With one exception: abortion, which I address in a recent essay in The Los Angeles Review of Books. Why has abortion remained divisive even as the number of abortions performed in America falls to historic lows? Read to find out!
My profile of Kent Twitchell, dean of Los Angeles mural art, whose work asks: Can the visual language of photorealism communicate the truth of God? In the arts journal Image.
111th Street Jesus
The Art and Faith of Muralist Kent Twitchell
By Jim Hinch
KENT TWITCHELL has painted Jesus on the sides of buildings in Los Angeles four times. One of those Jesuses (until it was whitewashed recently by a new property owner) was on the exterior of a liquor store at Vermont Avenue and 111th Street, in a gang-patrolled part of south Los Angeles known by city homicide detectives as “death alley.” Another Jesus, forty feet tall, gazes out over traffic along Wilshire Boulevard in the city’s bustling mid-section from the side of the former Otis College of Art and Design, Twitchell’s art school alma mater. A third Jesus, facing a parking lot and a suburban apartment building, wears a carpenter’s belt and a denim work shirt unbuttoned at the chest. The fourth Jesus is thirty feet tall, a bearded, dark-skinned, enigmatic figure clothed in a blood-red robe and holding out before him a leather-bound Bible. That Jesus covers the entire exterior wall of a two-story lecture hall at a Christian liberal arts college in the suburban city of La Mirada. The mural is titled simply, The Word.
Like Twitchell’s many other murals—close to fifty, in Los Angeles, Nashville, Philadelphia, Berlin, and other cities—the Jesuses were painted with special acrylic paint from detailed pencil sketches mapped onto walls via an elaborate system of grids. The paint was applied in patterns similar to a child’s color-by-numbers kit, with Twitchell sometimes suspended from a pulley to reach the highest parts of a wall. Up close, the images dissolve into rivulets of color that seem to flow around and alongside one another like streams of magnetized water that abut but never mix. From a distance, the patterns blend and harmonize into startlingly realistic likenesses. Some of Twitchell’s murals are as tall as eight stories. They stare out over the city like bright, flat, fully realized emissaries from a realm of giants. A quality of tremendous stillness surrounds them. The most effective, including all four murals of Jesus, give the impression of having existed long before the city arose, as if Twitchell did not paint them but rather scrubbed away some blemish in the air that had obscured them. This quality was especially evident in the now-vanished Jesus on the side of the death-alley liquor store. Photographs show a long-haired, bearded Hispanic man clothed in white and red robes opening his arms against a blank background nearly the width of the building. The gesture seems to invite the viewer into mural- land, where the hardships of urban life are dissolved in the quiet exactitude of art.
Twitchell, seventy-one, has been painting murals in Los Angeles since 1971, when, as an undergraduate at California State University, Los Angeles, he covered the side of a two-story Victorian house in the city’s Pico-Union neighborhood with a pale blue image of actor Steve McQueen. Twitchell is now considered the dean of mural art in Los Angeles, itself widely considered the mural capital of the United States. His images are an iconic, if fragile, part of the city’s ever-changing streetscape. Twitchell’s eight-story-tall rendering of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Harbor Freeway Overture, has greeted traffic-jammed travelers to downtown Los Angeles from the side of a high-rise parking structure overlooking Interstate 110 for more than two decades. Another freeway-adjacent mural, The Old Lady of the Freeway, a striking 1974 image near the Hollywood Freeway of a blue-eyed, gray-haired matriarch clad in a brown bathrobe and a python-like multihued crocheted afghan, was the city’s best known mural until a property owner abruptly painted it over in 1986 to make way for a billboard. Amid public outcry, Twitchell helped to establish the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, dedicated to cataloguing and preserving the city’s rich history of mural art. With the conservancy’s encouragement, Twitchell sued the building owner and was awarded $125,000, though it took him five years to collect the settlement.
It is no accident that Los Angeles’s best known muralist has covered the sides of city buildings with images such as Holy Trinity with Virgin, 111th Street Jesus, or Seventh Street Altarpiece, or even Six Los Angeles Artists, a 1979 mural on the back wall of a state employment development office in the suburban city of Torrance that uses the likenesses of six of Twitchell’s artist friends to depict Jesus in the company of apostles Peter, James, and John, Mary the mother of Jesus, and Mary Magdalene. Here the apostles are bearded hippies with afros dressed in jeans and corduroy. The Virgin Mary is Asian-American artist Wayanna Kato, and Jesus is a mustachioed carpenter in a work belt and denim shirt. The figures are painted in Twitchell’s signature hyperrealist style. They stand face-forward against a jet- black background, their finely detailed expressions deadpan, their arms folded or hanging at their sides. In their reticent monumentality, the six artists-cum- saviors-of-the-world embody the intention at the heart of all of Twitchell’s work. Speaking late last year in his large, cluttered downtown LA studio, Twitchell said he aimed to create in viewers a sense of awe akin to his own feelings when he saw his first medieval cathedral while stationed in England as an Air Force illustrator in the 1960s. “There’s something about looking up like that that makes you feel small but not insignificant. Every person, even an atheist, has a vacuum inside that can only be filled by God. And that should be captured in a work of art.”
The definition of what precisely Twitchell has captured in the more than four decades he has spent painting giant-sized human figures on the sides of buildings varies depending on who’s looking. For some in the city’s arts establishment, the content of his work matters less than the paternal role he has played in LA’s mural legacy. “I would consider him the grandfather of murals in LA,” says Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy, whose office adjoins Twitchell’s studio on the ground floor of a nearly century-old, fourteen-story former furniture warehouse. “The quality of his work, it was amazing and continues to be amazing,” Rojas continued. “And he hasn’t stopped. He’s inspirational for the new generation not only for the skill of his murals but also the way he has behaved as an artist and a person guiding and inspiring people to do the best they can.”
Scott Haskins, a California mural conservation expert who has helped to restore murals throughout the United States and Europe, singles out Twitchell for “his techniques and integrity and painting and motivation.” “I consider him to be at the top of the food chain,” Haskins says. “Some people think when you put spray paint on a wall it’s a mural. It’s not.” Twitchell, he says, “is one of the grandfathers of the highest quality of mural painting possible.”
Hollywood film and music producer Mark Joseph, a friend of Twitchell’s, came closer to Twitchell’s self-understanding when he told me in an interview earlier this year: “He’s in that difficult spot, that tension between the sacred and the secular and the subversive.” That description came near the end of a long conversation during which Joseph, who has done marketing work for the faith-oriented movie company Walden Media and produced the soundtrack for Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, lamented the “second-rate” quality of much self-professed Christian art, music, and filmmaking. Twitchell, Joseph said, has managed to sidestep the pitfalls that can trip up artists of faith. His work, housed in the permanent collection of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and frequently covered in local and art-world media, is no niche product. Twitchell neither avoids nor exploits religious themes. “Kent could have been Thomas Kinkade if he wanted to,” Joseph said. “But he’s always been out there in his quietly subversive way refusing to keep his religion out of his work. And I really admire him for that.”
Twitchell readily identifies himself as a Christian, though he doesn’t currently attend a church. (“I got out of the habit,” he says. “I don’t think not going is a cool thing.”) He also readily admits to having dabbled in Scientology, Transcendental Meditation, “eastern mysticism and out-of-body experiences,” marijuana, mescaline, and LSD, until “I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is boring. This is just boring. I don’t understand why most of these people haven’t moved on from this.’ It took away your ambition.” For a time earlier in his career, Twitchell attended Grace Community Church, an evangelical megachurch in the San Fernando Valley, which he praises for its pastor’s “emphasis on doctrine.” “Doctrine is very important to me,” he says.
Twitchell has described his faith on various occasions, and in varying terms, as a quest to encounter, and to represent in works of art, the unchanging truth of God. That quest was partly realized by his study of the Bible using a Greek interlinear translation, and by his reading of writers such as C.S. Lewis, whose books line a jumbled shelf at the back of his studio. Mostly, though, Twitchell’s search for God has been expressed on the sides of buildings.
“It’s simply an outgrowth of my search for meaning,” he says of his work. “I don’t illustrate ideas. The art is stream-of-consciousness of who I am inside.” The murals’ hyperrealism is part of the search. “I believe truth can be known and is meant to be known. Everything is not relative…. The symbolism of that is realism as opposed to a non-objective approach to art. Philosophically, I’m defending the fact that I’m more excited about doing realism. I couldn’t get up in the morning if I was going to glorify the colors that a paint manufacturer did…. The most important thing we can do in fine art is to seek the truth.”
Twitchell was born on August 17, 1942, in Lansing, Michigan. He was raised on what he describes as a “small family farm, of which there were many” in a rural area southwest of the city. Twitchell recalls “growing up like on the Lassie TV show, with grandma and grandpa living next door, sort of like The Waltons.” (The Virgin Mary in The Holy Trinity with the Virgin, the forty-foot-tall mural on the side of the former Otis art college building, is modeled on character actress Jan Clayton, who played the mother on Lassie in the 1950s.) Twitchell’s father, Bob, was a foreman at a local car factory in addition to farming corn, wheat, oats, and a small herd of Holstein dairy cows. “My dad was artistic about the way he raised things,” Twitchell says. “I remember Look magazine came and was photographing his corn because it was so far beyond anything in Michigan.”
Twitchell retains the unboastful, low-key affect of a man raised in the Midwest, though he is in no way self-effacing or hesitant to speak his mind. Wiry, diminutive, and crowned with a mane of gray hair swept back from his forehead, he resembles the actor and stuntman Richard Farsnworth, who starred in the 1999 David Lynch movie The Straight Story. Twitchell’s blue-gray eyes dart restlessly when he talks, and he frequently rubs his face and beard with his hands, as if wiping clean the slate of his mind to make room for more thoughts. In conversation he jumps from topic to topic, following trains of association that start with, say, a freeway mural he painted at the behest of organizers of the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles and end with how he met his second wife, Pandora, a long and colorful story involving gypsies, a Paul Anka record, and using prayer to ward off a hex. (He and Pandora are still married, and have a twenty-two-year-old son, Artie.)
When I met him at his studio late last year, he greeted me on the sidewalk wearing jeans, a gray paint-spattered sweatshirt, and black leather shoes. He led me inside, pausing every few steps to point out sketches, newspaper clippings and giant-sized mural studies hanging from the walls, including one panel painted with a ten-foot-wide rendering of Michael Jackson’s eyes—a study for a mural put on indefinite hold following Jackson’s embroilment in child molestation charges. Twitchell’s arms moved as he talked, sometimes stretching wide like the liquor store Jesus’s, or twisting into complicated shapes to illustrate a point. “God’s always making me look like a genius,” he said after we’d spent some time talking about his work. “I’m actually very mediocre but God is always making me look like a genius.”
Twitchell’s parents began their marriage with divergent views about faith. His mother, Doris, attended a Methodist church, where she was superintendent of the Sunday school and ensured that Twitchell and his younger sister, Gloria, got a decent religious education. “She taught me at the beginning that we could talk to God and pray to God, and it was always very real to me,” Twitchell recalled. Twitchell’s father was “not a Christian at all.” Shortly after Twitchell was born, his father joined the military and was wounded by shrapnel at the Battle of the Bulge. Upon returning home, he was hospitalized with acute tuberculosis, contracted on the battlefield. Quarantined for more than two years, the elder Mr. Twitchell experienced a moment of near-death during an operation. Twitchell recalled the story:
He was falling down a shaft. And all around the shaft was black but shiny with jewels. And it was scary, and down below it was a pig, and it was the most evil creature. And it was pulling him down, and he could see up the shaft and see his friends. And they were just talking and couldn’t help him at all. Mom and all of our friends at church were praying, and he came back to life. And that was the beginning of his trail to God. He became a churchgoer and went to the same church Mom did. He thanked God he was wounded and his strength was taken away. It made him realize we have no strength and friends, but Christ is our only friend and also our only strength.
Twitchell’s chief memory of this episode is waving at his father’s upper-story hospital window during months of quarantine: “He threw candies to us out the window.” Telling this story seems to remind him of other times he has regarded his father from below. “Dad was short but I always looked up at him because I was a little kid. There’s something important to me in the way that we look up at people. When we look up into the eyes of someone grand, it at once intimidates us but also gives us inspiration.” Twitchell would experience this same feeling again in European cathedrals, which inspired the monumentality of his painting.
“I remember before going to kindergarten I would draw things,” Twitchell says. “I always drew figures with whatever I could find around the house. People throwing snowballs at each other and sliding down the hill, the world I knew.” Teachers quickly recognized Twitchell’s draftsmanship, and by the time he graduated high school (in Lansing, where his parents had moved to be near higher quality schools) he had ambitions to become a commercial artist. He landed a commercial art job in Lansing but decided to join a friend enlisting in the military when he discovered he could serve as an Air Force illustrator. He was assigned first to paint Plexiglas screens used to plot the position of aircraft at navigation centers. He put in for a transfer and was sent to an air base at South Ruislip just west of London, where he illustrated briefing papers used by generals to inform visiting dignitaries about missile operations and other “extremely hush-hush stuff.” In his spare time he explored London museums and visited cathedrals and other monuments.
Twitchell says that from the time he was a child, he dreamed of living in Los Angeles. “Back then, television was magical.” He remembers watching the show Dragnet. “When the narrator said, ‘This is the city of Los Angeles, California,’ that did it for me. I knew that’s where I’d eventually go.” Following his discharge, Twitchell lived briefly in Atlanta, where he got a job as a department store display artist. When an uncle living in Los Angeles offered a place to stay while Twitchell attended college on the GI bill, he moved and enrolled first at a community college, then at Cal State LA, where he graduated with an art degree in 1972. He received his Masters in Fine Art from Otis in 1977.
“It was the hippie days,” Twitchell says, and it didn’t take long for military discipline and whatever remained of Twitchell’s childhood religious observance to wear off. In addition to the drugs and Scientology, “I was into some weird things, like pyramid power and domes, and I had these far left leanings.” Twitchell sat through his teachers’ lessons in then-fashionable abstract expressionist art, “throw[ing] around paint” for class projects. But even as he busied himself discarding his Midwest upbringing in his recreational life, some remnant from the farm and from his military work persisted in his approach to painting. From the moment he entered art school, his teachers’ and fellow students’ embrace of abstraction and conceptualism struck him as elitist and anti-religious. “It was a celebration of the universe as accident,” he says. When a classmate offered to let Twitchell use one side of the house she’d grown up in near downtown LA as a blank canvas, Twitchell knew exactly what he wanted to do.
“I painted this two-story portrait of Steve McQueen,” a populist, photographically realist image intended as an implicit rebuke of everything Twitchell had been taught in school. He used a single color, various shades of blue, “because I didn’t feel comfortable doing too many colors—I’d blow it.” The blue gave the image a ghostly quality that caught viewers’ attention. Press coverage followed, and “all of a sudden people were calling me on the phone interviewing me about this. I thought I was the next Andy Warhol.” More than that, after years of apprenticeship, Twitchell had stumbled upon his signature style. “I thought, ‘I’m home. This is it. This is me. This is finally who I am.’ It was 1971. I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight. I haven’t looked back since.”
A Hollywood makeup artist named Steve Clensos read about Twitchell and hired him to paint the side of a building he owned in East Hollywood. Twitchell painted a forty-five-foot-wide image of character actor Strother Martin against a black background, hair undulating from his head like strands of spaghetti. (The owner was delighted with the choice. He’d worked with Strother as a makeup man.) Twitchell chose images of actors because they were known and because they resonated with his childhood love of television and movies. “They were in southern California and that was their reality, and Michigan was mine. That was a place of dreams, Los Angeles.”
More commissions followed, some from private building owners, some from government agencies. At the time, Los Angeles was becoming known as a center of mural art, partly because of Twitchell’s work, and that of a Venice Beach-based mural collective called the LA Fine Arts Squad, and partly as a result of the Chicano Art Movement’s vigorous embrace of outdoor art in all its forms. It was a heady time to be a muralist. There were few city regulations governing mural art, and building owners were eager for the attention and prestige murals attracted.
Soon after Twitchell finished the Strother Martin mural, a downtown wedding boutique owner who’d happened to see it offered Twitchell $3,600 to cover one side of his store with a depiction of a bride and groom. Twitchell spent two years on the project, with the store owner, Carlos Ortiz, posing as the groom (the bride was an amalgam of Ortiz’s girlfriend at the time, a subsequent girlfriend of Ortiz’s, and Twitchell’s first wife, Susan) and buying all of Twitchell’s supplies, including scaffolding and what Twitchell described as a hanging “spider stage,” from which he applied paint to the upper reaches of the five-story image. Twitchell worked at night by the illumination of two 100-watt light bulbs, because he enjoyed the quiet and because he didn’t have to pay to park. “You’d see someone going by at two am singing opera,” he recalls. “The sun would come up in the east off to my left, and it was time for me to wrap up because I had to get out before the parking lot people knew I was there.”
Twitchell has supported himself with his art throughout his career, never lacking for work or for patrons willing to fund both his murals and, when needed, their restoration. And yet, commercial success and popular appeal have not always been accompanied by critical recognition. Three years ago, Pacific Standard Time, a comprehensive survey exhibition of Los Angeles art history staged by the Getty Center and a wide array of other regional museums and galleries, “completely ignored me,” Twitchell says. “I didn’t care.” Twitchell is not represented by a gallery. His work is rarely shown in exhibits and he has not been the subject of a book-length critical study. Though Isabel Rojas-Williams and others familiar with LA’s mural scene praise Twitchell’s generosity toward younger artists, he keeps a certain distance from other muralists of his generation, especially those hailing from LA’s Chicano Art Movement. Twitchell told a story of being invited to a party at the home of comedian Cheech Marin, who owns one of the world’s largest private collections of Chicano art. “I thought, ‘Why do I want to go to his house? He snubs anything that’s not Chicano.’ We went in there and a whole bunch of art people are sitting down and…Cheech looked up at me and said ‘Kent Twitchell!’ And he hugged me, and he said, ‘My God, Kent Twitchell. I can’t believe you came. You’re my hero.’ And he told all these stories about how much he loved me. You never know who’s out there when you do public art. Because there are people who hate me, too.”
In part, this chilly relationship with swaths of the art world can be explained by Twitchell’s ongoing rejection of the major post-war trends. During our conversations, he returned again and again to long-ago arguments with art school professors and students over their elitism and knee-jerk contempt for religious faith. (One of those stories ended with the words, “This is a sham…and I’m not going with the program.”) He is even more withering toward the art world’s current infatuation with street art, as memorialized in a landmark 2011 exhibit, Art in the Streets, at Los Angeles’s Museum of Contemporary Art. “They’re absolute phonies,” he says of street-art stars such as Banksy and Shepard Fairey. “There’s as much connection with real art as Thomas Kinkade, except Thomas Kinkade actually knew how to paint.”
The lines in this debate might be more sharply drawn than necessary, but it’s undeniable that Twitchell’s art—public-spirited, representational, addressing religious themes, and by virtue of its medium unavailable for sale in today’s high-rolling art market—goes against just about every artistic trend of the years Twitchell has been at work. When I met him in his studio, one of the longest, most engaging stories he told, uncharacteristically free of digression, was of the origin of the 111th Street Jesus mural, the one on the side of the death-alley liquor store. The mural, he said, owed its existence to a local Catholic priest named Father Dennis Berry, who recruited Twitchell to help beautify the neighborhood with the help of some local youths who had recently left the gang life. Twitchell, seeking to paint “a tough Jesus” in tune with the neighborhood, modeled his mural on a young man who had played Jesus in a recent Passion play at Berry’s parish, the Church of the Ascension on 112th Street.
Working for free with two former gang members whom he taught how to paint, Twitchell applied the mural around bullet holes in the liquor store wall, beside a phone booth where gang members negotiated “four to five drug deals a day.” When the mural was done, “They had a parade where the priest came and blessed the mural. The people from the neighborhood came and put out tables and food and everyone was eating and the whole neighborhood was there—and Jesus with his arms outstretched. The parade went all through the neighborhood and people came out of their houses and joined, and it ended at the mural. And I was just a participant at that point.” He rubbed his beard, savoring the memory. “You always want that to happen. You hope you’re uplifting. You don’t always know if you are.”
As it happens, I grew up with Kent Twitchell’s work, without knowing it was his until I began writing this story. I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and several of Twitchell’s murals, in particular Six Los Angeles Artists and Harbor Freeway Overture, have loomed large in my visual memory since childhood and young adulthood. The ubiquity of murals is one of the many things I love about LA, and I was delighted to discover that some of my favorite murals were painted by a man dedicated to communicating divine truth through monumental art. I was delighted because I never knew the images arose from a religious impulse—and I think religious art works best that way. I agree with Twitchell that the best art inculcates mysterious feelings of awe in the viewer (though, unlike Twitchell, I experience awe in the presence of abstract and conceptual art just as often as in representational works). I don’t know enough about modern-day Christian music or film to evaluate Mark Joseph’s lament that they are often sub-par. What I do know is that Twitchell’s art was probably at work on me, without my knowing it, in imperceptible but nevertheless significant ways, as I found my own way toward faith over the course of my life. For all his irascibility and tetchy relationship with his fellow artists, Twitchell clearly has managed to create work of lasting importance. If he ever truly has wondered whether his art is uplifting, I can assure him it is.
The day I visited his studio, I took time before and after our meeting to drive past a few of his murals, including Six Los Angeles Artists, which I remember passing countless times as a child on the way to and from the Long Beach office where my parents worked. I parked in front of the mural on a sunny morning just before lunchtime and got out, staring up at the figures who had seemed so mysterious and otherworldly to my young eyes all those years ago. A homeless man calling himself Donald approached and asked if I had a light for a cigarette stub he held in his hand. I asked him if he liked the mural. “I graffitied it,” he replied. “When I was thirteen years old. I got arrested, all that bullshit. I still like it. Who are these people, anyway?” I told him they were artists. “Artists!” he exclaimed. “I never knew.” After sharing some stories about people he’d punched in the face over the years, and proudly showing me his new medical marijuana ID card, Donald took another look at the mural. “He’s a professional, right?” he asked of Twitchell. I said he was. “And I was a criminal,” Donald said sadly. We exchanged goodbyes and he continued on his way.
After a fruitless search through parking lots and behind chain link fences, I learned from some guys in a bar on Vermont Avenue that the 111th Street Jesus mural had been painted over by a new property owner. The guys directed me to the liquor store, which appeared abandoned. I found the wall where the mural had been and gazed at it while two boys waiting for their parents to finish loading baskets of laundry into the back of a dented Ford Expedition pelted the wall with pieces of rotten fruit fallen from a nearby tree. I tried, without much success, to envision the joyful neighborhood celebration staged at the mural’s completion. The scene was depressing, and I walked back to my car.
By the time I left Twitchell’s studio, it was dark. I drove to Broadway, downtown, and parked illegally in the lot adjacent to the five-story Bride and Groom mural. Graffiti covered the bottom portion, but the upper reaches were clear, and I pictured Twitchell hanging from the side of the building on his spider stage, his two 100-watt bulbs glowing wanly in the late night dark. Much of the building has been converted into apartments, and out of one window came the sounds of a domestic dispute. A woman’s voice rose above the downtown din: “Stop whining! No! Where’s your fucking stroller?” The bride and groom, like all of Twitchell’s painted figures, do not radiate happiness or any other strong emotion. But I took comfort from the fact that they were still there, still together amid the changes and chances of the city.
My last stop of the night, after a furtive walk up a freeway entrance ramp to get as close as possible to the towering musicians of Harbor Freeway Overture, was Twitchell’s first mural, the two-story blue Steve McQueen he painted all those years ago, in his days of marijuana and pyramid power. Miraculously, the mural is still there and wholly untouched, though the building was long ago converted into apartments and part of the ground floor now houses a corner market plastered with ads for Mexican wire transfer services and the popular game show 100 Latinos Dijeron. A satellite dish sprouts from McQueen’s right shoulder, but otherwise the actor remains unblemished, his ghostly, iconic face staring with movie-still perfection at the cars cruising up and down Union Avenue pumping Norteño music. I could hear a suspenseful movie playing inside one apartment, children’s voices in another. Just inside the brightly lit market doorway were bins filled with bananas, watermelons, and bags of Lays potato chips.
This part of Los Angeles, Pico-Union, has changed utterly from the days when Twitchell painted McQueen, becoming a predominantly El Salvadoran neighborhood, home to waves of refugees from that country’s brutal civil war, as well as a transnational street gang called Mara Salvatrucha. What struck me as I gazed at the mural was how it has persisted through all the changes. The same is true of all of Twitchell’s murals, each enduring in a city now vastly different from the one he encountered as a young, star-struck, newly discharged soldier in the frothy 1960s. Even the 111th Street Jesus, I decided, was still there, just obscured by a layer of white paint.
I thought of something Twitchell had told me just before I left his studio. We were standing near the small kitchen, which Twitchell keeps stocked with food, vitamins, Yerba Mate tea, a microwave and toaster oven, and a washer and dryer, because “I spend eighty percent of my time here.” I asked him about Los Angeles, why he came to the city and why he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. He replied: “In the Midwest, you get this rep for your lifetime. There’s something about LA that’s the opposite of that. Maybe that’s why creative people tend to come here. We forgive each other for failing and looking foolish. We forgive them by doing something good.”
A few recent stories about changing faith in America. Decline of the Revival, in The Los Angeles Review of Books, examines evangelicals’ efforts to understand their sudden loss of cultural and moral influence. What Happened to Religion in America? The I’s Have It, in OnFaith, posits American Christianity’s embrace of individualism as one explanation for that loss. Further evidence of religious conservatives’ current struggles can be found in activists’ recent turn to the courts in their fight against same-sex marriage. Faced with setbacks at the ballot box, religious conservatives have begun focusing on legal efforts to shield believers from the effects of what is increasingly considered a lost cause. It’s not all struggle and decline. Here’s a fun story about a day in the life of one of the rising generation of young, American-born imams quietly but inexorably altering the public contours of their faith. All in a day’s work: basketball, frank talk about sex, and instructions for brushing teeth in Ramadan.
My cover story for the latest issue of The American Scholar shows how the death and rebirth of Orange County’s Crystal Cathedral (which went bankrupt and now is being transformed by the county’s surging Catholic diocese into a regional worship and cultural center) signals a wider transformation in the fast-changing landscape of American spirituality.
Much of my recent reporting has focused on the uncertain future of religion in America. Most recently, at Zocalo Public Square, I wrote about an immigrant Catholic resurgence in Orange County displacing the county’s once dominant evangelical Christians. In the Orange County Register, I’ve written about Asian-American Christians demanding greater respect from America’s evangelical establishment (here and here); a rapid change in evangelicals’ attitudes about sexuality; and growing resistance in the developing world to American-led Christian aid initiatives. The common thread in these stories is demographic change overturning established patterns of belief. The future of faith in America is increasingly hard to predict.
A roundup of recent work. A review in the Los Angeles Review of Books of Cheryl Strayed’s hiking memoir Wild argues that the book, more memoir than nature tale, augurs a decline of nature writing as a self-sustaining genre. Three recent articles in the Orange County Register document an underground movement of gay students at an evangelical Christian college; the rise of hip, American-born imams in Southern California mosques; and immigration activists’ claims that U.S. immigration authorities are attempting to silence criticism of conditions in California immigrant detention centers.
I report in the Orange County Register on Terrence Park, a student at U.C. Berkeley who is president of the university’s math club, on his way to graduate school at Harvard — and in the United States illegally. Park is one of at least 220 undocumented immigrants studying at U.C. Berkeley, America’s premiere public university. Life is hard for these kids, as Terrence’s story amply demonstrates. An in-depth look at the human cost of America’s divisive, dysfunctional immigration system. Here’s the story in full:
By JIM HINCH / THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
April 21, 2013
Terrence Park was filling out his college financial aid application when he asked his mother a question and learned he was breaking the law.
“What’s my Social Security number?”
Park’s mother didn’t answer. She motioned her son onto the sofa in the living room of the family’s one-bedroom apartment in Tustin. “She was very upset, but she didn’t cry,” Park remembers.
“You don’t have a Social Security number,” Park’s mother told him. “You’re not American. You’re Korean.”
Park sat in stunned silence as his mother told the story. How, following her divorce from Park’s father in Seoul, she left for America with her 10-year-old son and his 8-year-old twin sisters, Emily and Carrie. How an incompetent immigration lawyer misfiled the family’s papers. How, a few months after arriving in America, Park’s family became immigrants who are here illegally.
“Why didn’t you tell me this before?” Park demanded. For years he’d assumed he was a legal immigrant on his way to becoming a citizen. He thought he was no different from the nearly 1,000 other Asian American students at Northwood High School in Irvine, where he graduated in 2008.
He spoke passable Korean but his English was better. He lived on fast food, wore flip-flops, played video games. “I’m more American than Korean,” he said.
“Is this going to be a huge problem for my college?” Park asked his mom.
“Keep studying,” was all she answered.
That was five years ago.
Today, Park is a graduating senior at UC Berkeley. He’s the president of the university’s math club. He has a 3.8 GPA. He was accepted to graduate programs in public health at Yale, Brown, Columbia and Harvard universities. He expects to enroll next year at Harvard, which offered him a $22,000 scholarship.
And he’s still here illegally.
NEW RULES, OLD RULES
On Wednesday, eight U.S. senators unveiled an 844-page proposal to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws. If enacted, the legislation would tighten border security, increase the number of foreign workers allowed into the country and provide a path to citizenship for most of the nation’s estimated 11 million people here illegally.
As debate over the proposal begins in Washington, the story of Terrence Park, unfolding thousands of miles away in California, illustrates the complexity – and the often unseen human dimension – of one of America’s most divisive political issues.
Park’s enrollment at UC Berkeley, and what he’ll bring to California if he follows his planned career of providing public health services to the state’s rapidly growing Asian population, is the result of California’s own protracted debate over immigration.
Like many immigrants – and other students – Park and his family endured years of low-wage work and material sacrifice to finance their educations.
But the Parks also benefited from several path-breaking and contentious initiatives in California, including laws enabling immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public universities and a concerted outreach to UC Berkeley students here illegally.
UC Berkeley’s outgoing chancellor, Robert Birgeneau, has been a vocal advocate for students here illegally, drawing ire from politicians and others opposed to providing taxpayer-financed services.
Through it all, Park, his mother and his sisters – who are also UC Berkeley undergraduates – have displayed what Birgeneau, in an interview with the Orange County Register, called the prime reason for welcoming immigrants to UC Berkeley.
“Talent,” Birgeneau said. “California needs every competitive person it has. We can’t afford to waste our talent.”
Park was accepted at UC Berkeley on academic merit alone. State law prohibits the university from using affirmative action in admissions decisions, and applicants are not asked to divulge their immigration status.
A FAMILY EFFORT
Yet despite the university’s efforts to assist students here illegally once they arrive, including provision of a full-time counselor dedicated to clearing legal, financial and academic hurdles, Park’s path to graduation has been anything but straightforward.
Once he realized he was ineligible for financial aid, and therefore couldn’t come close to affording the roughly $30,000 a year it costs to attend a UC school, Park dropped plans to attend a four-year university after high school.
His mother (who declined to give her name to the Register, citing fears of deportation) had brought her children from Korea to Orange County expressly to enroll them in Irvine schools. She’d found a sliver of Tustin, where rents are cheaper, within Irvine Unified School District boundaries.
Park and his sisters got the education their mother envisioned. But after years working as a janitor, dishwasher, cashier and baby sitter, his mother had not managed to save enough to pay for college.
In Korea, she’d been a college-educated schoolteacher until becoming a stay-at-home mom when Park was born. Following the divorce, Park’s father did not support the family financially, as is common in South Korea.
So Park enrolled at Irvine Valley College, got a job at an automated laundry and spent whatever spare time he had tutoring high school students in math.
He and his mother pooled their income and saved enough to pay one year’s tuition for Carrie and Emily when they were accepted at UC Berkeley.
Park graduated from Irvine Valley in 2010. He applied to UC Berkeley as a transfer student. When he was accepted, he and his mother moved north and, together with his sisters, rented a one-bedroom apartment two blocks from campus.
Park slept in a bedroom overlooking a parking lot, on a mattress beside a refrigerator, an ironing board and racks of the girls’ clothes. His mother and sisters slept on mattresses in the living room.
Still, Park couldn’t afford tuition. He deferred his admission, and his sisters, who were majoring in molecular toxicology and nutritional science, temporarily dropped out of school. All four family members got jobs, Park as a tutor, his sisters at a supermarket, their mother cleaning houses.
By the start of the 2011 school year, the family had saved enough to pay for one semester for all three siblings. After that, they planned to drop out again and work to pay for another semester.
That October, Gov. Jerry Brown signed the California Dream Act, which enabled immigrants brought to the U.S. illegally as minors to receive state financial aid. The law, initially proposed in 2006 by former state Sen. Gil Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, had been vetoed three times by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
At last, Park and his sisters could afford to go to college full time.
“I’m privileged,” Park said. “There are (more than a) million students who can’t study like me because” of their immigration status. “It forces me to take responsibility.”
Outwardly, Park shows no obvious sign of being one of the so-called Dreamers – an estimated 1.4 million people here illegally brought to America while they were children. He seems like any other UC Berkeley math major.
A recent – and ordinary – day earlier this month found him treading a well-worn path from Evans Hall, headquarters of the university’s math department, to the library, home for a nap, then back to Evans, where for the third straight night he planned to shut himself inside a fluorescent-lit classroom with a few friends to study for an upcoming exam in Complex Analysis, the study of the “analytic functions of a complex variable.”
The study marathons, fueled by frozen burritos and one-hour sleep breaks, are common at UC Berkeley, where the math department ranks second highest in the nation, just behind Harvard’s.
Yet all-nighters are one of the few campus rituals Park shares with other UC Berkeley undergraduates.
Inwardly, his life is wholly shaped by his immigration status.
Lacking a valid visa, he was unable to fly on an airplane after arriving in America. And so he hasn’t seen his father for 13 years, or talked to him at all since he stopped calling about seven years ago.
Park has never been to a football game, never attended a beer-soaked party and only began driving this year, when he applied for and received a special legal exemption from deportation granted by President Barack Obama to young people here illegally who are enrolled in school or serving in the military.
“I thought I was going to enjoy it here a little bit,” Park said of UC Berkeley. “But I have no time to think about whether I enjoy it.”
In addition to classes, he continues to work two jobs, as a trigonometry tutor to a high school student in Oakland and as a paid intern at an Asian health clinic. Both jobs are a 40-minute bus ride from campus.
While other undergraduates explore their newfound freedom from home, Park returns each day to his family’s one-bedroom apartment, where the expectations placed on him as the oldest son of a Korean family are “huge,” he said. “The oldest has to be the model for everyone else.”
“I had a pretty good addiction to video games in high school,” he confessed. His mother “would have to quit a job to monitor me more. My sisters also monitored me. It was like having three moms.”
“When I found out (in high school) I can’t go to college, I just gave up. There’s no point in me studying.”
Park graduated from Northwood with a “3.4 or 3.5” GPA. He only began earning UC Berkeley-worthy grades at community college. When his UC Berkeley acceptance letter came, he walked to the 99 Ranch Market in Irvine where his mother worked handing out prepared food samples.
“She thought I was joking,” he said. “I had to tell her five times.”
And so now he works. “When you see Mom work two, three jobs and come home at 10 p.m. and still take care of all of us, that kind of motivates all of us,” he said.
A VIDEO STAR
In January, Meng So, UC Berkeley’s counselor for students here illegally, told Park that an advocacy group called The Dream is Now, a nonprofit backed by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of late Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, wanted to film a short promotional video highlighting students here illegally on campus.
Would Park be interested in starring in the video, So asked?
“I decided to do it,” Park said. Until that day, he’d told almost no one about his illegal status, though a few friends had guessed.
“It was an opportunity for me to actually contribute to the Dream Act movement,” Park said, referring to efforts to pass legislation enabling young people here illegally to progress toward citizenship.
For six hours, documentary filmmaker Davis Guggenheim, whose credits include “Waiting for Superman,” filmed Park writing numbers on a chalkboard: how much it costs to deport one immigrant here illegally ($23,000) vs. the estimated economic benefit of millions of educated immigrant workers ($329 billion by 2030).
“So that’s $23,000 to deport me,” Park says to the camera.
The video, released in February, provoked a storm of international attention.
“It was pretty scary,” Park said. “But I got used to it at some point.”
There was no such attention at the end of Park’s recent midterm exam study marathon.
As evening fog rolled over the UC Berkeley campus, Park sat alone in lecture Room 11 in Evans Hall, at a gray-and-orange desk beside a chalkboard.
His black Dell laptop was open. He was too stressed to eat and, if he wasn’t, he was out of frozen burritos anyway.
He looked up from the computer and reflected on the gains and losses of life as an immigrant student here illegally.
“The fact that we had to stay together as a family for the past couple years, I’ve had less of an individual (college) experience,” he said.
“The positive side is you learn how to take care of other people. The negative side is I haven’t learned an individual approach to life. I still have to learn that.”
Undocumented students at Berkeley
HOW MANY: 220 students at UC Berkeley are illegal immigrants; total enrollment is 36,142.
HOW IT WORKS: Undocumented students do not receive preference in admissions. The university does not ask applicants to divulge immigration status. Once accepted, immigrants are allowed to apply for state financial aid. UC Berkeley becomes aware of students’ legal status when they apply for aid.
SCHOOLS: UC Berkeley is the first in the nation to provide services to undocumented students. Other universities have begun emulating UC Berkeley’s outreach, including UCLA and schools in Texas, Georgia, Arizona and Michigan.
MONEY: The average family income of undocumented students is $24,000. Total annual cost to attend UC Berkeley is $33,500.
GRADES: Average GPA of undocumented students is 3.3, versus 3.03 for other UC Berkeley students.