In the summer of 1966, I volunteered to work in an Episcopal Church in Compton, California. It was a modest stone building that had a detached parish hall. Maybe three hundred people could be squeezed inside.
I was twenty and had just completed my junior year of college. The summer before, the Watts Riots had taken place. Saint Timothy's was located just a few blocks south of where the violence occurred. Along with another white man I didn't know, I lived in a small apartment on the second floor behind the parish hall. The room contained a couple of basic beds, dressers, and stiff chairs. There was also a small bathroom with a shower. Our assignment was to lead an educational program, conduct worship, offer a little religious training, and intermingle with the church community, which was entirely black.
Doug Woodridge and I walked the neighborhood when we first arrived, passing out flyers announcing the summer program. Teenagers were employed to work with elementary school children. The teens helped the younger students with their reading and math skills. It was a well-conceived program we were being brought in to run.
Doug and I were the only white faces anywhere to be seen, except for the police officers that cruised by looking out of their heavily armed cars like caged animals. I was emotionally young and had a hard time living in these conditions. I went home most weekends to take a deep breath and prepare for the next week. I knew this was frown upon, but I was ill-equipped to lead the program, and the tension drained me. It was I who was being educated, and I could absorb only so much before needing to retreat.
My biggest take-away from that summer experience was that the teens and my aspirations were the same. The primary difference between us was the color of our skin. That was an enormous revelation for me.
I remember one of the teenage girls saying how upsetting the nearby billboards were. I didn't understand. "They taunt us with items and a lifestyle we cannot afford," she said. "We're shown what we don't have, and the reminder is in our faces every day."
Growing up in Beverly Hills, this was new to me. While my parents didn't give me much money to carry around, I didn't do without. If there was something I wanted, I usually got it. Being told through advertising, 'this is what you should have,' and not having the means to acquire it was foreign to me. When I saw her point, I understood the frustration and anger that led to the looting and burning the year before.
The teens spoke of those who made it out of the ghetto and never returned. They both envied and despised these people.
I was treated well that summer, though on my first day while I was interviewing for the position, someone stole the cassette player out of my car. "They wanted it more than you did," I was told. That rationalization never sat well with me. Other than that, I felt protected and safe, though Doug and I were careful not the leave the church grounds after dark.
I didn't do my job well. I was ignorant about the Bible, church history, and many of the things I was expected to speak about during the morning chapel services. I'm sure Saint Timothy's leaders were disappointed in me, I would have been if I had been in their shoes. Nevertheless, I received a world-class education of my own that summer, one I am incredibly grateful for.