City Heights has got religion. A distinctive characteristic of my community is not only the sheer number of religious establishments located here, but the diverse forms that religious expression takes. There are the storefront Evangelical and Pentecostal Christian churches that have sprung up along University and El Cajon Boulevard, with names like La Esposa del Cordero, the Shepherd’s Wife, and signs with the exhortation Pare de Sufrir, to stop suffering.
There are Buddhist temples, botánicas, a mosque, a tiny Russian Orthodox church, and familiar Catholic and Baptist churches as well. Religious services are conducted in Spanish, Creole, Russian, Chinese and Vietnamese, to name just a few of the languages routinely spoken besides English. I do not know if other languages besides Arabic are used at the mosque located adjacent to the Somali neighborhood known as Little Mogadishu. There are also shamans and babaloas living quietly among us.
The City Heights streets themselves are integral to proselytizing. Slow moving groups of nicely dressed, polite yet religiously resolute Jehovah Witnesses are visible every day. They hold copies of La Atalya, the Watchtower, and are prepared to leave a religious tract in the hands of residents at their homes and at bus stops. From time to time someone with a bull horn stands on a busy corner denouncing sin and describing the glories of redemption. I’ll occasionally see elders of the church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) bicycle down the street, unmistakable in their short sleeve white shirts and narrow black ties. Once two members of the Bahá’i church knocked at my door. City Heights has got a lot of religion.
The Evangelical churches here seem to provide a particularly compelling message. Evangelicalism downplays ritual, embraces biblical truth, emphasizes conversion by spreading the gospel, and requires personal conversion, to be born again. It is a religion which has an appeal across racial and ethnic lines, and it is particularly resonant with the working poor, the down and out and the forgotten. City Heights, by virtue of its socioeconomic demographics, is fertile ground for the fast growing Evangelical movement.
Cindy (name changed and a few details altered because it is the right thing to do) has struggled to keep her body and soul intact throughout the many years I have known her. She always worked, but the jobs were marginal and barely covered the rent and kibble for the abandoned dogs she rescued from the street. Then she got sick and had no health insurance and couldn’t work. This has become such a common story that our eyes can easily glaze over when we hear it repeated yet again. Our meager health care safety net did not provide the expensive drugs she had been prescribed nor the surgery she needed until a much later date.
In addition, her adult daughter Sarah had serious mental health issues since childhood and a not too distant past that included drug addiction. I seldom saw Sarah, but she would stay with Cindy for weeks at a time then disappear. Cindy’s life was always unraveling or falling apart in sheets. But throughout all of her travails, she spoke about the strength and comfort she received from her Evangelical church community.
We ran into each other on the street one day, and Cindy told me that she was still dealing with health issues and was shocked that her application for Social Security disability had been rejected. For the first time I saw anger in her eyes as well as tears forming. She pulled herself up tall and said to me “God don’t make junk! I know God don’t make junk!” Cindy’s raw expression of belief arising from her profound pain has left an indelible memory.
That was the clear message of her church, the church of God Don’t Make Junk. That is a powerful message to those who have been treated as junk, move through life invisibly because they are perceived as junk. Cindy understood the other relentless message that she heard every day, when she wasn’t at church. People who work marginal jobs are junk. People who get sick and have no health insurance are junk. Poor people with mental health issues are junk. Poor people with drug addictions are junk. Poor people are junk.
It is no surprise that the poor and the disenfranchised want a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives and a sense of worth. A good job would be nice too. It is likewise not a given that the religious realm would be the sole provider of those very human needs. The unraveling of Cindy’s life approximates in many ways the unraveling of our national social contract with each other. The idea of personal freedom is eclipsing the belief in the communal and egalitarian public good.
I am disinclined to venture into the theological weeds despite the fact that years later I continue to turn Cindy’s words in my mind. It may sound both prosaic and profane to point to the very doable public policies that would change not only Cindy’s life but our world here in City Heights. Livable wages. Universal health care. Affordable higher education. Affordable quality housing. These things don’t require divine intervention, only human will and action.
Despite being a non-believer, I agree with Cindy. God don’t make junk.