Imagine waking up to the smell of smoke, the sound of screams and gunshots, the sights of looting and beating. Imagine racially inspired violence so dangerous that schools close and curfews are imposed for days.
This tragic scenario might seem like something you’d see in a movie—the kind your parents and leaders would probably recommend you avoid—but during late April and early May this year LDS youth in the Los Angeles area actually lived it. They saw the rioting. They knew people who looted. They watched familiar buildings burn to the ground.
Yet even while the ashes were still smoldering, the Young Women of the Los Angeles area were busy putting the finishing touches on a long-planned multistake conference that would unite nearly 500 LDS young women of various ethnic backgrounds and affirm that the gospel offers peace to everyone.
The six-hour conference featured an address from Young Women General President Janette Hales. Her message focused on how the fundamentals of personal religious behavior, things like reading the scriptures, praying, and keeping the commandments, can get you through life’s trials and keep you close to Heavenly Father, no matter what is going on in the world around you.
The conference also included 15 workshops covering subjects like dating, preparing for a mission, self-defense, sign language, and baby-sitting. It was just what the doctor ordered for the girls after the tragedy of the weeks before. But the memories for some of the young women were still vivid.
“We went to the store before they burned it to get some food,” said Virginia Smith of the Inglewood Stake. “It was crowded. All of a sudden people were screaming and running to the back. Someone said there were people there with guns. So my mom said to get on the floor, ’cuz if they shoot, they’re not going to shoot down there. Then someone said they went out. The next chance we got, we headed for the door, got in our car, and left.”
Lisa Fu, of the Santa Monica Stake, was also affected. “I could see the looting in the morning when I went out. I have some friends who actually did it—just for their own benefit—because everyone else was doing it. We said to those kids who were taking groceries, ‘You just stole! Don’t you know what you did?’ And they said, ‘Yes, but we don’t know if there’s going to be a store tomorrow to buy food, so we have to get what we can now.’
“And sometimes I’d get really scared to walk by certain people because of the Korean incident. (A 15-year-old black girl was shot in a dispute with a Korean store owner.) Because they don’t know if I’m Japanese or Korean or what.”
Looking back, almost every girl said it was the gospel and being with people in the Church that helped them through these difficult times. Cynthia Arellana from the Los Angeles Stake said, “During the rioting, which was just down the block, a lot of people were scared because they thought it was the end of the world. But with the gospel, it gives us peace that we don’t have to be afraid of death.”
Rebekah Bowen from the Torrance North Stake added, “It’s scary, but when you have the gospel you feel secure and safe that Heavenly Father’s there and that you’re going to be okay.”
Actually, the timing couldn’t have been better for a multistake Young Women conference. It gave the girls a chance to feel unity and love with their sisters, no matter what their ethnic background. Many girls commented about how it helped them to talk about it with other young women, meet new friends without being afraid, and share the common spirit of being an LDS young woman regardless of color or race.
“I was sitting in the choir seats and it was unbelievable to see so many different faces out there,” said Alyson Keeler of the Los Angeles Stake. “There wasn’t just one majority cultural group; it was all mixed. It was so diverse. It’s wonderful to know that we’re all sisters and that we love each other.”
The spirit of the conference seemed to be an extension of the spirit the girls feel in their own wards. Talahiva Mataele from the Los Angeles Stake said, “In the Hollywood Ward it’s all mixed—Polynesian, Spanish, Koreans, whites, etc. It’s like we’re all from one big family. We could just go to somebody’s house and cook tacos one night and Polynesian food the next night and just learn from each other’s cultures.”
“We’re the only blacks in our ward, and we haven’t felt any racial tension at all,” said Trena and Joya McNelly, also from the Hollywood Ward. “People say, ‘We’re so glad you’re in church and nothing’s happened to you!’ We haven’t felt any discrimination at all and we’ve been in the Church for ten years.”
Gabriela Ferguson of the Riverside Stake also noticed a difference in attitudes about racial equality in and out of the Church. “In the community it starts to be like ‘we’re better than you because of what race we are.’ But in the Church it’s not like that because we’re all taught the same values. In our ward we have Samoans, Mexicans, blacks, whites, etc. But we realize that because of the gospel, we’re all the same.”
“We know that we should all be here together,” said Carla Rodriguez of the Lawndale Stake, summing up the conference and the feelings of the girls who attended. “We’re all here and we’re all from different cultures, but we all know we’re from the same Heavenly Father.”
Racial Tension: What You Can Do
Community and Church leaders who were involved in or near the racial problems in the Los Angeles area give the following advice on how to avoid it and stay safe and sound:
Talk about it. Openly discuss racial tension with your parents, teachers, Church leaders, and friends. Take advantage of forums at school or church to discuss what’s happening and how to avoid negative behavior. If there aren’t any forums, suggest to your teachers or leaders that some be developed.
Pray. Ask Heavenly Father to help ease racial tension in general, and to help you deal with it if it comes your way. The Book of Mormon contains many stories of prayers helping people get along better. Pray for peace.
Broaden your cultural horizons. Take classes, try new foods, learn a foreign language, and make new friends with people of other cultures. Sometimes we think that if someone is different from us, friendship could be awkward. But your world can expand when you see it through someone else’s eyes. We’re all children of Heavenly Father—that’s a great thing to have in common.
Get involved in the community. Petition for legislative action. Write to public officials. Prepare to run for office yourself someday and exemplify gospel principles like family values, love, compassion, and understanding. Many Latter-day Saints have experienced some form of prejudice in their own lives from being Church members. Use these experiences to develop compassion and help others.
Remember the first two commandments. Racial problems could be avoided if everyone would remember to “love the Lord thy God” and to “love thy neighbour as thyself” (see Matt. 22:37–39).
When you meet racial tension face to face—
Listen. Follow any direction you may be given by those with proper authority. Do what your parents, leaders, or the police tell you. Also, listen to understand about others’ frustrations. Sometimes being a good listener can help someone vent strong feelings and prevent violence or irrational behavior.
Stay away from violence. Even if you’re not involved, being a spectator encourages violent behavior. Avoid people and environments that foster violence.
Suggest alternatives to racial violence. If you know someone who is contemplating violence, suggest they try another way—for example, diverting angry energy to a physical activity, talking it over with someone they trust, or temporarily changing environments.
Be a part of the solution. If disaster of any kind occurs in your area, take the opportunity to serve your community by helping to clean up and provide for those in need. Many Latter-day Saints in the area helped after the riots by supplying food, clothes, quilts, and other supplies and by helping clean and rebuild.
What One Family Did
The Turley family of the Los Angeles California Stake felt it was imperative that they be a part of the solution to their area’s racial tension. They decided, as a family, to help with the clean-up efforts even while the ashes were still smoldering. In the heart of the worst-hit neighborhoods, they not only shoveled and swept, but built bridges as well.