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C h a p t e r 1 1 Bearing Witness: Women in Cities as Agents of Transformation for God Grace R. Dyrness The women of Dolores Mission Church in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles , gathered together in the early 1990s to share the personal stories of tragedy and sorrow that prevailed in their community as a result of gang violence. Fear and pain permeated the neighborhood, and the women were tired, sad, and desperate, anxious to put a stop to the violence . As they met weekly in their parish Christian-based communities to study the scriptures, they discussed what relevance these sacred words had for them in their own situation. They came to understand that they needed to reach out to these “homeboys” (the local word for gang members) and let them know that violence would not be tolerated anymore and that they would work hard to provide alternatives for these youth. As the women began to put the meaning of the Gospels into practice, they held peace vigils on the corners of the community every Friday, praying for protection and the end to violence, and signaling to the homeboys that their actions would not be tolerated. At the same time, a group of these women worked with the parish priest to find jobs for the kids. To their dismay, few businesses would employ gang members—kids with tattoos that might turn away customers or, worse yet, might bring the violence into the business. Out of desperation , the women helped organize and raise funds for a tortilla factory that could employ these young people. Today, Homeboy Industries is a multifaceted outreach program that includes a silk-screening business , a Homegirl Café, a bakery, a charter school, a solar panel training program, tattoo removal, case management, job development, mental health counseling, and a variety of other programs. Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who is largely behind these efforts, credits the 210 Grace R. Dyrness women of Dolores Mission for being the founding force behind Homeboy Industries (Boyle 2010). A community that was wracked with violence and despair suddenly had hope that there was a pathway out, a future for the youth, and that deep wounds could begin to heal. It was the women’s belief that their faith was relevant to their own situation that inspired them and held them together to work on solutions. Religion provides this hope for women in cities around the globe. Particularly in inner cities of the developed world and desperately poor cities of the developing world, women find in their faith a source of strength for creating change. This chapter examines some of the ways that women in cities turn to religion as a way to transcend their struggles for existence, and it explores some of the results of this engagement. Much of the chapter focuses on work that I did as part of research teams with other faculty at the University of Southern California, primarily through the Center for Religion and Civic Culture, and therefore Los Angeles is consistently used in examples of the role of religion, particularly in the lives of immigrants . Religious Practice in Cities Not only do cities provide a variety of opportunities for employment, entertainment, living styles, culinary diversity, and so forth, but they also provide many options for religious engagement, a diversity of paths to spiritual and mystical presence. There is considerable freedom of choice in most cities in religious practice; even for migrants who are surrounded by a kinship or ethnic group, the cultural restraints on making choices are rarely as limiting as they were in their village or their home country. Although immigrants in Los Angeles, when interviewed, expressed concern over the dangers of such pluralism, they also noted that they relished the freedom they experienced. Women interviewed commented that in the city they can practice their religion in public ways that were proscribed in their homelands, where they had to confine their worship to the home (Miller, Miller, and Dyrness 2002). Religious practice takes a variety of forms, and for immigrants in particular it continues to exercise a strong attraction. In my research I have found at least four major ways in which faith and its practice have been particularly relevant to the women I have worked with: (1) religion as a source for building and strengthening a sense of community; (2) religion as a source for supplying a variety of needs, from providing emergency food and clothing, to helping to find employment, to building...


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