Continuing to see just one side of the story means the view never changes.
“East Los Angeles, for me, had always been an area in Los Angeles that I tried to avoid since all I heard were stories of violence and despair. It’s an area I associated with high levels of gang violence,” said University of San Diego senior Daniel Hernandez.
While there is significant truth to Hernandez’s statement, it’s also important to have a full picture of the area. To change one’s perception, or to expand their knowledge is important. That’s exactly what Hernandez, nine other USD students and university ministers Erin Bishop and Annette Welsh did on a recent immersion trip to East L.A.’s Boyle Heights. It was done through the Romero Immersion Programs part of USD’s University Ministry.
The group’s visit lasted only three days but the impact of that time — spent at Delores Mission Parish (pictured, right) and School, at Homeboy Industries to tour the place founded by Father Greg Boyle which serves and assists at-risk youth and former gang members, visiting the Cardinal Manning Center, a homeless shelter on Los Angeles’ Skid Row and more — brought back a new impression.
“What surprised me most about Boyle Heights was the sense of community and the sense of hope present in each person we met,” Hernandez said.
The student group — Hernandez, Shannon Schumacher, Rebecca Garcia-Rangel, Dylan Heydan, Celina Gonzalez, Lisa Duffy, Camille Rodriguez, Kevin Stone, Lexie James and student leader Mackenzie Maurer — met three consecutive Sunday nights in Founders Hall to prepare for the trip. They got acquainted with each other, learned about Boyle Heights and reflected on the central themes, the values of social justice, simplicity, community and spirituality.
“These meetings clarified for me that this was not a service trip,” Hernandez said. “We were going to immerse ourselves into a community in East L.A. and not only were we going to help people, but we would also share in their experiences of daily life.”
“The Quintero family received Dylan, Kevin and myself for two nights. On those nights, we had dinner with the family and spent time talking with them,” Hernandez said. “They shared their stories about how the community had grown and come together to overcome its struggles. Although a very humble family, they expressed how grateful they were for everything God had given them. They were especially grateful for Father Boyle’s work and always referred to him with the utmost affection.”
James said spending time with her host mom, Santa, and nine family members was a “humbling experience.” In all, 13 people were together in the tiny apartment but that just brought everyone closer.
“Santa had one daughter play a musical instrument for us, she said one was an honors student and another was great at baseball and she talked about each one of her children,” James recalled. “As she spoke about each one (of six), you could see how proud she was. She had so much pride.”
James said working with children at Delores Mission School also reaffirmed her desire to be a teacher. “The trip to East L.A. was the best three days I’ve had this year in a really long time,” she said. “Everyone was so kind-hearted and accepted us. Working at the school reminded me that these are the kids I want to work with and share with them my love for teaching.”
The experience, especially one in the U.S. and more specifically, in Southern California, lived up to what Maurer and her classmates hoped it would.
“The idea of an immersion trip so close to home really spurred, I think, from the desire to be a witness to the realities of so many people in our local community,” she said. “I know I’ve had many conversations with friends about how it’s possible that I was born an hour away from East L.A. and yet our lives are so different. I think being in community with others who live just a few hours away can really help us recognize that inequalities and injustices do exist in our own community and social injustices that impact those around the world are also realities for so many here.”
Bishop said having a University Ministry immersion in Southern California was partly a response to student feedback. “Our immersion trips to Tijuana and El Salvador are very popular, but it’s become clear that our students want to be exposed to communities in the United States that have been marginalized,” she said. “It really hits home in a different way when it’s not about crossing a physical border, but a metaphorical one.”
It certainly helped Hernandez, a Theology and Religious Studies major, going forward.
“It’s motivated me to become more involved in service projects on a regular basis and it challenged me to practice what I learn in the classroom,” he said. “I realize if I just learn theology and don’t put it into practice, then it’s all in vain.”
— Ryan T. Blystone