478: Through riot, fire and earthquake— an interview on prayer’s power with interfaith activist Rev. Kenneth Flowers

What’s the power of prayer?
    We know that 9 out of 10 Americans say they pray at least sometimes. But, in fresh Pew research this spring, 8 out of 10 Americans said that “prayer is an important part of my daily life.” That could be a sign of the huge challenges we’re facing these days.
    But how does prayer work? What’s involved?
    Today, we are publishing a dramatic interview with the Rev. Kenneth Flowers, who has popped up repeatedly in national news media through the years—especially for his courageous partnerships in Los Angeles during the 1992 riots and again in the wake of the 1994 earthquake. (He’s currently senior pastor of Greater New Mt. Moriah Baptist Church in Detroit.)
    This is a special 2-part interview, because the lessons Ken has learned offer powerful wisdom about the nature and the possibilities of prayer.
    TODAY in PART 1: Ken tells how a lifetime committed to communal prayer—meeting, talking and praying with people from many religious and cultural backgrounds—holds the potential to heal our communities.
    TOMORROW in PART 2: Ken explains the biblical basis of his approach to prayer—drawn from ancient Hebrew Scriptures shared by Jews, Christians and revered as sacred text by Muslims as well.


    DAVID: Ken, you and I have known each other for more than 10 years. You’re only 48 years old as we’re speaking today—yet you’ve lived a bigger life already than most of us ever will. I want to zero in on some of the most dramatic events in your life. But let’s start with this: You were born in Detroit, right?
    KEN: Yes, right here in the Motor City.
    DAVID: But you also worked as a pastor in Los Angeles during one of that city’s most explosive eras.
    KEN: I went to Los Angeles in 1987 to work at Wilshire United Methodist Church, specializing in working with youth and young adults and I was also the director of the ecumenical black campus ministry at UCLA. Then, in 1989, I became the pastor of Messiah Baptist Church in Los Angeles, only the second pastor in that church’s history. The organizing pastor had been there 34 years. I was 28 when I started there in 1989.
    DAVID: It was at Messiah in the heart of Los Angeles’ African American community that you found yourself in the middle of the fires, the upheaval, the rage in 1992. Thank God we haven’t had any civil disturbances on that scale in Detroit for decades, but—
    KEN: Now, remember that I was living in Detroit back in 1967. I was 6 years old that summer and I remember seeing the violence, the looting and the tanks rolling right down our streets.
    DAVID: Then, flashing forward to 1992 in Los Angeles—
    KEN: That was the year of the LA Uprising. Some people call it the LA riots. But those of us who lived in Los Angeles called it the uprising.

    DAVID: During that uprising, a friendship you made—through prayer between two congregations—played a crucial role in helping to heal from the destruction that unfolded.
    KEN: That’s right. The friendship we formed there was with Temple Israel of Hollywood, led by Rabbi John Rosove. It was particularly moving because one of his members actually was killed in the uprising.
    DAVID: Well, let’s not spoil the end of this story. First, I need to ask: You refer to what happened as an uprising, as many people do who live in Los Angeles. Why do you use that term? I know you’re not trying to justify such violence. Your life is a testament to nonviolence.

    KEN: Here’s why many have used that term, “uprising.” This all took place about a year after Rodney King was beaten by police officers—and there was videotape of the beating that was shown around the world. That happened in 1991. Then the trial of the police officers was moved out of Los Angeles and, on April 29, 1992, an all-white jury over in Simi Valley acquitted those four police officers who beat Rodney King.
    That’s when the city erupted. But what many people don’t realize is that this was just the final straw that broke the camel’s back. In Los Angeles there had been this mood that African Americans were not treated with the same level of respect and justice as other minorities. Around the time of the Rodney King beating, there was a 15-year-old black girl who was shot in the back of the head and killed by a Korean grocer. The storeowner claimed this girl was stealing a bottle of orange juice. Later the facts showed that the girl had her money out to put on the counter and she was not stealing that bottle of orange juice at all. But the lady thought she was stealing the juice and, in the end, the girl was shot in the back of the head. The girl died and this woman who shot her got off on that charge with no jail time. (Wikipedia summarizes the case of Latasha Harlins, the girl who was shot.)
    Some months after this storeowner got off with no jail time there was a man who was charged with animal cruelty involving his dog. That man received two years in jail. So African Americans were saying: A dog’s life is worth more than an African American girl’s life? A dog is killed by this man who gets 2 years? And here’s a young black woman killed and the grocer gets probation? That was brewing. There were other tensions involving blacks and other minorities as well. Rodney King was beaten and everyone could see what happened there. It was captured on videotape. The whole world saw what happened. People hoped that at last there would be some justice.
    Then, in 1992, an all-white jury acquits these four white officers. That’s why people in LA thought of this as an uprising. There were all these situations building up and this Rodney king verdict was a final straw. (Wiki offers an overview of the 1992 tragedy.)
    This uprising wasn’t just a tragic state of lawlessness in the city. There was a state of hopelessness, too, and rage. There were so many layers to what unfolded. At that time, I was part of a group called the African American Men’s Coalition, which consisted of the men of our church, Messiah Baptist, three other local churches, including a Catholic church, and some men from the Muslim community. Our coalition’s task was to try to bring about a better community in Los Angeles.

    DAVID: You didn’t waste time. You guys tackled some of the toughest problems in that part of Los Angeles, right?
    KEN: We had educational programs to help students earn better grades—programs like that. But we also met with gangbangers, the Crips and the Bloods, at my church at Messiah. I had these gangbangers coming to my church on a Tuesday nights to meet. I would go in and speak to them. (Wiki’s overview of these two infamous gangs: the Crips and the Bloods. The image at right is from a computer game with Crips as iconic bad guys.)
    DAVID: You’re not a big guy yourself. That must have taken quite a bit of courage! You walking in there with Crips and Bloods?
    KEN: Oh, yes! I walked into the room with these gangbangers and I remember the first time I did this—they stood up. That blew me away! These gangbangers stood up for me. I actually said, “You don’t need to stand for me.”
    And one man said, “No, we’ll stand because we respect a man of God.”
    And I remember one of them said, “We even checked our guns at the door.”
    (Ken laughs!) Guns?! At the door?!
    DAVID: What did you say? Did you know that your church had a Gun Check at the door? When you recovered, what did you say?
    KEN: (laughs again) Well, I said: “Thank you. I am so glad to hear that!” I said, “We don’t want no shooting up in here!”
    But, we really did work so hard with them. Together with the African American Men’s Coalition, the Crips and the Bloods worked out a truce. Now, that truce only lasted about seven or eight months—but it was a truce! That was important and we worked that out together.
    All of that work was going on and people knew me from those efforts—prior to the uprising in 1992. When we knew that the jury verdict in the Rodney King case was about to come back in Simi Valley, we had made up our minds that we would be pro-active. We had planned a rally at First AME Church—so that, if the jury found the police officers guilty, it would be a time of rejoicing that justice was served. If the jury found them not guilty, then this rally would be a time when people could vent their anger in a constructive rather than destructive way.

    DAVID: The city was so tense that day. I remember the national news reports.
    KEN: Yes. On the day of the verdicts, I pulled up to my church and there was a plain unmarked police car up in front of my church. I didn’t recognize that car at all, then this police officer gets out and he says, “are you Rev. Flowers?”
    I said, “May I help you?”
    He said, “I’ve been assigned to you.”
    I said, “Assigned to me?”
    He said, “Yes, we’ve been alerted there could be an uprising depending on how the jury rules—so the chief has assigned officers to pastors who work with groups in the city.”
    I was assigned a police officer and so were the pastors of these other congregations who worked in the African American Men’s Coalition.
    I said, “Well, I don’t think I’ll need you here. We’re trying to bring about peace, not conflict. But you’re welcome to come into the church with me.”
    As it turned out, we sat there in the church office with a TV set and watched the verdicts together. The officer was standing right in my office—just the two of us were there when the jury came back—and I’ll never forget when I heard those first two words: “Not guilty.”
    I just leaped to my feet. And the verdicts came one after the other: Not guilty! Not guilty! Not guilty! Not guilty!
    I sank back down in my chair and the words came out of my mouth without my even thinking of what I was saying. I said, “They are going to burn this city down.”
    This had been brewing for so long that I knew what was about to happen. We had tried to plan this event at the AME church where people could come and voice their anger in a constructive way. But there was no time. The uprising took just a matter of minutes. The officer’s radio right there in my office began to go off. We heard a crowd was gathering.
    I called my wife and she said she was going to come to the rally at the AME church, but now she wasn’t sure she could get there. I told her not to even try to come down for it. I wanted her to stay home with our children.
    But I did go to the rally and the mayor came—and it was the first time I had seen Mayor Tom Bradley booed. A lot of African American folk didn’t understand Mayor Bradley. Some called him an Uncle Tom. It really hurt to see that. He was trying to help calm the city down and for the first time I can recall, he was booed. This was bad. And it was ludicrous. So unfair. The mayor had nothing to do with that jury.

    DAVID: Things got a whole lot worse than that.
    KEN: Yes they did. We were at this rally and the mayor had just left—and folk came inside. We heard: “They’re rioting right out front!”
    We walked out of the church. I was with some men from my church and they walked right around me, trying to protect me. Then, right away, my members started saying, “Pastor, you’ve got to get back inside the church here! We can’t protect you out here.” At first, I didn’t do what they told me. I thought I’d be fine.
    But as we walked, we saw the police in full riot gear backing up from the crowd. The police were backing up! This was bad. Folk began throwing bottles, rocks—and I saw fires, too. Someone threw something over my head and it hit a guy standing right behind me. Someone from my church pushed me down on the ground.
    I said, “I need to talk to people. We’ve got to bring some peace here.”
    Then, one of my members told me: “Pastor, you can’t talk to these people right now.” And he was right, of course. This was out of control.
    So we got back inside the AME church and the whole church soon was surrounded. Fires were burning all around that area. Then, the lines were cut to the church. There was no outside communication for a while.
    When lines were restored and communication was back up, one of the first things I saw on television was a shopping center that I knew was right near where we lived. My heart just stopped because I knew my wife and kids were near those fires. It was about 8 or 9 o’clock in the evening and people were burning a store right near my house!

    DAVID: That must have been horrifying. As a parent myself, I can barely imagine—
    KEN: It was. It was. But all the phone lines were down. I couldn’t get through to my wife. We couldn’t step out of that church. It was terrifying. We have three kids now, but back then it was two children and finally I got through to a trustee by telephone who was able to check on my wife and kids. He told me they were safe, but they were down on the floor of our home because so much violence was raging all around them. People were shooting.
    This was the point where I began to feel some of what Dr. King must have felt when his house was bombed in 1956 with his wife and his little daughter there in the home. That situation was so dangerous for Dr. King and his family, too. He was committed to nonviolence in the face of that kind of violence, that kind of danger. (The photo at right is one of many news photos taken through the years of King showing the effects of violence. The King home that was bombed in 1956 was repaired, still stands and remains a stop on Civil Rights tours of the South.)
    DAVID: There are summaries of that night in ’56 in various King biographies. It was a defining moment in the nonviolence campaign. King was away from his home at a mass meeting that night. His wife and their daughter Yolanda, who was just a baby at the time, were both home when this bomb landed on their front porch. King rushed home to find that the porch was destroyed and glass was blown into the home from the blast. His family was fine, but an angry mob was swelling in the neighborhood. Many angry people had bottles and there were even some guns. White police officers couldn’t control the crowd. And it was King who spoke from the porch who calmed things.
    KEN: That’s what I was thinking about. The biggest pain for me that night was not knowing what was happening to my family back at the house. We had reports of people shooting each other all around us in Los Angeles that night.
    I wanted to get home—but at first I could not even get out of this church where we had been staying for safety. It was about 2:30 before I could leave the church. Everything I saw around me was like a war zone. All I could smell was smoke. There were fires burning everywhere I looked. I got home and I rushed in to see my kids and my wife and I said, “Thank you, Jesus, they’re OK”!

    DAVID: It was a short night for you that night.
    KEN: Yes, it was. The very next morning, I had to be at a meeting to try to organize some kind of help. I had very little sleep. I remember driving to that meeting and still fires were everywhere. In 1967, I had seen these frightening scenes in Detroit, but there was a world—an entirely different perspective here. When I had last seen things like this, I was 6 years old. Now, I was a man and I was a leader in this community. I wasn’t just supposed to survive this situation—I was supposed to do something to help this community!
    Plus, I was praying to God that no one would hurt me or hurt my family. Everything smelled like smoke. Those fires burned from the day of the verdict for three straight days. It wasn’t until Friday evening that week that the fires and the looting settled down.
    And that weekend, we had services.

    DAVID: Now, let’s return to your friendship with Rabbi Rosove and the Jewish congregation. (Here’s the Web site of Temple Israel where Rabbi Rosove still serves.)
    First, what happened to the member of Rosove’s congregation who was killed?
    KEN: The man worked in south central Los Angeles and he was snatched out of his car just because he was white—and they killed him. It was a terrible thing.
    And yet, on that Sunday, Rabbi Rosove and 30 or 40 members from Temple Israel were there in the city with us. These people had a right to be angry! They had buried one of their members. I would have understood if they’d never set foot in the city again. And yet? And yet, they came to worship with us and one of Rabbi Rosove’s members was so moved that he decided to give a personal donation of $5,000 to our church to help in the rebuilding of Los Angeles.

    DAVID: I’ve heard this story before, Ken. And it always moves me.
    KEN: On that day, I was moved. The spirit moved me. To think that they would worship with us—and work side by side with us in the city. And I’ll never forget the sermon I preached that day: “Stay with the Ship!” It was based on the story of a shipwreck in Acts 27 involving the Apostle Paul. At one point, as the storms tossed this ship, people were afraid that the sailors might abandon the ship. Paul warned that if the sailors were allowed to escape, then everyone on the ship would be lost—and so they cut away the lifeboats so that no one could leave. The story goes on and eventually the ship breaks up and, even then, Paul has people help each other. People who cannot swim toward shore took hold of the pieces still floating in the water—so that everyone might safely reach the shore.
    I talked about what we all had come through. I talked about the years of injustices we all had seen. The government was not working properly. Justice was not on the people’s side. And now? The city was burning. People were venting and angry. And I declared: “Stay with the ship! We have a system of laws! We have a system of justice! Stay with the ship!”
    Then, I just took off and let the Holy Spirit take control. I preached and the Holy Ghost took over until we just—we just really had church up in there! Afterward, Rabbi Rosove said, “Ken I have never heard anyone preach like that.”
    DAVID: And from this sermon—you and all the people in the church that day went together—Jews and Christians—to roll up your sleeves and serve that neighborhood.
    KEN: That’s right. We went into the banquet area of our church and there we all stood together that day—we gave out food, water, clothing, all the things people needed after a disaster of this magnitude.
    Here was a congregation who just had lost a life! One of their members was killed in the uprising and still they found the courage to leave their safe confines in the suburbs and come down into Los Angeles into this neighborhood where they stood with us and passed out the things that families so desperately needed. And one of the men was moved that day to write this $5,000 check. He wanted to help us establish a computer center there at the church to educate more students and help to revitalize that part of the city.
    We were shoulder to shoulder that day. We established a haven in the midst of this great tragedy. We brought about community in the center of broken communities.

    DAVID: And it didn’t end there, did it? There’s a rather dramatic epilogue to this story.
    KEN: No, it did not end in the smoke of the uprising. We had established a strong relationship. And to this day, I say to people: Establish relationships! Establish relationships because that is what matters when times get tough.
    Two years later, in 1994, we had the big earthquake—and, once again, Temple Israel was there to help, based on this relationship we had formed through prayer and worship and work together.
    When the earthquake occurred, our church was damaged and red tagged and we couldn’t even worship there. The LA Times reported on that Friday that we had no place to worship. Here we were—this church that had been a haven in the midst of the uprising in 1992, a place where community was restored in that chaos—and now we had no place to worship.
    Do you know the only person who called me when that LA Times story appeared? It wasn’t a Baptist. It wasn’t any other Christian minister. It was Rabbi John Rosove who called me. He read that story about our building being condemned and he was the only clergy colleague who called me that Friday. “Where you going to worship on Sunday?” he asked me.
    “I have no idea,” I said. “I just got the word yesterday and we’re scrambling to find a place, so we don’t know just yet.”
    I’ll never forget what he said to me. He said, “You can come out to Temple Israel of Hollywood and you can worship here and you can keep worshiping here until you find your new home.”
    DAVID: Remarkable.
    KEN: That was the one call I got from a colleague. I warned him it was a controversial idea, but he insisted: “Ken, don’t make other plans. Come here. Worship here. Do your Bible studies here. Come.”
    And that’s where those news stories came from on the networks. CNN and FOX came to see this relationship of Christians and Jews working together. We had church up in there that day—and we were a sign of the community that can form. It was such a powerful moment.

JUMP TO … PART 2: Ken explains the biblical basis of his approach to
prayer—drawn from ancient Hebrew Scriptures shared by Jews, Christians
and revered as sacred text by Muslims as well.


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