LA Riots: Koreatown Pastor Michael Mata Led Relief Effort to Neighborhood

KOREATOWN, Calif. — When a good dose of hell was engulfing much of the city during the L.A. Riots, Michael Mata, an evangelical Latino transplanted from Texas, said he could have vacated along with his wife and children out of the area then known as Mid-Wilshire.

They had that option. They could have gone out of town for a while or simply moved. But they didn’t.

Mata decided that they couldn’t leave their neighbors, who didn’t have that option, behind. Their neighbors and entire neighborhoods had nowhere to go during the six days of violence that erupted on April 29, 1992 after a trial jury acquitted four officers of the Los Angeles Police Department of the use of excessive force in the videotaped arrest and beating of Rodney King.

Fifty-five people were killed during the riots, more than 2,000 people were injured, and more than 11,000 arrested. Looting and arson were rampant and estimates of property damage were over $1 billion. Much of L.A. was in chaos, as Mata describes it. The California Army National Guard, the 7th Infantry Division, and the 1st Marine Division were called in to stop the rioting when it became evident that local police was not enough.

“For me and my wife, we had to really grapple, do we stay or leave with our kids? We stayed, but we knew most of these people had nowhere to go,” Mata told Together LA as many leaders and residents of local communities remember the riots that took place 25 years ago. “They couldn’t go like what happened in Hancock Park — they went on vacation. They just left, they had a vacation house. They had the means to get on a plane and go somewhere. Here, they didn’t.”

LA Riots

Michael Mata, who led a relief effort during and after the LA Riots which began on April 29, 1992, greets friend on 3rd Street. (Photo: John Fredricks)

Mata said he was at L.A. First Church of the Nazarene, where he was on the pastoral staff, when the verdict happened. “It was a Wednesday in which the news came out about the verdict and then you had that Florence and Normandie (intersection where Reginald Denny was brutally attacked) explosion of incredible anger, frustration, which had been building up for awhile. It was almost inevitable.”

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Later in the day, Mata said he was called by World Vision to attend a meeting in Monrovia the next morning in which his help was needed on deciding how the relief group could best help in L.A.

“The focus was on South LA,” he explained. “I’m there at the meeting. The television is blaring and they said, ‘Look, isn’t that your church? Hey, your neighborhood is burning.’ You could make out in the smoke on TV, [from the helicopters camera view], that it was my neighborhood.”

Unable to call anyone because of the failed phone system, Mata left the meeting to head home into scenes of looting and rioting, a maze of blocked off streets, and rubble strewn avenues.

“It was probably the first time I felt uncomfortable being in the city because it was chaotic, it was totally out of control,” he said.

LA Riots

Michael Mata has led and equipped others in urban transformation for more than 30 years through the creation of community and church-based programs. (Photo: John Fredricks)

Upon his return to his church he discovered that on day two of the riot, hundreds of people were in the church parking lot looking for help. L.A. First Church of the Nazarene became a distribution and volunteer center.

Just a couple blocks away from the church a fire erupted in an apartment complex in which residents, many from Central America, lost their homes.

“So, it was the end of the month and rent was due on March 1,” Mata said. “Half their apartment is gone. They are in shock and the landlord said pay us the rent. Then, to just add trauma upon trauma, you had the National Guard coming in with arms and people were reliving the trauma of Central America’s civil war.

“They were feeling abandoned, that no one really cares, they were frightened, not knowing what’s going to happen, the National Guard comes in and now the landlord comes in threatening to evict them. We ended up doing a lot of pastoral care and we probably needed to do more counseling for the families, and the children in particular who were really traumatized. It was just really a bad scene here.”

Contributing to the tension was a lot of misinformation and lack of understanding between cultures, he said. An aspect not noticed by many was that the majority of the population in South L.A. had become Latino. “The neighborhood had changed… it wasn’t a monolithic black community,” Mata said. “And also that it was essentially Central Americans. In fact, 50 percent of the people arrested were Latino, a third of the people killed were Latino. 40 percent of the businesses destroyed were Latino owned. They suffered a lot socioeconomically, but you don’t always pick up on that.

Where was the Church?

The mainstay of the community in the area were the churches but “the pastors weren’t necessarily skilled or even knew how to do” relief or urban restoration work, he said. “It took a lot of other non-profit activists to kind of come in and fill in.”

Mata said that churches were taken off guard when the riots hit, “like a deer in the headlights because, at least the established churches here never had experienced something like this. Maybe (within churches) some of the older generation Koreans remember the Korean War and its impact on their country. The younger African Americans, they probably remember the Watts riots, but with the Hispanic or Latino community in South LA, in this area in particular, who were from Central America, they had come from war torn countries, so they were very much aware of what the ramifications might be in terms of their well being.”

Despite a shortage of leadership from churches, people really wanted to do something, anything to help, Mata said. “People were showing up from everywhere. We set up a volunteer station here. That went on for months even though things had settled down.”

In talking about his experience during the L.A. riots, he said, “I felt like I was in a 45-day long meeting because we needed to partner with other sectors so it was the public sector, which was government local and city offices, it was the non-profit sector, those that had been doing work in the community, and a lot of faith based nonprofits started showing up as well. There weren’t as many as I thought there could have been, and then there were the churches. There were churches that were kind of floundering [and asking] how do we do this? How do we work together?”

Mata, who has lived in the Koreatown area since 1980, said his church had a network of relationships between people and churches the church worked with in this neighborhood and beyond. He said they began to “leverage those relationships” in order to move supplies past the 10 Freeway to the south because “the 10 Freeway was like a border. No one wanted to cross that border because that was no person’s land.”

Mata explained that because one of the church’s interns at the time was doing youth work he was able to pull volunteers from young people wanting to help coming from South L.A.

“We connected with those families of the youth,” he said. “Mother’s became block captains making sure the food and supplies were distributed to the blocks they were assigned. We had about 20 families here. They would help distribute supplies as needed.”

Mata said his church wasn’t the only one in the mix of helping ravaged communities. “The well known church was First AME off of Western and Adams. They were kind of the church where everybody (political leaders for example) went. They did a lot in the aftermath but it doesn’t mean that other churches weren’t involved. I remember being in Kenneth Ulmer’s church (not bigger than this sanctuary) as he was also trying to respond.

“There were a lot of churches trying to respond but they just didn’t have the capacity. They were trying to do something but they didn’t have the link. A lot of them were either independent or isolated churches. The ones that were doing better were the ones that were denominationally affiliated.”

He added, “There were a lot of collaborative efforts. It was the independent churches that didn’t know where to get the support.”

Where is the Church now?

“On the smaller scale, the non-denominational and independent churches, their staff and pastors were not necessarily community development orientated,” Mata said. “So, out of that, in partnership with World Vision we created a program called Vision to Reality. We help [churches and ministry leaders] in terms of creating affiliate non-profits, how to do grant writing, the need for a written collaboration and networking, and those kind of efforts. That help we gave was pretty ecumenical and interdenominational.

“We worked with Roman Catholic parishes, mainline Pentecostals, and churches in general. That was really important at the time in understanding that we are only going to be able to do this as the Body of Christ working together.”

The riots were finally over after six days, and in the months that followed, Koreatown rebuilt quickly, Mata said. “At that point, it was helping cleanup and rebuild, in a way, our community. It was project driven. We had some goals in mind and I think that was a really important piece that has come back to me, even at Together LA (conference held two years ago), when I was on the panel discussion where we asked this question. It seems like when you work together on something that is meaningful and purposeful that it really generates the energy and the willingness to really do something. And we get to know each other. We sweat and work together and we see that we are sisters and brothers, not just, ‘Oh, that’s a pastor over there or that’s our competition over there.’ To this day, when we bump into each other we kinda hug and look at each other and [say] wasn’t it amazing what we were able to do… outside of what the business community wanted to do.”

Is the Church ready?

“I’m fearful, but I’m hopeful,” Mata said. “I don’t know if another event were to happen tomorrow, even an earthquake, could we call somebody? [For example,] ‘Hey, Pastor John, what are you guys doing?’ I [personally] don’t have those relationships at that level.

“The reason we were so effective at this church at what we did is because we had those relationships. Not only with other pastors and religious leaders but with the community. We had youth, we had families that knew us, trusted us and we trusted them, and we were able to really respond overnight.

“Yes, we do need to get to know each other.”

When asked if something like the L.A. riots could happen again, Mata looked straight at this reporter and said, “Yes, absolutely.”

Michael A. Mata, M.Div., who is an Adjunct Professor at Azusa Pacific Seminary, has led and equipped others in urban transformation for more than 30 years through the creation of community and church-based programs. His work has focused on community transformation, youth leadership development, public health, intercultural outreach, and multiethnic ministry. Mata serves as community transformation specialist for Compassion Creates Change, Inc., and was the director of Tools for Transformation for World Vision’s U.S. programs. He has nearly 20 years of experience in urban pastoral leadership, and holds degrees in biblical literature, religion, and urban planning.

LA Riots

LA First Church of the Nazarene serves Korean, Filipino, Spanish and English speaking congregations. “It’s one church, one denomination, but four congregations.” (Photo: John Fredericks)

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