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Prayers out of Compton

A lively prayer gathering left me with a lot to ponder

Prayers out of Compton

Veronica Moore (in blue) at the Compton prayer meeting (Sophia Lee)

Last week, I experienced the most uncomfortable prayer meeting. I was the only Asian in a group of about 24 mostly black women gathered in Compton, Calif., but that wasn’t what made me uncomfortable. No, what caught me off guard was that I was the only person not crying or wailing or speaking in tongues. 

A church friend had invited me to the weekly prayer meeting in Compton when she found out I’ve been pursuing stories about race and racial reconciliation. Compton, a city just south of Los Angeles, has become synonymous for racial tensions, neighborhood gangs, and anti-cop sentiments, especially since the 1988 release of the groundbreaking hip-hop album Straight Outta Compton. For weeks I had been reaching out to local African-American churches in Los Angeles, hoping to build some contacts, and not a single one had responded to me. So I prayed for God to open doors for me, and when I heard about this prayer group, I took it as a sign and said yes. 

That Wednesday morning, I walked into the living room of a two-bedroom, single-family house, where women with bright smiles stood up to hug and greet me. Veronica Moore, a woman whom everyone called “Mother,” was clearly the leader. Moore, a spunky, fashionable lady with indigo and violet tints in her layered bangs, wore a royal blue top, sparkly blue sandals, and droopy blue earrings—and this woman was on fire. At first she sat among us, casually chatting with a woman beside her, then the passion in her voice began rising and her fists began pumping for emphasis, and soon she was bouncing on her feet, preaching an impromptu, spirited sermon. 

“We keep putting people into categories like race,” she said. “But we have to go deeper. Remember, we all come from a sin nature. We all have strongholds in our life that’s not from God, that’s outside of His divine image, His will. To break free of those strongholds, there needs to be an emptying and dying to oneself. We need to have the mind of Christ. We need to be possessed by God—to be so taken over by Him that nothing else can take over you.” 

Then Moore slapped her knee and raised her finger, her eyes brightening as though a sudden enlightenment had hit her: “Think about this: How often do we talk about the desire to be possessed by the Spirit of God?” By then she was strutting around the room, unable to restrain her excitement. “Possession by God is all of Him in me, to love and live and breathe Him. It causes me to love people whom I couldn’t love before. Not fleshly love, not carnal, conditional, phileo love, but love for people who are hard to love.”

“Amen, yes, Lord!” one woman burst out. 

Another woman spoke up, visibly moved: “Mother, I have been praying for that. I have been praying that God overtakes me with His love, so that I won’t hate or resent others.” 

“Yes, sister,” Moore said. “This love of God is not just unconditional, but unlimited. It knows no boundaries. It goes wherever it needs to go, no matter of race, creed, or color. Jesus Christ is the perfect example of this love. He came down in flesh.” She pointed around the room. “He understands how you feel, why you feel that way. And His love can heal all your wounds.” 

A woman raised her hands and shut her eyes. Another clapped and whooped. Yet another hummed “Mm, mm, mm” to herself, as though tasting something new and delicious. 

One woman began sobbing: “I understand now. I ask God, oh Lord, deliver me, make me whole! Take out whatever it is that causes me to not operate out of You!” 

Moore read from the book of 1 John out loud, then said, “Do you have hatred? Envy, resentment, jealousy, bitterness? I ask you to examine yourselves right now.” 

One young woman with braids raised her hand and asked, “But how do you forgive someone who doesn’t feel sorry for the hurt they caused you?” 

Moore stooped down to look into the young woman’s eyes: “You can still make a decision to forgive that person whether or not that person feels remorse. Forgiveness is always your choice. Satan will always give you a good reason not to forgive, but true forgiveness through God’s love will free you from the prison you’re in. Unforgiveness is like carrying a dead body.” 

As I sat there listening to this interactive sermon, I recognized that although these women weren’t directly addressing the issue of race, everything they were saying could be applied to that—and to much, much more. I later learned that many of these women had dealt with brokenness such as dysfunctional families and addictions. What Moore was preaching wasn’t just theology to them—it was much-needed food and drink for the hungry and thirsty. 

By the end of the meeting, almost everyone was weeping and shouting prayers. They hugged one another. They yelled “Hallelujah!” and spoke in tongues. Some interpreted, some exhorted. Some fell to their knees sobbing, as though years of grief were streaming out in salty tears. Others had big smiles, with eyes shut and open palms to the heavens, as though enjoying a private moment with God. 

In the midst of all these physical and audible expressions was me, sitting in the corner with my hands tucked between my knees, wondering what to make of all this spiritual commotion. Certainly, this was unlike any prayer meeting I’d been to before. I’m a continuationist, but I have no spiritual gifts of tongues or prophecy or vision, nor have I particularly desired them, as I’ve always been (and still am) wary about charismatic movements that can take the emphasis on spiritual gifts too far away from Scripture. 

At that moment, I felt like one of the bewildered onlookers during the day of Pentecost, amazed and astonished by the sight of Spirit-filled Galileans uttering in other tongues. These women were engaging in prayer with all of themselves—their bodies, their emotions, their spirits, their minds—and even as I felt incredibly uncomfortable, I also wondered, What if my own prayer life took on such urgency and vitality? 

It reminded me of another woman I’d met at my own church’s prayer meeting. While others prayed with eloquent, theologically rich words, her prayer was short: “Oh Lord, help me! Help me!” Those cries, though brief, somehow struck me. There was something about the rawness of her prayer, like the cries of a child declaring her helplessness yet fully expecting God to respond with immediate hugs and kisses. 

When the Compton meeting ended, Moore approached me to greet me. I thanked her for her sermon and said, “You gave me a lot to think about. I’m going to have to process all of that later in my mind.” She smiled knowingly and pointed at my chest: “Yes, but not just your mind—in your heart and spirit, too.” 

Her words reminded me of something I’d prayed about before: to experience deep intimacy in my daily communication with God. I tend to engage with God with my mind, yet struggle to connect with Him with my heart and soul as well. I approach my devotional time and Sunday worship with an eagerness for intellectual stimulation, for nuggets of wisdom that will challenge me to be a better, more dedicated Christian and to help others be better, more dedicated Christians. But that kind of mindset hasn’t fulfilled my other, greater desire: to enjoy deep, authentic, unadulterated intimacy with my Father God, to love God not just with my mind and strength but also with all my heart and soul. 

Frankly, I had come with so many questions for the women at this prayer group. But something inside me told me to hold back, to first wait and observe. There was more than an education about racial issues for me to glean here. So I told Moore I’d be back.

Comments

  • Vannoys
    Posted: Tue, 04/30/2019 11:51 am

    Great article!  I'm glad you're going back.  Wish I could go too!  There are some great truths coming out of that prayer meeting.  Praise the Lord!

  • Xion's picture
    Xion
    Posted: Mon, 05/06/2019 08:28 am

    We are planning to go up to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Watts where Aretha Franklin recorded her best selling Amazing Grace album in 1972.  We hear there is not much left and few attendees now in this crime ridden neighborhood, but we assume it isn't more dangerous than a church we assist frequently in Tijuana.  And we know we won't go before our time.  Whether or not my motorcycle will be stolen is another story.