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Sophia Lee

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

Prayers out of Compton

A lively prayer gathering left me with a lot to ponder

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.

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Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Chu Yiu-ming speaks at an April 24 vigil at the Lai Chi Kok prison. (Justin Chin/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

Undeterred for democracy

As a Hong Kong court sends four democracy activists to prison, their supporters vow to carry on the fight for free elections

Hundreds of supporters gathered outside Hong Kong’s largest prison, Lai Chi Kok Reception Center, Wednesday night at a candlelight vigil for the four pro-democracy activists sentenced to prison earlier in the day. Supporters wore yellow shirts that read, “I was not incited”: Some of the activists were convicted of antiquated “incitement to incite” public nuisance charges, according to Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP). 

In attendance was 75-year-old Baptist Pastor Chu Yiu-ming, a co-founder of the pro-democracy Occupy Central organization and the subject of WORLD’s latest cover story. Chu was the only Occupy Central co-founder to remain free: A Hong Kong court sentenced two others, legal scholar Benny Tai Yiu-ting and former sociology professor Chan Kin-man, to 16 months in prison each. Chu was also convicted of public nuisance charges, but the court suspended his sentence for two years due to his age and public service record. This means that he likely will not serve time in prison.

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Mel Evans/AP

A sign outside a bail bondsman across the street from Mercer County criminal courthouse in Trenton, N.J. (Mel Evans/AP)

Bail reform and results

New Jersey courts reveal the outcome of removing cash bail almost entirely from their system

A New Jersey moment: 

A year ago I sat in a Manhattan courtroom watching arraignment after arraignment as the judge assigned bail amounts to different criminal cases. At that time, New Jersey had recently eliminated cash bail almost altogether, replacing it with a risk assessment system that would incarcerate only those who were a flight risk or a risk to the community.

Now data is out on how that flashy piece of criminal justice reform has worked in New Jersey. A New Jersey judiciary report concluded: “Concerns about a possible spike in crime and failures to appear did not materialize.” 

Under New Jersey’s bail reform, court appearance rates declined slightly, from 92.7 percent in 2014 to 89.4 percent in 2017. Defendants released pending trial did not go out and commit new crimes at much higher rates, statistically speaking: 12.7 percent did in 2014, and 13.7 percent did in 2017. Meanwhile, the average time defendants spent in jail pretrial cratered by 40 percent, and the pretrial jail population dropped by 43.9 percent. 

“Research has demonstrated that incarceration before trial can have significant unintended consequences, such as the loss of employment, housing, and custody of children,” the judiciary report argued. “Defendants detained in jail while awaiting trial also plead guilty more often, are convicted more often, are sentenced to prison more often, and receive harsher sentences than similarly situated defendants who are released during the pretrial period.”

Worth your time: 

The New York Times’ David Brooks had a great interview with WNYC’s Brian Lehrer about how American hyper-individualism and the drive for “success” is leading to misery. He also took calls from workaholic New Yorkers about his Christian-sounding ideas on community and meaning.

This week I learned: 

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris obtained wax for its candles from bees living in hives on the church’s roof. The beekeeper just learned his 180,000 bees survived the fire

A court case you might not know about: 

This isn’t a formal court case, but seven black, Hispanic, Asian, and white students have filed appeals in New York over the city’s new high-school admissions policy. The city is giving more seats at elite high schools to those from low-income neighborhoods who score on tests below the cutoff for a particular school. The city’s argument is partly that testing is an incomplete way to grant admissions. 

Most students at the top city schools are Asian, creating an interesting debate locally about diversity. The city wants to add more students from black and Hispanic communities. Meanwhile, middle-class parents of black and Hispanic students are arguing in this case that the city’s policy puts their children at a disadvantage. One black student had a score that would have gotten him into an elite high school, his lawyer argued, if there weren’t so many seats reserved for the city’s diversity program.

Culture I am consuming: 

Amazing Grace, the long-time-coming documentary of Aretha Franklin’s live recording of her gospel album by that name in 1972. Franklin’s voice is shattering, and the audience in the church weeps through her performances. It’s expanding to theaters nationwide now.

Email me with tips, story ideas, and feedback at ebelz@wng.org

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