Church prayers in South Los Angeles mark big stakes as Mark Ridley-Thomas corruption trial begins


In the sanctuary of Holman United Methodist Church in South Los Angeles, Mark Ridley-Thomas prepared for the test of his life.

The veteran lawmaker stood at the altar with his wife Avis on Sunday as the minister waved to hundreds of people who gathered to shake hands.

Some parts of the city may have made up their minds about Ridley-Thomas’ guilt, having long ago decided that he deserved to be fired from the LA City Council, and even worse after being indicted for federal corruption.

But here, outside a longstanding black church, worshipers rose up and reached out to the man they called their counselor, legislator, lawyer and friend.

“Take up the shield of faith,” thundered Bishop ST. Williams Jr. Ridley-Thomas bowed his head and hugged his wife. “Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit.”

It was a prayer as a blessing, a plea, an invitation.

After Williams finished speaking the words of St. Paul, the crowd roared “Amen” and applauded.

It was an ecumenical, interfaith prayer service with a special mission of support two days before jury selection in the federal corruption trial of Ridley-Thomas.

Ridley-Thomas, 68, who has a long tradition of serving black Los Angeles, is now facing charges of bribery, conspiracy and fraud for sending contracts to USC to get special benefits for her son Sebastian. jobs and scholarships.

If convicted, Ridley-Thomas could face decades in prison. He pleaded not guilty, maintained his innocence and, like the crowd Sunday, called the charges an insult to the black community and a cause for social and racial justice.

It’s a view that transcends the pending indictments and casts Ridley-Thomas as an activist politician whose legacy has transcended the allegations of federal prosecutors.

“I think people have done a lot worse,” said the Reverend Kenneth Walden, senior pastor of Holman United Methodist Church. “That’s why we only ask for justice. We are not asking for special treatment.

Federal indictments, followed by behind-the-scenes recordings of Latino leaders plotting to consolidate and maintain their power during the city’s redistricting process by making racist and offensive comments helped fuel a widespread belief that Los Angeles’ black community was under siege. The fact that those same registration lawyers supported Ridley-Thomas’s suspension effort — barring her 10th District from representing constituents on the City Council — deepened the sense of grievance and violation.

“We see this moment as a symbol of where we are in African-American politics in Los Angeles,” said Norman Johnson, director of public responsibility for the South Los Angeles Religious Authority, which sponsored Sunday’s event. “We feel it’s not just him, but us; he’s not just in court, we’re in court,” Johnson said.

“So we want to tell him that we are with you; we want to tell our community that we need to be with those who have supported us and supported us.

Walden began the evening by invoking the 1965 march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. He called the upcoming Ridley-Thomas trial another critique of the long struggle for black American civil rights.

“Walking on the path of freedom is not easy. But it’s important,” Walden said. “It was evaluated in some newspapers according to the opinion of the majority. In popular stories among some people, it was condemned. But we know Mark Ridley-Thomas as a servant.

Ridley-Thomas spent ten years as executive director of the Greater Los Angeles Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1980s, before winning nine consecutive terms as board member, state assemblyman, state senator, county supervisor and back again. , council. member. His wife, Avis, is known for founding the Los Angeles City Attorney’s dispute resolution program, as well as Dialogue Days, which bring together small groups across the city to discuss community issues.

Ridley-Thomas’s political profile may be that of a cameraman and orator, but many of her constituents know her best for overseeing the restoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital and launching the Empowerment Congress. These rallies began after the 1992 riots to encourage residents to participate in community programs such as mental health support services and job training.

“He has so many accomplishments,” Rabbi Steven Jacobs said in an interview. “Because of his criticism, people seem to forget how much their lives are enriched by his actions and core beliefs.”

More than a dozen faith leaders from around Los Angeles, including Jacobs, took the stage from the pulpit for a prayer laced with anecdotes.

Reverend Betty Wright-Riggins remembers Ridley-Thomas and his wife visiting a hospital in Pennsylvania.

Dafer Dahil, executive director of the Omar Ibn Al-Khattab Foundation, recalls meeting Ridley-Thomas in the late 1980s when their children were in school together. Dakhil reads verses from the Koran, “Allah is the protector of those who believe.”

Pastor Julian Lowe of Oasis Church said from the pulpit that early in his career, Ridley-Thomas encouraged him to call if he needed anything. Lowe expected that appeal in 2021. But in the days leading up to their nominations, there was an “appalling attack on her legacy” when federal prosecutors unsealed a 19-count indictment against Ridley-Thomas. The charges accused her of colluding with corruption to get jobs and scholarships for her son, who resigned from the state assembly amid a sexual-abuse investigation.

Lowe removed the call from the schedule, thinking Ridley-Thomas was too focused on the conversation. “The clock struck for him to speak,” and Lowe picked up the phone and heard Ridley-Thomas’ voice. “He said, ‘Mark Ridley-Thomas, how can I serve?’

“You’re right young man, I’m on fire,” Ridley-Thomas told him. “But as long as I can, I’ll do what I do.”

The seats were packed with longtime Ridley-Thomas supporters, including the philosopher and author Lowe and Cornel West. Former aides, lobbyists, donors and other politicians, including state Sen. Stephen Bradford (D-Gardena) and former Los Angeles City Councilman Mike Bonin, who attended with his young son.

“I think it’s all terrible for him, but also terrible for the community,” said John Semken, chief executive of billionaire Edward Roskey’s Majestic Realty. “The truth is, I don’t think he was wrong.”

Hilary Norton, a member of the California Transportation Commission, said she is among dozens of former Ridley-Thomas employees who remain inspired and loyal to her former boss. Many were particularly outraged that Ridley-Thomas was removed from the City Council amid alleged crimes prior to her time on the council.

“It was wrong to disenfranchise someone who has always been a part of community empowerment,” Norton said. “That’s why the church was full. We pray for justice.

The usually talkative Ridley-Thomas was quiet throughout the night. He smiled and shook hands with supporters, but was rarely seen without one of his criminal defense attorneys by his side.

“He’s limited in what he can say publicly now because of a very competent legal team,” said Vincent Harris, a longtime political aide.

“But I know that if he could, he would be so grateful for you being here tonight and for your continued support over the months and years.”

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