Friday, May 19, 2006

Opus Dei a Block Away

(St. Josemaria Escriva, founder of Opus Dei)

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Without entering the priesthood, George Cassar wanted to commit his life to the work of God.

So he pledged himself to a life of celibacy, giving God every dollar beyond what he needed and turning his job into a 40-hour-a-week prayer.

"The key is trying to do the work well, do it with human perfection as Christ would do it," the Raytheon engineer said.

Cassar, a 20-year-member of Opus Dei who lives at its Tilden Study Center in Westwood, is a stark contrast to the murderous albino Silas from Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code."

With a film based on the book and starring Tom Hanks opening in theaters worldwide today, the Catholic Church's most controversial organization is bracing for renewed scrutiny.

Opus Dei -- literally translated in Latin as "the work of God" -- has been shrouded in mystery since its founding in 1928 by a charismatic Spanish priest named Josemaria Escriva. The group, which has about 87,000 global members, including 3,000 in the United States and 180 in Southern California, has been accused of intense recruiting, brainwashing and political puppeteering.

"Think of it as the Guinness Extra Stout of the Catholic Church. It's a strong brew, definitely an acquired taste, and clearly not for everyone," John L. Allen Jr. wrote in the introduction of his book, "Opus Dei," published last fall to dispel the myths of Brown's book.

Allen, a Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, dedicates his book to answering the many criticisms of Opus Dei, which he argues have little merit and, in part, stem from a fear of change within the church.

"The Da Vinci Code," which Brown billed as based on previously unearthed history, claims Opus Dei exists to protect a 2,000-year-old church cover-up -- that Jesus Christ married Mary Magdalene, and that their descendents are alive today.

"I got in about 20 pages, and I couldn't read anymore. It was silly. I think it's a piece of crap," said the Rev. Paul Donlan, a Harvard-educated priest at Tilden.

Donlan, a pale man with snow-white hair, has a comical -- if a bit uncomfortable -- bond with the character Silas.

"Everybody pulls my leg, ‘Oh, you're the albino,' " Donlan joked. "The nearest I got to being an assassin was when I was a chaplain in the Marine Corps."

The core of Opus Dei servicemen, however, are not the priests but the laity, the doctors, accountants, teachers and engineers who hone their heart on serving God through sanctifying their work.

Paul Ybarra, a Los Angeles city fire captain, said he had grown tired of Sunday Christians -- those Catholics who serve God at Mass but not during the week. Then he stumbled upon Opus Dei.

"They threw down the gantlet to be a saint," said the 45-year-old Valencia father of four.

Ybarra said he learned to serve God by dedicating his firefighting to him and not himself.

"Our work is our prayer," he said.

That concept also attracted Dennis Dubro, who joined in Boston as an M.I.T. student in 1969.

Seventeen years later, though, Dubro left Opus Dei embittered by what he claimed were "extremely aggressive" and "deceitful" recruitment strategies. He also said members learned to do whatever a higher-ranking official told them but to act as if it were their choice.

"That's a whole element of the brainwashing thing: You never admit you're brainwashed," said Dubro, a 55-year-old Bay Area engineer who remains a devout Catholic.

Much speculation has been made about Opus Dei's role in the Catholic Church and its influence in global politics. Many members choose to remain anonymous because of the undesired scrutiny of claiming membership.

It is the church's only Personal Prelature, which means local officials aren't accountable to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles but to an official in Rome who reports to the pope.

Known as numeraries, about 20 percent of Opus Dei's members are celibate and single. Supernumeraries, comprising about 70 percent of members, are married and live with their families. They give to Opus Dei all income over household expenses.

The organization has worldwide assets of about $2.8 billion and of $350 million in the United States, according to Allen's book. That's only a fraction of the 2001 revenue of all U.S. Catholic programs: $102 billion.

Among Opus Dei's worldwide holdings are 15 universities, seven hospitals, 11 business schools and 36 elementary and high schools, with ambiguous names like Northridge Prep in Chicago.

They operate Tilden and 59 other study centers in 19 American cities. Most are located near prestigious universities, where Opus Dei can find young, bright minds.

Cassar was introduced to Opus Dei while attending Loyola Marymount University in the early 1980s. The group had a house in Cheviot Hills at the time, and one of Cassar's classmates invited him to visit.

"I checked them out, and it was feeding my soul," he said.

He joined in 1986 and that year helped open the Tilden Study Center, where he has lived since.

Every weekday morning, Cassar rises at 5:25. He prays for 30 minutes, attends Mass in Tilden's small chapel and shares breakfast with the eight other men who live there.

Cassar says the rosary as he sits in traffic driving from Westwood to El Segundo for work. On his desk at Raytheon are images of the Virgin Mary and St. Josemaria Escriva, whom Opus Dei members refer to as "the founder." Cassar tries to open and close doors in a way that won't disturb others.

And throughout the day he repeats mnemonic prayers, such as "He must become more" when he climbs stairs and "I must become less" when he descends them, as simple reminders to himself that his life's purpose is to serve Jesus.

"It's like an Internet connection. Maybe you had a flaky connection, the cord in the back of your computer wasn't fully plugged in. But once you get it plugged in, it shoots out all this information," Cassar said. "It's as if my eyes are not my eyes, my nose is not my nose, my ears are not my ears. They are all Christ's because I am fully connected.

"It is basically like being in the spiritual zone."

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Praying for a Gas Drop

From: Los Angeles Daily News

The Rev. Beatrice Williams drove 110 miles to Hollywood on Wednesday to beg the Lord for lower gasoline prices.

"There is victory when we stand together," Williams said, after joining eight others in prayer. "We will overcome, and we will overcome this if there are enough people who believe that God cares."

Standing beneath the Gothic Revival tower of Hollywood United Methodist Church - and across from a Chevron station charging $3.43 a gallon for unleaded - the group asked God to comfort those paying more while driving less.

"We give you praise and honor and glory. You are king of all kings. You know our needs," Bishop Donald Downing, pastor of Heart to Heart Christian Center in Fort Washington, Md., prayed as cars zipped through the intersection of Highland and Franklin avenues, occasionally honking.

"These high gas prices, Lord, bring them down, oh Father."

These prayer warriors were hoping to induce the same miracle the effort's organizer, Pray Live, claims it brought about in Washington, D.C. After about 50 attended a gathering in late April, national fuel prices dropped a few cents.

Californians, however, continue to see prices sky high. A gallon of regular averaged $3.39 in Los Angeles on Wednesday - down, but just a penny from Tuesday.

"This will be a testament to all of the people who don't believe in the power of prayer," said Wenda Royster, director of Pray Live, which operates a 24-hour phone and Internet prayer line.

"Gas is almost like water, especially here in California, where people drive far to work and can't rely on public transportation."

Gasoline experts have been offering advice for months on how drivers can reduce fuel prices: empty the trunk, combine errands, keep tires properly inflated, maintain a steady speed.

"People seek - what is the word I'm looking for? - relief in many ways," said Jeff Spring, a spokesman for the Automobile Club of Southern California. "We would recommend they continue to try to cut their use of gas to try to lower the prices. Reduced demand will lower their prices."

What about asking for help from above?

"I'll leave that question up to the theologians," Spring said.

In Scripture, God's children tend to pray for illnesses to be healed and for persecution to be stopped, said Patrick Miller, professor emeritus at Princeton Theological Seminary.

"Situations that evoke people's crying out to the Lord - what I would call prayers for help - tend to be situations when the community is in dire straits," Miller said.

But rising gas prices are different because it's possible God is reminding Americans the world has limited natural resources, Miller said. Praying to overcome human excess would be like praying to ace an exam that wasn't studied for.

On the other hand, it would be appropriate to pray for wisdom to respectfully live in God's creation and conserve natural resources, Miller said, which was why the Rev. Ed Hansen agreed to have Wednesday's prayer session outside his church.

"It is very unjust that profits can be so high when people are so deeply affected," said Hansen, who drives a 2004 Prius and lives a mile from his church. "From a faith perspective, I believe God wants us to work for justice."

While Hansen said some people at United Methodist are struggling to pay rent or put food on the table because they're paying steeper prices for gas, ExxonMobil, the world's largest publicly traded oil company, reported a record profit of $8.4 billion in the first quarter of this year.

The national average for a gallon of gas rose again this week, closing at $2.93 on Wednesday.

The prayer group didn't expect God's answer to "come down in a lightning bolt" but to lower prices over time by guiding politicians on energy policies.

Not everyone was a believer, though. Holding signs calling people to prayer, the group was unable to lure any passers-by into its fold.

"Pray for lower gas prices?" a twenty-something man said, cocking his head as if confounded by a great riddle. "I'll think about it," he said, deadpan, and hurried off.

Friday, May 12, 2006

This one is uplifting

From: Los Angeles Daily News

Sergie Mendoza makes $60,000 a year customizing cars at a Canoga Park garage - an income that in most places would afford him a middle-class lifestyle.

Instead, Mendoza plans to move his wife and two children to a place where the American dream costs a lot less.

"We're going to move out of here. We're going to Florida," said Mendoza, 34, who's already sold his Northridge home. "It's too hard to live here. Everything is too expensive. You can't survive."

Californians such as Mendoza are increasingly finding it harder to make ends meet, according to a Public Policy Institute of California report to be released today.

The study is also critical of the criteria for the federal poverty line, which is based on income and doesn't take into account the cost of living in a specific region.

After adjusting for home prices, the percentage of Los Angeles County residents living below the poverty line increased from 15 percent to 18 percent, placing it among the 10 highest-poverty counties in the nation, the study found.

California's ranking among the states and Washington, D.C., rose from 15th to third.

"We don't have a realistic picture of how many families are struggling to make ends meet in California, which is particularly true in Los Angeles," said Deborah Reed, the study's author and director of the institute's population program.

The study also attributed California's hidden poverty to the nation's largest immigrant population and to growing income inequality.

Incomes have fallen 4 percent for low-income families since 1969, while rising 16 percent for middle-class and 41 percent for upper-class families.

And what is average costs a lot more. In the past year, for instance, San Fernando Valley home prices soared 17 percent and apartment rents 9 percent.

In addition, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has proposed raising water rates 3.9 percent this year and 3.5 percent next.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is pushing a 64 percent trash-fee hike.

And nobody needs to be told that gas prices - among the highest in the nation - are through the roof. The local average for unleaded is now $3.39.

"There are millions of people in L.A. County who are not affording the basic necessities to support their families. It's obvious in the crisis we are seeing in housing and education and, of course, health care," said Jessica Goodheart, co-director of research at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy.

The federal government's formula for calculating the poverty line - devised four decades ago by the Office of Management and Budget and used by the Census Bureau - is adjusted for inflation but doesn't account for disparities in costs for utilities and real estate markets.

The poverty threshold for a family of four was $19,157 in 2004, the most recent year statistics were available. That year, landlords could charge low-income tenants $12,252 in Los Angeles, which experts say doesn't go far in booming Southern California.

"Right there, if you are paying the fair-market rent, 64 percent of your income would go into that rent," Reed said.

Needy Californians also are less able to qualify for anti-poverty programs, such as food stamps and Head Start, because their income is more than 80 percent above the poverty line.

For example, almost 2 million Californians participated in the federal Food Stamp Program last year, second only to Texas. But in New York, with a population little more than half of California's 38 million, 1.75 million people received food stamps.

In Louisiana, which has a lower poverty ranking when adjusting for housing costs, 18 percent of the state got food stamps in 2005.

Today's report is the latest to criticize the federal poverty line. In 1995, the National Academy of Sciences recommended that the poverty-threshold formula take into account food, clothing, health care, housing and utilities.

"The saddest part to me is watching the young people have to work full time, go to school and every penny they make is going to cover their rent - nothing more," said Toni Gorton, a Woodland Hills psychotherapist.

"I think we can kiss the middle class goodbye."

Thursday, May 11, 2006

The House We All Grew Up In ...

From: Los Angeles Daily News

The archetype of San Fernando Valley architecture is a small house with a peach wooden-panel exterior, tall windows and that classic ranch look.

Like much of the Valley, Violet McCallister's Studio City home was built in the 1950s. It looks nondescript, even plain, but it still draws an international audience.

"There isn't a day goes by that there isn't a looky-loo or someone taking pictures," said McCallister, who with her husband bought the home in 1972, during the fourth season of "The Brady Bunch."

"Last week, 7 o'clock at night, some girl knocked on the door. Is this the Brady Bunch house?'"

"Yes," McCallister answered.

"Oh good. I'm from Arkansas. I've been looking all day for this house," the girl responded. "Do you mind if I take a picture?"

Few, if any, San Fernando Valley homes can claim such fame. But just as Gutenberg is known for the Bible and Edison for the lightbulb, the Valley is known for its collection of tract homes.

"The incentive to create mass suburbs," said urban historian Joel Kotkin, "was greater here and happened faster than elsewhere. When other suburbs began to grow at the same rate, they followed the model that the Valley did."

That can be seen in Long Island, N.Y., which bloomed with new communities a decade behind the Valley; outside Atlanta, which is now one of the fastest growing areas in the country; and in Sun Belt cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix.

In the Valley's first town, there were Craftsmans and Queen Annes, Spanish Colonials and Mission Revivals. Built along the Southern Pacific Railroad in the late 1800s, the city of San Fernando has homes more common to urban L.A. than the suburbs.

Valley development followed in patches, with communities like Van Nuys and Tujunga and Woodland Hills separated by vast farmlands and citrus groves. Those gaps were filled in the late 1940s and '50s as thousands of World War II GIs looked for pleasant neighborhoods to start their families, and Valley construction took off.

"Because of the federal-housing guarantee and the loans available to veterans, the dream of owning your own home became a reality," said Kenneth Breisch, director of the University of Southern California's Architectural Preservation Program.

The 1,000-acre Panorama Ranch was the site of the Valley's first master-planned community. Made to order with schools, a hospital and industry, Panorama City was a forbearer of the low-slung, tract homes that would epitomize new developments across the semiarid floor. A $500 down payment could secure a two-bedroom home on a tree-lined street.

The community's success would earn one of its creators, Fritz B. Burns, the designation of "Mr. Housing, U.S.A.," according to James Thomas Keane's biography of the L.A. developer.

For others involved in the home-building process, the Valley was a canvas with plenty of room for them to leave their mark.

Edward H. Fickett, an architect whose signature is on thousands of homes like those in Meadowlark Park and Sherman Park in Van Nuys, is remembered for drafting blueprints with the passion of an artist and the pragmatism of Henry Ford.

"He isn't remembered as an architect for designing one particular house," said Chris Hetzel, editor of "He is remembered for defining housing as we know it."

Fickett convinced developers that people would spend more for a house that looked less cookie-cut.

"I call it Modernism for the Masses," said Ken Bernstein, director of preservation for the Los Angeles Conservancy.

Fickett plans were a riff on ranch houses. They had grown popular in the run-up to war thanks to cowboy-actors like Roy Rogers, who lived on a Chatsworth ranch. That style would go mainstream with the housing boom, when land seemed more limitless than air.

"The ranch house was quintessentially anti-urban," Breisch said.

Many houses were built with floor-to-ceiling glass. Floor plans were open and utilized the Southern California climate. They had a backyard and, for the fortunate, the iconic swimming pool.

"That, is traditionally suburbia," said Sherwood Schwartz, who in 1969 chose the Valley for the setting of his television show, "The Brady Bunch."

The irony is that the Brady house was not quite as it appeared. It was difficult enough for six kids to share one bathroom; imagine that in a one-story, two-bedroom house. So Schwartz had a faux window added to the wall above the garage to give the curb-appearance of a second floor. The show was filmed on a Burbank set.

The house — myths aside — came to embody the ideal of a quaint suburban life, of a place where a lovely lady and a man named Brady could raise a happy, if utopic, blended family.

Added Schwartz: "That was the Valley in those years."