In the spring of 1992, then-Father David O’Connell was comfortable in parish life in south LA. The Irish-born priest had served the Archdiocese of Los Angeles for more than a decade by then, and he was familiar with the conflicts and tensions that existed in the area.
But O’Connell wasn’t ready for the riots that would break out on April 26, 1992, after the acquittal of four police officers who had been videotaped beating an unarmed black man, Rodney King.
O’Connell – who is now an auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles – was pastor at St. Frances Cabrini Parish when the 1992 riots took place. More than 60 people were killed in the violence, with over 2,000 more injured, and $1 billion of property damaged.
O’Connell told CNA that when the riots began, he was actually in Washington, D.C., where he was testifying before a Congressional committee on violence in urban America. He said he turned on the TV at his motel and saw footage of a restaurant being attacked, just blocks from his parish back home.
When he flew home the next day, O’Connell said his plane had to be rerouted because of concerns about people shooting at airplanes landing at LAX.
By the time he arrived home, he found widespread destruction. “There was a huge devastation of businesses – large ones, small ones, burnt to the ground,” he said.
O’Connell reached out to local Catholic, Baptist, and Muslim leaders, to start a conversation and to pray together while waiting for the nightly riots to calm down.
He also helped in local clean-up efforts. He said that work was mostly cosmetic, but he viewed it as a symbolic gesture “to show that we were going to come out of it.”
While he was still trying to assess the damage and process the trauma of the unfolding events, he also started thinking about ways to begin reconciliation in the community.
“Right away, we said that our churches were open for people, if they had taken stuff, to bring it back,” he said.
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