To those who know it only by reputation, the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts is a forbidding place, plagued by violence and poverty and ruled by African American gangs.
So naturally, Father Peter Banks brought 200 Latino parishioners there in December for a posada, a Christmas ritual that re-creates Joseph and Mary’s search for a place for Jesus to be born.
Banks, pastor of St. Lawrence of Brindisi Church on Compton Avenue, thought the visit could help burst preconceptions and break down prejudices. His Latino congregants might be surprised to learn that violent crime was down at Nickerson, that gangs were not as pervasive as they once were and that, contrary to stereotype, a majority of the residents are Latinos.
If African American residents turned out in decent numbers, the service would be another small step toward mutual understanding.
The Latino visitors walked briskly through a parking lot and into Nickerson’s gym, some casting nervous glances over their shoulders. Inside, mariachis in black outfits and gold ties tuned their violins. A small group of black community leaders helped prepare champurrado and chicken tostadas.
The posada drew several hundred people, but they were almost all Latinos, not the integrated crowd Banks had hoped for. Still, he considered the event a small victory.
Banks, 63, a Catholic priest from a tiny Irish village, has become an unlikely force for racial understanding in Watts. Over more than three decades, he has watched as the community changed from predominantly black to predominantly Latino. He’s seen racial tensions lead to segregation within his own congregation.
In reality, many of Banks’ efforts to bring blacks and Latinos together have ended like the posada at Nickerson Gardens, with less interaction than he would have liked.