Shelter from the storm

The Rev. Rick Eisenlord starts a new church in response to a spate of gay teen suicides

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/18/2010

In September and October, at least seven gay teenagers around the country committed suicide, but not before enduring years of harsh bullying from classmates and being either ignored or ostracized by school administrators who did nothing to help, while religious leaders condemned their sexual orientation as sinful.
The deaths of these kids sent shock waves through the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community. In one openly gay preacher’s opinion, it was the biggest shock since the murder of openly gay San Francisco Supervisor Harvey Milk. 
That pastor, the Rev. Rick Eisenlord of Good Shepherd Church Pasadena, has taken a forceful stand and created a new church from scratch two months ago to deliver a powerful message of unconditional acceptance and love.
“It just breaks my heart when I hear about these kids feeling so alone that they decide to take their own life,” Eisenlord said.
The problem, said Eisenlord, is that churches either condemn homosexuality or they choose not to get actively involved in supporting the LGBT community. Some denominations, such as Unitarianism and Episcopalians, are openly supportive, while others, such as Catholicism and Islam, want nothing to do with it.
“And it’s not even uniform within those denominations,” said Eisenlord. “It’s more of a case-by-case basis. But I don’t see most churches getting involved and helping the gay and lesbian community.”
Virginia Uribe, executive director of Friends of Project 10, an organization that works mostly with gay and lesbian students in Los Angeles schools, agrees with Eisenlord that much depends on the individual congregations. She wholeheartedly supports what Good Shepherd is trying to do.
“Good Shepherd is doing what every church should be doing: opening up their church to everyone,” she said.
Eisenlord added he’s concerned about the impact negative messages from churches have on a young mind struggling to work out his or her identity.
“Can you imagine being a teenager and trying to figure out your identity as a person and being told that you’re sinful and going to hell? It makes them feel incredibly alone. My church is trying to tell them that it’s OK that they’re gay, lesbian, transgender, whatever. God loves you the way you are.”
Bullies beware
The unusual rash of gay teen suicides in the last two months has brought many underlying issues to the forefront of the national consciousness. On Oct. 22, President Obama addressed the nation to call for an end to violence against anyone, no matter their sexual orientation. That video is part of the “It Gets Better Project,” a support forum for LGBT youth.
“We have got to dispel this myth that bullying is just a normal right of passage, that it’s some inevitable part of growing up,” Obama said. “It’s not. I do know what it’s like to grow up feeling like sometimes you don’t belong. It’s tough. But you are not alone. You didn’t do anything wrong. You didn’t do anything to deserve being bullied. And there is a whole world waiting for you, full of possibilities. There are people out there who love you and care about you, just the way you are. You’ve got to reach out to people you trust.”
Despite the president’s message of hope for LGBT youth, the gay community has been disappointed with Obama’s stance on gay marriage and his administration’s recent challenge to the ruling overturning the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy.
The president’s speech was given as a response to a number of recent gay youth suicides. At Rutgers University, 18-year-old freshman Tyler Clementi jumped from the George Washington Bridge after two roommates secretly videotaped him kissing another man and streamed the video online. Justin Aaberg, 15, of Anoka, Minn., hanged himself after constant bullying for being gay, and 13-year-old Asher Brown of Houston, Texas, shot himself following 18 months of being picked on for not wearing designer clothes and shoes, his short height, his religion and the perception by his schoolmates that he was gay. Brown’s parents claimed the school did nothing to stop the harassment.
Eisenlord said he has already started seeing the fruits of his slowly growing but dedicated congregation’s labor. At a recent service at Good Shepherd, Eisenlord, along with guest speaker Adam Carranza, an openly gay board member of the Mountain View School District in El Monte, led a discussion with several LGBT youth about the struggles they are enduring at home, school and places of worship.
Cody Williams, a 16-year-old singer, songwriter and producer who works with Baby G Music and just got signed to a two-year development contract, sang an original song at that service and spoke with the Weekly about his experience getting harassed for being gay.
“Since elementary school, I stood out for my sexuality,” said Williams. “There were constant derogatory remarks. I have a lot of gay friends, and everyone endured their amount of bullying.”
He added that while it didn’t happen often, teachers, school administrators and heterosexual kids would stand up for him on occasion.
“Schools do their best to fix the problem, but it’s really hard to call out every single kid and bring them in to reprimand them,” he said. “There were so many kids bullying me that it was hard to report them all.”
The Big Three
Nat Nehdar, a member of the Pasadena Human Relations Committee, believes schools need to play a bigger role in ending the unfair treatment of gay and lesbian youth.
“Schools must come to realize that they must take measures to educate students that bullying, name-calling and harassing gay and lesbian students is not acceptable,” said Nehdar. “It has to be part of the curriculum that is taught at a young age. Kids have to learn to respect gays and lesbians just like anyone else, and that no one has the right to hurt another human being because they are different.”
Uribe said that while Pasadena Unified School District has made some inquiries about Project 10’s work, district officials have fallen far short of where they need to be in terms of dealing with the harassment of gay and lesbian students.
“Pasadena’s been terrible,” Uribe said. “But, again, it depends on the individual school. Blair [high school], for example, has a big organization for gay and lesbian youth. But as far as the district is concerned, I don’t think there’s been much done.”
The district has an anti-bullying policy, but it doesn’t specifically address anti-gay bullying.
“Bullying with respect to LGBT youth has not emerged as an issue at PUSD,” said Binti Harvey, PUSD’s director of communications. “But in light of recent incidents, the board has made it a priority. Staff is currently in progress of updating policies.”
PUSD Board member Ramon Miramontes said he is confident district employees at all levels are taking this issue very seriously.
“I emphatically know that our staff and administration take this issue extremely serious,” said Miramontes. “I don’t know if we have the evidence that we’re addressing all the bullying, but it’s definitely a priority. We’ve conducted cyber bullying workshops, educating bus drivers, monitoring the social networks and training teacher aides who help supervise the playgrounds. That’s how we’ll eventually get a full handle on it.”
Harvey added that district officials are focusing on prevention methods, teaching students about conflict resolution, holding workshops for parents to help them recognize bullying, training staff on threat assessment and intervention, and working to update their policy on cyber bullying.
That recent trend has become a huge problem for youth in general, but especially for teenagers struggling with sexual identity issues.
“It’s one of the worst ways to bully someone because you’re taking the time to sit down at your computer and click on someone’s name and write something horrible,” Williams said. “It’s an even more personal way of bullying as opposed to face-to-face confrontations. Lots of kids are taking it to heart.”
Eisenlord definitely believes cyber bullying is a huge problem facing gay youth.
“That sort of hate reaches thousands of people,” he said during his sermon two weeks ago. “All of a sudden, your private life and struggle becomes known to thousands of people on the Internet. It can be so pervasive. Something about the Internet is more intimate, which is hard to explain to adults who didn’t grow up with it. The shame and embarrassment becomes more than these kids can handle, especially since they’re still developing their identities.”
As for the church, Williams agreed with Eisenlord in that hostility toward gays and lesbians doesn’t come from one group of people.
“Religious people have a blurred view on what homosexuality really is,” Williams said. “But I don’t think hatred is coming mainly from religious groups. It comes from factions of every group of people. It’s across the board.”
Eisenlord said he understands what these kids are going through, but suicide is not the answer. The answer, he believes, is threefold: One, parents and family need to let their kids know that they’re loved and accepted for who they are. When many gay youths come out, they experience anger and other negative emotions from their parents. There’s a lack of support and the last thing a youth wants to hear is that their parents don’t love them. Two, school district administrators and teachers need to be aware of bullying and harassment and institute a zero-tolerance policy at their schools. And finally, the church.
“Those are the three major sources of support, and right now they need serious work,” he said. “Those three institutions need to get together and let these kids know that they are not alone on this journey.” 

Good Shepherd Church holds services at 4 p.m. every Sunday at Neighborhood Church, Room 21, located at 301 N. Orange Grove Blvd., Pasadena. Visit for more information.

Former Altadena Nursery Site Could Become Center for Community Events

Despite a sign indicating a church is replacing Altadena Nursery, church officials say an outreach center and market will be operating at that site

By Justin Chapman, Altadena Patch, 11/15/2010

A sign promising a church at the site of the now-shuttered Altadena Nursery had some Altadenans worried that a promising retail space on Lake Avenue could be lost.
Instead, it now appears that the site could become a center for  community events, including a possible farmer's market.
The sign on the property that has hung for the last month states that Grace Community Bible Church would be the new tenant of the property owned by Balian Investments LLC.
However, that is not exactly  the case, according to church officials. The Grace Community Bible Church, a nondenominational Christian congregation run by Pastor Michael Wilson, will continue to be located at 1757 Lake Ave. in Pasadena.
A branch of the church, Grace Community Outreach, is the organization moving into the old nursery site, moving from its former location at 1550 Elizabeth St. in Pasadena.
The outreach center is moving into the nursery site, located at 1968 and 1974 Lake Ave. in Altadena, starting Monday. Operations are set to begin around Nov. 30, according to Grace Community Outreach board member Arthur Bonner.
And what will those operations entail, exactly?
"What Outreach does is community events," said Bonner. "One of main things is a farmer's market-style open-air fair, where we have local and non-local businesses set up booths and sell things like green and natural furniture, fruits, vegetables, flowers, natural and hemp clothing, natural incense and candles; that sort of thing. There are also booths for freelance writers and self-publishing, and people from different denominational churches handing out literature."
He said the open-air markets will be held at the nursery site at least twice a month on Saturdays, with all operations held within the boundaries of the property. The purpose of holding these types of events is twofold.
It's a way to generate revenue for the Grace Community Bible Church by charging a fee to individual vendors for space for their booths. It's also their way of giving back to the local community.
Previously, Outreach events were held at the Rose Bowl. While most vendors come from all over to participate in Outreach's events, Bonner said they're open to all local vendors.
"That's the intention," he said. "To pull as many individual Altadenans and Altadena businesses who operate in that capacity as possible into our events. To my knowledge there's really no place in Altadena where an open-air market like this exists. That's part of the design of our outreach policies."
Altadena Nursery had to close up shop late last year after it was unable to continue paying rent for six months to the landlord, Balian Investments LLC, owned by local developer Missak Balian.

Loma Alta School Community Pleads Their Case at PUSD Board Meeting

At least 150 people showed up at Tuesday night's meeting in an attempt to convince the board not to close Loma Alta Elementary

By Justin Chapman, Altadena Patch, 11/10/2010

With the Board of Education set to make their final decision this Tuesday on which schools will be closed next year in an effort to reduce the district's budget deficit, at least 150 people showed up to last night's board meeting to protest Elementary's proposed closure.
Parents, students, teachers, principals, community members and other stakeholders voiced their concerns during the public comment period. Out of more than 20 speakers, only one defended San Rafael Elementary, which was taken off the list of possible closures recently. No one spoke in defense of , the last of the two schools being considered for closure.
Though Loma Alta has a small student enrollment, it serves a major function for foster kids and special needs students, especially in Altadena. The highlight of the meeting came when Peter and Sandi Holden, who have been parents at Loma Alta for six years, spoke to the board and accompanied a blind and autistic young Loma Alta student named Sydney as she sang a heartfelt song called "Too Much Rain Fallin' Down On Me" to an overflowing and emotional room.
"The special needs programs at Loma Alta have done nothing but benefit my kids," Peter Holden said to the board members. "The success of this school is the success of the district. I hope that becomes your mantra."
Terrondus Chaney, who has had six kids go to Loma Alta, claimed the school is a perfect test model.
"We are a model of special education at that level," he said. "There are many programs in place that are working. Instead of cutting, how about we uncut? Let's invest in this school and you'll see the good that will come of it. Then that formula can be applied to the system as a whole."
Loma Alta and Burbank have both been at the center of the school closure discussion since they were along with last month for closure by an all-volunteer committee.  Jackson was later at a PUSD meeting where a huge group of Jackson parents showed up.
The purpose of closing the school's is to partially account for budget shortfalls, but also because of declining enrollment across the district that has many schools running below half capacity.
Many speakers on Tuesday pointed out the inclusive nature of the school that creates curriculums embracing students needs. Others said they don't believe school closures in general are the answer to budget woes. One parent read a letter by Congressman Adam Schiff addressing the board in which he stated his opinion that he believes PUSD is going the wrong way by closing schools and that he's "gravely concerned with the situation."
Others spoke to the concern that school closures will lead to more charter schools, which will increase the decline in student enrollment in local public schools and compound the budget problem in the long run.
While the level of enthusiasm for Loma Alta was very high, its principal, Eric Sahakian, expressed disappointment about his school even being considered for closure, though he remains hopeful.
"Any closure is disheartening," he said with a sigh. "Our school has been making progress, but I guess we'll see what happens."
Denise Laing, a 20-year teacher in PUSD and 18 years at Loma Alta, believes it's unfair for the board to even consider closing more schools in Altadena. In December 2005 the board voted to shutter Noyes, Linda Vista and Edison Elementaries, all of which have since been used as charter school campuses.
"It's very counterproductive to have parents put money into neighborhood schools and then to have it yanked right out from under us," said Laing. "There has been an historic difference in the treatment of Altadena versus Pasadena schools."
One parent, Naomi Sigera, pointed out that closing schools in Altadena will have the long-term effect of pushing people out of town.
By law board members are not allowed to respond to public comments made at their meetings, but with standing room only, people pouring out into the hallway and audience members holding up signs that read "Save our school," "Don't close our school/Loma Alta's a jewel," and "We support Loma Alta," that school community's message was loud and clear.
And board members can bet on another packed meeting this Tuesday when they make their final decision.

En charrette

City officials urge residents to weigh in on the ever-changing General Plan alternatives this week

By Justin Chapman, Pasadena Weekly, 11/4/2010

With many unresolved issues at stake, Pasadena is entering the number-crunching stages of finalizing the city’s updated General Plan, the blueprint for managing growth. 
After nearly two years of hard work by General Plan Update Advisory Committee members, city commissioners and city staff, a three-day community charrette — an intensive work session — will begin this Monday at the regular Pasadena City Council meeting to update the public on the process and its next steps. The forum will continue Nov. 11-13 at Pasadena City College.
The charrette will be a “multiple-day, collaborative workshop that harnesses the talents and energies of everyone interested in creating and supporting a plan that represents transformative community change,” according to a city press release.
Many concerns brought forth by the community during several 2009 outreach events and workshops held in September will also be addressed, such as the ongoing struggle between historic preservation and new high-density development proposed throughout the city.
For example, the IDS Playhouse Plaza, a multi-story office building that was to be built across the street from the historic Pasadena Playhouse, the expansion of All Saints Church and the six-story, mixed-use building proposed next to Castle Green have generated a high volume of complaints and concerns from Pasadena residents. That struggle is sure to be a major theme of the new General Plan. 
On Monday, city officials will present an overview of the process, review community themes guiding the new plans and discuss several planning challenges, including environmental sustainability, state housing laws, economic development, land use and transportation issues. 
“Over this intensive, three-day session, (city officials) will work together to translate community interests and concerns into planning maps and diagrams that illustrate how Pasadena should grow and change, where buildings and natural open space should be located and how we can prioritize clean and simple travel into the next decade,” said Stephanie DeWolfe, deputy director of the Pasadena Planning Department, in a recent statement. 
From Nov. 11-13, the public is welcome to observe the staff’s work at PCC in Building CC, located in the northwest area of the campus, each day from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., when the day’s work will be presented for public comment. After the charrette, months of analysis of potential impacts will culminate with draft alternatives for the community to choose from in Spring 2011.