A bent-over woman with a mantilla draped over her head slowly makes her way down the aisle of the small church. She pauses before a large picture of Mary and the baby Jesus, who is tied to his mother's hip with a colorful Mexican serape.
Votive candles and a statue of a saint draped with beads occupy places of honor in this simple, white stucco church filled with wooden benches. There is one stained-glass window, an image of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane. A bell outside rings to beckon people in the surrounding barrio to the Sunday morning service.
The service begins with prayer for a woman who has been a leader in one of the barrio's active comunidades de base. She had helped to organize Bible studies and nonviolent acts of defiance against the drug trade. Earlier in the week, her home was shot up by drug dealers, and she now fears for the lives of her young children.
This is Dolores Mission Church in East Los Angeles. Dolores means "sorrows" in Spanish, and indeed this corner of the city has its share. Poverty, illegal drugs, and gang violence are rampant.
The church provides a haven of hope here. The garage of the parish house has been turned into a meeting place and physical workout area for young gang members, who consider it a home. At night, several homeless people sleep in the sanctuary.
A school and temporary shelter for women are housed in the parish hall, where after the service, tortillas and menudo are served to the congregation and visitors. The menudo -- a pungent soup made of entrails and hominy, served with slices of fresh lime, onions, dried red chili peppers, oregano, and fresh cilantro -- is a mainstay of life here. Every woman has her own recipe.