David Kitani shares lessons he's learned from a near-decade of living in his East Los Angeles neighborhood
Nine years ago, Servant Partners staff David Kitani relocated to the inner city with his family. David is a Japanese-American pastor who left a middle-class neighborhood to set down roots in the Eastside of Los Angeles, in a working class Latino neighborhood. Here, he reflects on the blessings received and lessons learned from nine years of cross-cultural life and ministry in the neighborhood.
Greet everyone when you arrive or leave at a gathering. At every party or gathering in the neighborhood, all the guests greet each other when arriving and leaving. At these parties, I realized that I was used to greeting only close friends at gatherings. But here, no matter how distant the relation or association, every person is acknowledged and their presence valued.
Life is not about what you do, but about your relationships. In the middle class circles I grew up in, people would often ask what I did for a living or where I studied. But in working class circles, I quickly learned that small talk is different. Some of my new friends had jobs—but not careers. They loved to talk about their families instead. Once they found out Ji, my wife, was pregnant with our first child, they overwhelmed us with warmth and kindness. Relationships hold up our spirits and create bonds, no matter what we do for a living.
Proximity promotes interaction. After growing up in a suburban neighborhood, it was a strange and welcome change to see many of my neighbors constantly out and about. We live near the main street. Whenever we take out the trash, tend to plants, or take walks with our kids, it’s easy to strike up conversations with neighbors. I love it. We have a handful of senores and senoras who watch over our block and give us heads ups if there is any suspicious activity around our home. Their presence is so assuring.
Story and analogy is powerful. In the “ivory tower” of academia or middle class institutions, we can get carried away with abstract and fancy ideas—but these ideas can lose their connection to everyday life. People in my neighborhood love stories and analogies. When I listen to stories of people from different walks of life, I move towards deeper understanding, compassion, and connection. It’s no wonder that when Jesus walked among us, he shared about the Kingdom of God through stories and analogies.
The urban poor are teachers of the ministry of presence. Coming from the middle class, I have a high value for efficiency and structured activities and programs. But by focusing entirely on these, I’ve missed opportunities for meaningful relationships. My neighbors have taught me that it is in the informal times—not only the formal—that trust is built. It is built through laughter, tears, and spontaneity. My neighbors have modeled for me how to remain present and persevere through struggles and pain. When I shared with a group of brothers in Jesus, most of whom were former gang members, that my father was diagnosed with cancer, one guy ran up to me, dropped to his knees, and grabbed my hand. They immediately prayed for me. They knew how to stay present when things got real. My father is in remission now, I believe, through their prayers.
The middle class may be good for consistency, but the working class are great in emergencies. The middle class loves consistency. When emergencies transpire, they can often handle it alone, as they have sufficient financial resources and their own neighbors are preoccupied with the consistency of their own lives. But for many of my working class friends, the adults in their lives have not always been reliable and stability wasn’t promised. In the midst of uncertainty, they’ve grown much more flexible and adaptable to survive. They’ve grown wider networks for support. They’ve developed muscles for emergencies. When there’s an unexpected emergency or death, neighbors pull together any resources to help in any way—whether community connections, funds, meals, or presence. When my father-in-law passed away, I was amazed by how quickly our community responded and dropped everything to serve and be present to my wife and our family.
Structures should serve people—not the other way around. Structured programs are helpful for development, so you don’t have to constantly waste energy re-inventing the wheel and extinguishing preventable fires. But structures can also become a hindrance if they aren’t serving the people they are meant to serve. An overreliance on structures can cause us to forget we are working with people with varying needs and motivations, in situations we cannot always control. Control is a major issue for me. Living in the inner city has exposed it. Order is good, but I must continually surrender control to God who knows how to order things rightly and justly.
It is not bad to show emotion. As a man, our culture taught me that there is only a small range of acceptable emotions—generally only those that portray “strength.” As a Japanese man, my cultural models elevated the “stoic, sacrificial samurai.” As someone groomed toward upward mobility in America, I’ve learned to prioritize reason over emotion. But why, then, do we have emotions? Why does our Creator, in whose image we have been made, express a full range of emotions? In one revealing cross-class conversation, I was asked why middle class folks don’t show more emotion. It made our working class friends feel like they aspired to be perfect, and therefore unrelatable. That was eye-opening for me. In my fear of what others might think, I was pushing myself away from myself. I am learning to communicate myself with more feelings—even the ones more difficult to express—to be more honest and remind myself that I am human, made in the image of God.
People don’t care what you know so much as if you were there for them. People in my community don’t care so much about my education or my titles. Their test of trust is whether I will be there for them. Isn’t this true? We remember those who have touched our lives more than their status in life. When I had cause for celebration, who rejoiced with me? When I was sick, hurting, or in need, who was it that showed up for me? My community has taught me to show up for birthdays, games, and special milestone events, because they cannot take them for granted. My working class neighbors have taught me to show up when there is heartbreak and tragedy. My undocumented immigrant friends have shown me how to show up day in, and day out, with hard work, courage, and prayer. It may be inconvenient at times, but showing up for people is to show that their lives matter… and that we are always better together.
You can learn more about David’s ministry in East Los Angeles at www.servantpartners.org/eastlosangeles.