Santa Barbara Bends Toward the Beloved Community

Two Congregations Gather for a Meeting of the Minds

History was made about this time last month in Santa Barbara

In the most unlikely of circumstances, a Jewish congregation joined a Christian congregation for a Sunday church service. Yes, you heard that right. A group of Jewish folks led by Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer joined Pastor David Moore and his congregation at New Covenant Worship Center. If this were not special enough, the fact that it was centered around black lives made it all the more remarkable. To mark the last bit of this historic Sunday, four Santa Barbara Police Department officers joined the mutual congregation afterward for a community conversation.

The long arc of justice that Dr. King had spoken about was the first topic of the morning, and how that long arc always bends toward justice but sometimes has a ripple or a dip. This was not one of those mornings. This morning was full, this morning was bright, this morning was hopeful, and this morning had unity.

However unplanned or intentional, the message had an eerie profoundness. It was the third in a series called “Jesus, the solution for social and economic conflict,” in which Pastor Moore led us to consider that communion was the new political system that would bring the appropriate change. “It will not be communism, and it will not be Ayn Rand’s objectivism-based style of governing,” he said. “It will be one that is centered in people coming together around the table to share in communion”: the place where the inherent dignity of each human is appreciated, the earth is honored, and the breath of life is cherished. It did not escape any of us the significance of the sentiments expressed and that we were all gathered together in peaceful worship.

After the conclusion of the service, bread was broken with bagels and cream cheese, and conversations and relationships were built with folks who might not usually cross paths: Jewish folks with Christians, Christians with police officers, Jewish and black folks, black and white folks. This was great! There was a dialogue; the ice was being broken; something great was being built. A joint collaboration between folks from the “African-American–Jewish dialogue” and the local “black lives matter” chapter had brought together something rare and something beautiful.

It did not stop there. It transitioned into two separate circles of conversations facilitated by Sergeant Sean Hill and three of his fellow officers. Each group of about 20 people shared their fears and their hopes, their stories and their backgrounds. It was a time for honesty, and the space was respected for each voice.

The officers asked each of us to anonymously write on cards their hopes and fears. In the group I was a part of, the common theme we found was a hope for the voices to be listened to and to make change, and the common fear was that no action would be taken. We all wanted a greater sense of community, it was clear; even Sergeant Hill explained his desire for a greater sense of community.

The most strongly felt moment of the morning came from a black woman, a mother of two young children, who said, “We [as community organizations] have been doing the work and pushing for change, so when can we get the police to show up?”

Another woman explained her experience of being wrongfully arrested and the grievances she had with the various local enforcement agencies. For the officers, it was hard to hear some of the stories being shared, like the one told by an older black gentleman who was pulled over in Santa Barbara 15 years ago after picking up his kid from football practice. A squad of police cars had surrounded him and his son, a shotgun was quickly placed at his window, and guns were drawn by other officers, pointed at him and his son. Others told stories of being profiled, but there were also stories of respectful interactions between citizens and local law enforcement. A granddaughter of one of the church leaders spoke highly of interactions she had with local police and said they treated her in a friendly manner during a tense interaction.

Wise words provided by an older woman who had been mistreated by law enforcement helped the group center on something bigger than the moment. She spoke of the forgiveness that she had to journey through so that she would not be held back by her negative and hurtful experience. This was a voice that we all rallied around, because the feeling in the room we all shared was that we could not have a future without forgiveness.

I heard highlights from the other group: that it was great that each person’s perspective could be heard, a greater understanding could be established, and we could know and understand what was going on in our community a bit better. At times it got quite personal, which is expected when these vulnerable and tense groups come together. But in the end, the folks walked out with a greater hope, a moving experience, and newly established relationships that can continue to be built.

The unity we all came to feel could be heard aloud, when among the moments of tension came beautiful inspirational breaks when we all said “yes” at the same time as if we were thinking the same thing. In small ways, steps were being taken, and hopefully, in big ways, healing took place. One thing was clear at the end: that we need to have more spaces where truth can be welcomed, places where each person’s truth is heard but also where the appropriate voices get listened to as well.

My final reflection before our time concluded was that it seems there needs to be a step of humility taken by those in power, a sense of responsibility needs to be taken for direct and indirect actions, and a sort of commission of truth needs to take place with both law enforcement and citizens.

That Sunday morning was full of life, of intersection, and of a step toward something greater. We have still a long way to go — this only was a small breaking of ice — but there is so much hope that came from the groups that came together, even in the most unlikely of circumstances from various different backgrounds, to a place and time where we could be one. The morning started with a nod to the tough ripples in the arc to justice, but by the end of the morning, we were riding the crest of the wave, and we could see a promised land of a greater community, one that Dr. King called the Beloved Community.


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