Credit: Christian Ferrer / WikiMedia Commons

Pray for Rain: These days, sometimes I find myself praying for rain. Sometimes, I pray for a heart attack instead. Mostly, I don’t pray at all.

This Sunday, however, I found myself attending church services at the True Vine Bible Fellowship in Lompoc. I was told the new pastor, James Earl Cray, packed a 20,000-volt preaching style. Mostly I was on hand to witness what I was hoping would be a carefully choreographed act of grace designed to tear down the walls. 

But the not-guilty-on-all-counts verdict had just been rendered after the Kyle Rittenhouse trial in Kenosha, Wisconsin. Final arguments were also still underway in the murder trial of three white men accused of shooting a 25-year-old Black jogger in Georgia — Ahmaud Arbery — whom they had chased down the road in two trucks, cornered in a ditch, then shot and killed. They likewise have claimed self-defense. Given the peculiarities of Georgia law, they have a better than average chance of prevailing.

Pastor Cray presides over a predominantly Black congregation in a town with the largest Black population in Santa Barbara County. A onetime college football star, Cray had NFL aspirations until Jesus intervened. He was 22 years old when that happened. Cray, now 37, hasn’t looked back since, arriving in Lompoc from a small town in Georgia early last November. I, along with other first-timers, could not have been more warmly received. Just for showing up, we got a brief standing ovation. Maybe 125 people thronged into the church gymnasium. Showing us to our seats were ushers wearing the sort of white cotton gloves I last wore when receiving first communion. 

Having attended Catholic school for eight years, I’ve been successfully inoculated against anything remotely religious or spiritual. The services I attended as a kid reeked of shame and judgment, stifled farts, and awkward handshakes. By contrast, the True Vine service burst with joy, perseverance, and gratitude in the face of hardship. Hands filled the air. Kids danced. No one looked askance. 

The big news was that a delegation from the Old Mission was on hand, led by Father Larry, now the de facto community ambassador for the parish. Father Larry and the Old Mission were teaming up with Endowment for Youth — a nonprofit dedicated to expanding educational opportunities for young Black students — to donate $65,000. Coastal Hills Credit Union handed over a check for $40,000. That $110,000 will be used to pay off the $500,000 debt True Vine now owes on the property, a sprawling piece of real estate that practically explodes with potential as a community center. 

In addition, another $30,000 has been donated in the form of youth scholarships; six students have been strategically selected — all colors of the rainbow — to work together to host a teen summit sometime next year. The theme — the mantra — is “Refuse Hate, Embrace Love.” With the improved liquidity, Cray outlined a host of programs he hopes to launch that will make high school graduation and college enrollment the rule — not the exception — for families now struggling to pay for diapers and infant formula. 

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Father Larry, bedecked in his brown Franciscan robe with white rope circumnavigating his waist, held his arms in the air, palms flat out in supplication. For the past seven months, he, Father Dan, and Father John from the Old Mission have been meeting regularly with Pastor Cray as part of an ecumenical bridge-building designed to combat intolerance of all stripes. Who knows where it will all wind up? But this Sunday, Father Larry — better known for the gentle poetry he reads from the pulpit — found himself exuberantly high fiving an elegantly dressed Black woman standing in front of  him and belting out some serious gratitude to the True Vine congregation. “I’m so blessed,” he testified.

The feeling, of course, was mutual. When Cray asked his congregation to “go crazy” with gratitude, they readily obliged. 

Cray, it turns out, grew up about 80 miles from where Arbery was shot. He’d been back home over the past weekend to attend a football game. He recounted how, at the airport on the way home, three shots were accidentally discharged in someone’s luggage. He’d been simmering over recent events. Kyle Rittenhouse. Ahmaud Arbery. A host of other cases. Two hundred and forty-five years after Thomas Jefferson signed the Declaration of Independence, he preached, “We have not taken one inch of a step forward.”

On the plane back, Cray found himself forced to sit next to a “Caucasian couple.” The wife, he said, wanted to chat. He decidedly did not. His heart was troubled. Plus, he had Sunday’s sermon to write. It was all about fighting racism and division by reaching out and shaking hands. He quoted liberally from Amos, a “nobody” in the Bible, who called out the rich and powerful hypocrites who betrayed their professed love of God by their deeds. 

The woman sitting next to him wouldn’t leave him alone, Cray recounted. She pestered him with intrusive questions. Even after putting on his headphones, she tapped his shoulder to ask just one more thing. But naturally, there would be others. By the time the plane landed in L.A., Cray had finished much of the sermon. Upon arriving, the woman stood and extended her hand. She had no idea what the sermon was about. Simplified, it was “shake hands with people who don’t look like you.” But Cray, his heart troubled, pondered whether to take it. She clinched the deal with, “I’m praying your tomorrow is a blessing for you.” They shook hands.

Who knows what, if anything, will come from any of this?

Most definitely, a seed got planted. Will anything grow? A bush? 

I’ll be praying for rain. 

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