California church flirts with an unusual experiment

OAKLAND, Calif. (TNS) — Standing on the front steps of First Congregational Church of Oakland in late April, Nichola Torbett issued a declaration.

“We can no longer tolerate the trauma inflicted on our communities by policing,” Torbett, a white church volunteer, said in front of churchgoers who held photos of African-Americans shot dead by law enforcement. The church, she promised, would never call the cops again in nearly every circumstance. Dozens of members had agreed to do the same.

“How do police help? They often don’t,” Torbett later said in an interview. “So, especially as white people, why call them?”

As videos of the aftermath of white Americans dialing 911 on African-Americans for taking part in innocent activities have repeatedly gone viral — two black friends meeting at a Starbucks, a black grad student napping in a Yale dormitory common room, a black family having a barbecue just blocks from the Oakland congregation — members of this small church are taking extreme measures in response.

They call it “divesting” from police. The church is part of a tiny but growing movement among liberal houses of worship around the nation making similar vows. They include another church in Oakland, one in San Jose and one in Iowa City, Iowa. It’s mostly white ministers and majority white congregations leading the efforts, which come as debates over racism, stereotypes and the role of law enforcement hit universities, businesses and neighborhood councils across the U.S.

At Colorado State University, administrators are grappling with an April incident in which a white parent called police on two Native American students touring the campus. The woman told a 911 operator that the teens, who joined the tour late, were acting “really odd” and wore dark clothes with “weird symbolism.”

Waffle House has come under fire for recent videos in which police aggressively arrested black customers at restaurants in the South. In one North Carolina incident, a video showed a white officer slamming and choking a 22-year-old man who arrived after taking his sister to her prom. An employee had called police on the customer, alleging that he yelled at workers and tried to start a fight. Waffle House and police said they did no wrong.

The Starbucks incident, in which two men who had made no purchases were denied bathroom access before police were called, led to a new rule that bathrooms are open to noncustomers. Thousands of Starbucks stores shut down Tuesday afternoon while employees were trained in racial bias awareness.

At First Congregational, which is part of the United Church of Christ denomination, the decision to avoid police has generated a variety of responses. A regional body of the United Church of Christ in Northern California endorsed the effort. Elsewhere in the nation, churches have scoffed.

Conservative media have accused the Oakland church of being anti-police, and questioned its commitment to safety. (“All I got to say is ‘Oakland, California’ and immediately you know we are talking about nutcases,” one commentator said during a YouTube broadcast).

Some nearby houses of worship, including a Presbyterian church and a Reconstructionist Jewish synagogue, have asked how they could join. Locals, curious about the church’s announcement, have started to stop by on Sundays. On Facebook, dozens of people are signed up to attend a July workshop at the church. It’s called “How to NOT call the PoLice (Sheriffs & Kkkorts) Ever.”

“We’re taught to turn to police for so much, even simple disagreements between people,” said church member Sarah Pritchard, who is also white and is setting up trainings such as the July workshop. “Why can’t we resolve issues among ourselves?”

“We need to be there as a community for one another so we can provide safety for our congregation without police,” she said. Pritchard said the ban wouldn’t apply if there was a shooting or other life-threatening violence. But nearly everything else is fair game.

First Congregational began 158 years ago as small house church and has been in its current location since 1923. As the Bay Area became a center of leftist social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, the church became known as one of the most politically active in the region. Today, a Black Lives Matter banner hangs from the church’s facade. Inside its sanctuary, black and white banners spell out “truth,” “freedom,” “justice,” and “equality.” Its worship space features a memorial to black Americans who have died in police encounters or custody.

At most, a few dozen people usually show up for Sunday service. Members are largely lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer; about half are white. Its leaders are mostly women, many of whom work in nonprofits, social work and education. Because there’s no paid pastor, members take turns preaching and make all decisions collectively. It took around two years of planning before announcing the police ban.

The policy was first put on its website during Holy Week, when Christians recount the last days of Jesus’ life before his death and resurrection. “NO MORE STATE-SPONSORED CRUCIFIXIONS IN THE NAME OF ‘SAFETY,'” the posting said. The church likened today’s police to those who sentenced Christ to death.

In April at Oakland’s Lake Merritt, a short distance from the church, a white woman complained to police about a black family using a charcoal barbecue in a no-charcoal area of the park. The event further fueled anger and disappointment among church members who believe some white people are too quick to turn to police when it concerns racial minorities. Police did not arrest anybody or issue citations. Many churchgoers feared it could have been worse.