California congregation sees new life in diversity

California congregation sees new life in diversity

July 27, 2009
Written by Gregg Brekke

Attendance has nearly tripled at San Marino Congregational UCC in Southern California - from roughly 24 to 71 people in the pews each Sunday - during the two years Arthur "Art" Cribbs has been the pastor.


Even while Cribbs worked on his doctor of ministry degree, which he completed this summer, he brought the flavor of many new nationalities to his predominately white congregation. The original, primarily affluent, membership has been joined by first-generation immigrants from the Philippines, Taiwan, China, Korea, Mexico, Japan and India, along with Jews and former Catholics, said Cribbs.

This diversity is occurring in a conservative urban Los Angeles neighborhood that was one of the wealthiest old railroad-owner towns in the country. Murray Middleman, a musician who performs at the church, explained, "I was happily surprised when I heard that this church, in conservative San Marino, was brave enough to employ a dynamic and gifted black minister."

The church has opened a professional community theater, conducted Chinese-to-English classes and offered a cooking class featuring international dishes.

The congregation heartily embraces the United Church of Christ's "God is Stillspeaking" campaign and uses many of the materials and ideas provided from the national setting said Donald Shenk, who chaired the selection committee that brought Cribbs to the church.

"We participated in getting the [Stillspeaking] commercials distributed to the wider community through financial contributions and we keep a permanent banner with the message of 'No Matter Who You are or Where You are on Life's Journey, You are Welcome Here' on our outside front wall.

"Pastor Art has led us in workshops around diversity and acceptance and pushed us to ask the hard questions as to how wide a welcome we're really willing to make. These have been positive times for the congregation," said Shenk.

The church opened The Stillspeaking Theatre in November 2007. The first play staged was "Awaiting Judgment," written by Cribbs. "It features Martin Luther King Jr. and Dietrich Bonhoeffer in a dialogue inside a prison cell," Cribbs said.

The productions create a vibrant understanding of the human condition and explore ways in which God still speaks to contemporary society said Shenk, who also is artistic director of the theater.

"We created The Stillspeaking Theatre because we believe God is still speaking through the works of poets and playwrights," he said. "With thought-provoking, edgy, yet accessible productions, we strive to bridge gaps and heal human divisions."

Donald Shenk

Shenk said the theater supports and enhances the church's mission to spread the news of God's love, heal human divisions and seek peace with justice.

Some people who came to the shows are now attending the church. "[They] realized that our church was a welcome and accepting place," said Shenk. "I've noticed this mostly in terms of the LGBT community as we've had more gay, lesbian and transgendered people join us for worship on a regular basis since the theater came into existence."

For Shenk, this is a personal welcome as well. "To find a Christian denomination that accepts who I am 100 percent and affirms my relationships as well as the gifts I bring to the church has been revolutionary for me. The UCC makes an enormous difference in my life and I feel that I'm able to share all of who I am in God's world here."

Middleman started checking out SMCCUCC after hearing Cribbs speak at a Rotary Club meeting during 2008. "I liked what Art had to say because he's very sincere and frank. He's not afraid to tell his feelings about what's going on in the world. He's very astute. People really look up to him."

Other attractions that draw new members include the web site and a weekly Soul Food Bible study/personal journey group. It is led by Cribbs and his wife, Kana, said Shenk. "This is a time for people to share what's on their hearts and also explore the scriptures in different ways."

"Every Food Has a Story to Tell" is a cooking class started by Kana Cribbs and Jacquline Benton. It meets no more than once a month, said Shenk. "Since our congregation is made up of people coming from all kinds of ethnic backgrounds, this has been a terrific time for people to get to know each other in a very fun way. We laugh as much as we cook," he said.

"The 'teacher' brings a food that is specific to his or her ethnic background and teaches everyone gathered how to make it while often sharing something about his or her culture and upbringing," said Shenk. "Afterward we feast and laugh some more. We've learned about Greece as we crafted spanakopitas, Armenia as we made Boorma (Baklava) and China as we fashioned hundreds of potstickers."

Cribbs added that British and Japanese foods have been enjoyed. "The stomach is a portal to harmony," he said.

The international flavor of the congregation is encouraged by Cribbs, who served UCC as executive director for the Office of Communication from 1996-1999 and was on the United Church Board for World Ministries from 1989-1994.

He also encourages social justice issues among participants. "This is a loving, open and justice-oriented group of people. They have great gifts and skills," he said.
Members are involved in the "No on Proposition 8" campaign that bans same-sex marriage.

Cribbs works with the immigration rights campaign in California and promotes those activities in sermons. The church recently sponsored a series on "Strategies to Survive the Economic Melt-down." They have a food collection program and a new line item in their budget to provide financial assistance to those who face temporary cutbacks and shortages.

In addition, the church opens its doors to about 1,000 people each week who attend a variety of meetings on the campus.

These programs come naturally for Cribbs, who came to SMCCUCC from a historic black congregation, Christian Fellowship Congregational UCC in San Diego, Calif. He did, however, have some adjustments to make when he arrived in San Marino.

"The most challenging part of being their pastor has been learning to speak a new language that is understood by people who do not share my world view or social history," he said.

Cribbs grew up in Watts, Calif., across the street from a large public housing development. He knows from personal experience the pain of racial discrimination.

Working with SMCCUCC has changed Cribbs. "I have to face my racial prejudice and biases toward wealthy, conservative Republicans," he said. "I am learning people have the same basic needs. Language is different and perspectives are different, but at the core of the everyday, folk want the same thing: safety for family and children; security; freedom from fear; a sense of being loved; knowing others care about them; and a safe retirement plan. They want to live peaceful lives." 

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