From the Worldwide Faith News archives www.wfn.org
California UCC congregation sees new life in diversity
Worldwide Faith News <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Fri, 31 Jul 2009 15:51:39 -0700
California congregation sees new life in diversity
Written by Heidi Bright Parales
July 28, 2009
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
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 Donald 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."
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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