Religious unity: Los Angeles gathers faith leaders to make peace over Prop 8, other volatile issues

Published: Saturday, March 16 2013 12:50 p.m. MDT

As a melting pot of the world's religions, Los Angeles has experienced the divisive and unifying powers of faith. Following the 1992 racial riots, religious leaders stepped in to rebuild communities that were literally torn up by violent unrest. In 2008, clergy and their followers took sides in a rancorous political campaign over banning same-sex marriage that still simmers.

Recognizing the influence religion can have on a community, the city assembled leaders representing hundreds of congregations more than two years ago to develop and launch a plan for religious groups to respectfully disagree, yet work together for the common good.

"We may not agree but let’s talk about it because somewhere there is a common thread to unite us for common good and understanding," said Najuma Smith-Pollard, a pastor with the African Methodist Episcopal Church, who participated in the project. "Just talking can lead to being unified on bigger issues."

The conversation will culminate on Tuesday when the city unveils the initiative, called "Way of Openness," with a public screening of a 20-minute documentary about the project and a panel discussion among some of the faith leaders who participated.

The event comes one week before the U.S. Supreme Court is to hear arguments in an appeal of Proposition 8, a controversial voter initiative that constitutionally defined marriage as only between a man and woman. While those involved in the project say the timing is coincidental, they agree it is fortunate and will give faith leaders a chance to begin cultivating a climate of understanding and head off any ugly reaction to the high court's decision, which is expected as early as June.

"Our hope is that this will give people the tools to tackle these difficult and challenging issues not just in anticipation for the decision in June, but beyond the decision," said Joumana Silyan-Saba, a senior policy analyst for the city's Human Relations Commission.

Core of conflict

City and community leaders have reason to worry about an uprising of some kind when the Supreme Court rules. It was April 1992 when a Southern California jury acquitted four Los Angeles Police officers in the beating of Rodney King, an African American. The verdict ignited race riots in South Central Los Angeles that killed more than 50 people, injured thousands and caused an estimated $1 billion in property damage.

In the immediate aftermath of the unrest, a broad spectrum of religious groups — from individual congregations to quickly formed coalitions — organized clean-up crews and the delivery of food, clothing, and other resources to the affected communities, according to a 2011 report on the civic role of religion in Los Angeles by the University of Southern California's Center for Religion and Civic Culture.

But religion played a divisive role in the heated campaigns over what is now referred to as Proposition 8. While no lives were lost in the Proposition 8 campaign, Silyan-Saba said she heard and saw rhetoric calling proponents bigots and damning opponents to hell as she monitored protests and demonstrations within the city.

"In general, the protests were peaceful, but the signs being carried, they spoke for it all," she recalled.

As clergy and lay faith leaders met to develop the Way of Openness plan, they shared stories of the Proposition 8 campaign ruining friendships, dividing congregations and trying their own personal faith as fellow clergy leveled insults in the name of religion.

"For a while it was difficult for me to call myself Christian, so I would call myself a follower of Jesus, which sat far more comfortable with me," said the Rev. Neil Thomas, senior pastor at Founders Metropolitan Community Church and an opponent of Proposition 8.

Sensing the vote that approved Proposition 8 wouldn't end the anger and fear the campaign created, the commission began mulling over what to do to repair the emotional divide that would widen as legal appeals wended their way through the court system.

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