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.
Silyan-Saba explained that the commission is tasked with resolving tensions and discrimination among the numerous cultural, ethnic, racial and religious communities in one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.
"We have some of the largest diaspora communities outside of their native countries, and they bring with them challenges from their places of origin. So, before you know it we are dealing with global issues," she said.
Silyan-Saba sought out faith leaders to take the lead in making peace over Proposition 8, not because of the healing work religious communities accomplished 20 years earlier, but because religion was at the root of the same-sex marriage conflict.
"The reason people were questioned on it and took a stand was their own religious beliefs and values," she said. "So, it was very natural for us to ask faith leaders to be at the table" instead of political or social advocacy groups.
The format for the meetings, which convened in 2010, was developed by the Utah-based Foundation for Religious Diplomacy, which the city became acquainted with at a religious outreach gathering at USC.
"Los Angeles has brilliantly realized that majority rule alone does not make a healthy society," said Randall Paul, president of FRD. "You have to have a respect for those who disagree to have a healthy society."
Paul explained that his dialogue methods allow opponents to understand each other so they can honestly agree to disagree while still building enough trust to work together.
"What we are about is deep change in the manner you treat someone who continually disagrees with you out of integrity," he said. "We try to hook you on the fact that most strategies that demean or belittle your rivals are ineffective."
Human vs. label
For the Way of Openness initiative, eight faith leaders representing Christian and Jewish congregations were asked to meet at USC in 2010 not to debate theological differences, but to share their personal backgrounds and views on same-sex marriage and the Proposition 8 campaign in a series of one-on-one dialogues, Paul explained.
"We asked them to talk about how religion informed their position on Proposition 8," he said, "so they could honestly express from the depths of their hearts and minds this fundamental reason why they were for or against Prop 8. It had very little to do with their politics but everything to do with their deep belief structures."
For Thomas, the sessions cleared away labels and attached a human face to the issue.
"You put a name, you put a story, you put a life, you attach all of these things to it, and what it did for me was it enabled me to build a relationship with individuals rather than a label or a perception," he said.
Thomas, who is gay and opposed Proposition 8, shared with the group his experience of he and a Jewish rabbi preventing an unruly group of protesters from storming a Mormon chapel near the grounds of the Los Angeles temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, whose California members were heavily involved in the campaign for Proposition 8.
"I completely understood the emotions and they were justified," he recalled of the march during the Proposition 8 campaign. "But I was also very much aware that it was sacred ground and this was not the way to behave."
Judy Gilliland, a retired school teacher and lay public affairs representative for the LDS Church who participated in the Way of Openness project, said she was intimidated by the prospect of speaking one-on-one with those who would disagree with her support for Proposition 8.
"There were so many raw feelings from the aftermath of Prop. 8 that I was worried how others would accept me and my views," she recalled.
But Gilliland said she came away from the experience "empowered" by having been heard and with a better understanding of how others felt about the issue.
Cultivating the ground
While participants agreed the dialogues fostered understanding and a willingness to collaborate, Silyan-Saba said the exercise would be fruitless if it didn't go beyond the group they invited to participate. So, they agreed to reconvene last year and film their dialogue as a demonstration of how people can talk honestly, yet civilly about differences of opinion.
They hope the video posted on the BeyondProp8 website and the participants sharing it with their congregations will convince others to sit down with opponents and lead to launching their own interfaith projects within the city.
Thomas and Gilliland said they are discussing working together on service to the homeless.
"To have Mormons working side-by-side with LGBT people to provide for something beyond our political views moves us to a new place in our relationship," Thomas said. "If something like (Proposition 8) came up again it would be easier for us to sit at the table and say, 'What can we do together so we don't do what we did back in 2008?'"
That discussion may happen as early as June when the high court is expected to rule on the constitutionality California's marriage amendment.
But Silyan-Saba said the Way to Openness can be more than just a way to smooth over differences on same-sex marriage.
"We are providing a model of dialogue that you could utilize on any other issue — immigration, gun control," she said. "We are cultivating the ground and giving people the tool to engage in these conversations and talk about these very heated issues regardless of the decision in June."