First Congregational Church of Oakland shares a neighborhood with many homeless people, and they often come to the church in times of mental health crises. Sometimes church members feel unequipped to deal with the erratic behavior: the most heart-wrenching scenes, volunteer leader Nichola Torbett says, are the times when the church is closing for the day, and a person with nowhere else to go absolutely refuses to leave the building.

At least once or twice a month, at their wits’ end, the church members call 911.

Now, the church has joined a small handful of congregations with a radical goal: to stop calling the police. Not for mental health crises, not for graffiti on their buildings, not even for acts of violence. These churches believe they should wash their hands entirely of the American police system.

The churches call their drastic approach “divesting” from policing. The project of divesting is organized by Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), a nationwide organization that tries to get white Americans working on behalf of racial justice. The four Unitarian and Protestant churches that have joined so far include three in the Bay Area and one in Iowa City. The Northern California Nevada Conference of the United Church of Christ has signed on to recruit from among its member churches, and the Bay Area churches are talking to more congregations in their area, from denominations including the Disciples of Christ and the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Mercury News reports.

“It’s a challenging ask,” acknowledged the Rev. Anne Dunlap, a United Church of Christ minister who leads SURJ’s outreach to faith communities. “It’s a big ask to invite us, as white folks, to think differently about what safety means. Who do we rely on? What is safe? For whom? Should our safety be predicated on violence for other communities? And if not, what do we do if we’re confronted with a situation, because we are, as congregations? . . . How do we handle it if there’s a burglary? How do we handle it if there’s a situation of violence or abuse in the congregation?”

Those are hard questions. The churches that commit to ending their use of police resources are training members in alternate responses to danger. Torbett said at First Congregational, church leaders have invited experts from several nonprofits to train members on de-escalating mental health crises, and on self-defense in the case of a violent person at the church. “Our goal is to never call the police,” she said. As members discuss self-defense, they’ve also decided that they will not arm anyone at the church with any weapon.

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