OCEAN PARK — In 1973, The Rev. Jim Conn was asked to re-open a United Methodist church at the corner of Second and Hill streets with a focus on outreach toward young adults.
What he began was the foundation for the interfaith activist church of the future, with no cross or pews.
The Church in Ocean Park celebrated its 40th anniversary this year with a Bastille Day celebration on July 14 honoring its history of spiritual and social justice service since Conn’s renovations.
A short time into his assignment in the Ocean Park neighborhood Conn changed the building’s name to the Church in Ocean Park to be more inclusive to other faiths.
The Rev. Janet McKeithen, the church’s current United Methodist pastor for the past eight years, said that churchgoers today come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds including Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. They even perform solstice rituals on the beach for Wiccans. She added that most of their patrons are spiritual, not religious, or would never set foot in another church after painful experiences trying to fit in with their own religious groups that shunned them.
Within this diverse community there are few spiritual expectations and strict rules that must be followed: Namely the need to recognize the sacred in every person, no matter their faith.
“You don’t have to actually believe that somebody was born of a virgin. You don’t really have to believe that in order to be a good person,” McKeithen said.
Beyond the commitment to creating a safe space for people to reassess their religious roots and strive to embody their own core values, Conn, who served as the church’s pastor for 22 years and on the City Council from 1981-1986, said that part of his original purpose was to create a sense of community that would help the neighborhood advocate for itself in social justice issues.
Paul Lichterman, professor of sociology and religion at USC, said that religion and social activism tend to relate more often than people think.
“Religious people and religious groups have a long history of progressive activism,” Lichterman said.
He cited examples of congregations’ involvement in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. He added that often religious groups are considered conservative mainly because of predominant media attention given to such groups, including the Roman Catholic Church.
Conn’s own involvement in various activist movements of the ‘60s prompted him to consider if a church could embody those social values and push them further into a neighborhood.
Throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Conn explained, the Church in Ocean Park was at the center of fervent issues in the then more conservative political landscape of Santa Monica in regards to social justice such as gay and lesbian rights.
“We gave a voice to values that had been hidden and suppressed for a long time,” Conn said.
From then on church community members have cemented a working relationship with the Gay-Straight Alliance at Santa Monica High School; established a racial justice committee working with the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District to enact policies by which parents must be notified if their child suffers some sort of racial discrimination; and took part in the campaign to unionize a car wash on Lincoln Boulevard.
The church also played a role in launching service groups such as the Ocean Park Community Organization (now referred to simply as OPCC), which provides services to the homeless, and the Westside Health Center.
“I think this is what communities of faith are supposed to be about,” Conn said.
While McKeithen said that churches should devote themselves to acts of social service, she added that not many do. She recalled that when she was arrested for civil disobedience after partaking in an in-action on the street for hotel workers near the Los Angeles International Airport, the following Sunday she was greeted by applause by her community in Ocean Park. At a previous church when she was caught in a similar situation she nearly got kicked out.
“[The people at Ocean Park] get it, they get what a church is,” McKeithen said.
While the interfaith community of activists and the lengths they will go is special to the Church of Ocean Park, the church’s United Methodist regional conference has also exhibited a progressive stance on social issues.
This past June, the California-Pacific Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church passed a resolution called “A Statement of Biblical Obedience” that called into question the United Methodist Church’s constitution which states that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching,” said James Kang, the director of communications for the local conference.
Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño, who oversees the California-Pacific Annual Conference, is also a vocal advocate for immigration reform — another issue the Church in Ocean Park addresses.
Whether trailblazers or participants in a historic relationship between faith and social service, McKeithen described her church as a model for the continuing push in all religious communities to actively lend a voice in national issues, including Ocean Park’s new sustainability focus.
She added that while the progressive population of Santa Monica has facilitated the church’s activism, she hopes that more churches like her own will be able to thrive in other areas soon.
To learn more about the Church in Ocean Park’s services and history, McKeithen invites community members to attend their open house on Aug. 25 from 10 a.m. — 3 p.m.