First Congregational Church of Oakland shares a neighborhood with many homeless people who 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 like-minded 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 the American police system, criticized for its impact especially on people of color, is such a problem that they should wash their hands of it entirely.
“Can this actually be reformed, when it was actually created for the unjust distribution of resources or to police black and brown bodies?” Torbett asked. For her and for her fellow church members, the answer is no — the police don’t just need reform. The police need to be abandoned altogether.
The churches call their drastic approach “divesting” from policing. They say that one headline after another about policing around the country shows that divestment is necessary — most recently, events include a notorious call to police about two African American men at a Philadelphia Starbucks and the fatal shooting of Stephon Clark, shot eight times as he was holding an iPhone, not a gun.
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).
“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.
The leaders involved in the SURJ effort say that they are not asking churchgoers not to call police in their lives outside of church, though they hope that some will choose to refrain.
Many of the churches that SURJ approached were not interested. “I had some hard conversations with pastors and members,” Dunlap said. “These were progressive congregations that had participated in our work in the past — hung Black Lives Matter banners and had them vandalized. They said, ‘We appreciate our relationship with the police. We don’t want to put that at risk.’”
But to Dunlap, resisting policing is among her religious obligations. “You’re talking about state violence against communities. You have to speak up and take a stand about that. There’s not a nice way to just play in the middle,” she said. “There’s not a way to reform our way out of police violence but to dismantle policing as a system.”
She envisions instead a form of local accountability, in which neighbors get to know one another and defend their own communities.
Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, which conducts studies on improving policing, said churches can and should take on some tasks themselves instead of calling police, like providing assistance to a person who is drunk or sick. But he cautioned that churches would be foolhardy to try to take the place of police in a violent situation — especially if the aggressor has a gun, in a tragic case like the church shootings in Charleston, S.C., and Sutherland Springs, Tex.
Moreover, Wexler believes clergy can use their moral influence to make police departments better. “I understand where these folks may be coming from. They’re saying we have issues. But if you have issues, you shouldn’t cut yourself off from such an important institution in the community. Communities only have one police force. If they’re not doing what you want them to do, you should be engaged with them,” he said, pointing to examples of clergy in Los Angeles, Boston and Chicago who worked with officers on reducing gang violence and other community priorities. “It’s disappointing to hear when a community or religious organization decides they’re not going to engage with the police anymore. Police need the church. They need an active clergy. They rely on them.”
Dunlap said that even in a case of criminal behavior, she would ideally like to see churches not call police, because she doesn’t trust the criminal justice system to deliver a fair outcome.
“In the case of interpersonal violence, for the survivors as well as the perpetrators, we want to look at transformative justice,” she said. “Would a punitive police and legal system actually bring us the desired outcome for everyone involved? What are our actual values? What do our traditions teach us about redemption?”
That’s a controversial position that members are discussing in each church. Sarah Pritchard, a co-pastor at another Oakland church that has signed on, Agape Fellowship, said while the pledge not to call the police applies to the churches, not to individual members, the hope is the training at church will inspire some members when they go home as well.
When it comes to police and prisons, Pritchard uses an old word to describe a still-radical stance: “abolitionist.”