The Rev. James P. Conn, an unorthodox Methodist minister grounded in the civil rights and anti-war movements, came to Santa Monica in 1973 to revive a moribund church.
Instead, he shook up the whole town.
Whether acting as a minister, political activist, community organizer or mayor, Conn--who leaves his post to begin work today as the “urban strategist” for the United Methodist Church in the Los Angeles region--played an important role in reshaping Santa Monica’s identity and values.
“He is often the conscience of the community,” said resident Abby Arnold. “A lot of people talked to Jim when they were thinking about the right thing to do . . . the moral thing to do.”
Santa Monica’s commitment to social services, affordable housing, participatory democracy, rent control and the arts can all be traced at least in part to the doorstep of Conn’s Church in Ocean Park.
The church was the community gathering place and Conn was the catalyst for many people who put their ideas into action, locals say.
He is “very, very gifted in seeing in people what they don’t think they can do,” said church administrator Judy Abdo, a Santa Monica city councilwoman and former mayor.
Conn said the city’s commitment to social services is
his greatest legacy to Santa Monica.
“He is the grandfather of all social service funding in this community,” said former Mayor Christine Reed, a political opponent, whose vote made Conn mayor in 1986.
When Conn arrived, the seaside town was a sleepy, largely apolitical bedroom community of Los Angeles, not the bastion of liberal government it is today.
The young, firebrand minister was primed for social change. So were other refugees from the 1960s who were drawn to the Bohemian Ocean Park neighborhood near the Venice border, a poor area of town.
One of Conn’s early moves was to revive a dormant social services agency, the Ocean Park Community Center, and persuade the city to double its funding to $20,000.
The agency now has a $3.5-million budget from a variety of sources and Santa Monica spends more than $6 million a year on an array of social services, a remarkable commitment for a city of 86,000, Conn said.
Vivian Rothstein, executive director of the Ocean Park Community Center, said Conn was the key element in making social service values an intrinsic part of Santa Monica life--including a pioneering role in taking care of such non-traditional groups as the homeless, battered women and runaway children.
The list of ongoing programs sparked by activity at the church or while Conn served as councilman and mayor during the mid-'80s is long and illustrious.
They include: a nursery school, a women’s self-help health clinic, a senior citizens’ lunch program now run by the city and the Santa Monica Arts Commission and Foundation.
Last Sunday, more than 150 congregants literally enveloped Conn, 50, and his wife, Susan McCorry, 44, as they sent them off to the new post.
Conn’s new job as urban strategist is an experimental, admittedly amorphous and daunting assignment.
Traveling from pulpit to pulpit, Conn will work to organize troubled urban communities at the grass-roots level, much the same way he did in the Ocean Park area of Santa Monica.
Conn has promised to take his rabble-rousing Santa Monica ways with him.
“Keep making trouble,” were one parishioner’s parting words to Conn. (He agreed.) Another wondered aloud “if L.A. will be the same after you arrive.”
If Conn’s Santa Monica experience holds true, the answer is no. In his 22 years there, Conn helped transform the seaside community into his kind of town.
Conn’s departure is a particularly hard blow to congregants drawn by his charisma and the secular, non-dogmatic nature of worship at, as one brochure put it, the church for “people who had given up on church.”
“I tried to create an experience of community and an exploration that doesn’t have the parts people find really annoying,” Conn said.
That means one will hear a lot about love and heart in his offbeat services, but not about God.
Music plays a key role in services (called “the Sunday Experience”), but it is more likely to be a Zulu tune than “Rock of Ages.” Moreover, there is no reason to whisper: Laughter, tears and applause are welcome at the Church in Ocean Park.
Ceremony too, but with a twist. On Sunday, Conn’s baptismal “font” was a medium-size fishbowl. The church has no altar, prayer books or hymnals, either.
In other words, Conn has traveled a long way from his conservative roots in Stockton. The son of a housewife and a fundamentalist minister who abandoned the Methodist church as being too liberal, Conn split with his father in the 1960s over the issue of civil rights.
After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, Conn said, he entered the seminary to avoid being drafted for the war in Vietnam.
He came to Santa Monica to test his ideas that the church should play a role in the political and cultural life of a community. “I was interested in whether the church could be a change agent,” he said.
Conn served the few traditional congregants Sunday morning, but “what he really concentrated on was Sunday night,” Abdo said.
That is when he drew people in with music, poetry, films, experiential “touchy-feely” programs--and dancing. On occasion, revelers disrobed. (It was, after all, the early 1970s.)
“We were in trouble all the time,” Abdo said of the early days. “We figured if we didn’t get a call [from church officials] every few months, we weren’t doing our job.”
But Conn survived, partly because the church became self-supporting, as required by church officials, but also because Conn and the congregation seemed made for each other.
“They had nowhere else to send him and no one else to send to us,” Abdo said.
In some ways, Conn has not mellowed. When the National Endowment for the Arts threatened to cut funding for provocative artists in 1990, Conn produced “Naked in the Church,” an avant-garde production designed to “affront the sensitivities of the prudish.”
“We thumbed our nose at Jesse Helms,” Conn said.
Years earlier, at the urging of then-City Atty. Robert M. Myers, Conn became the first mayor to be arrested at a nuclear test site in Nevada, starting a mini-trend.
An organizer involved in the Santa Monica rent control movement from its inception, Conn served on the City Council for eight years during the 1980s, the last two of them as mayor.
By all accounts, being mayor changed Conn.
“Once he became mayor, he saw he was leading the whole city,” Reed said. “He had to rise to the occasion and he did rise to the occasion.”
Conn’s allies, however, attacked him for selling out and he was booed at a renters’ rights political convention.
“People felt at the time he was sleeping with the enemy,” said former Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board member Connie Jenkins. “Basically, they were wrong. He was building bridges.”
Bridge-builder is a term that comes up frequently in describing Conn.
That skill will come in handy in his new assignment. Conn has just 18 months of funding to make headway in seven troubled clusters of parishes throughout the county.
Conn will continue to live in Santa Monica. And for those times when he is in his car “office” far away from the surf, Conn can call upon the words of an African song, “Thula N’Zio,” sung at his final service.
“Though I am far from my home, I carry my home in my heart.”