A pairing that promotes pride
Microphone in hand, the Rev. Art Cribbs eases himself onto the chancel steps until he is at eye-level with the tiniest of his congregants. They gather around eagerly as he pulls out a toy globe and begins to spin it, his finger stopping on Africa.
“What do people in Africa look like? What does an African look like?” he asks the children.
“Like you!” a little boy blurts out as the adults in the pews erupt in laughter.
For Cribbs, it is just another of the bittersweet moments that pop up every day at San Marino Congregational United Church of Christ. A church where nobody looks like him.
Over the last year, Cribbs has forged a new spiritual path as the minister and only black member of the nearly all-white Christian church tucked in one of the Los Angeles area’s wealthiest suburbs. It is an unlikely fit for a pastor who was born in Watts and who keeps Malcolm X’s writings on his bookshelf, an odd choice for a man in the throes of a doctoral dissertation on black liberation theology.
Yet both the church and the man say the pairing has stretched and changed them in ways that make them proud.
“We are saying in this dance, this marriage, ‘Let’s see if we can get along. Let’s see if we can get along with integrity -- not with compromise, with integrity,’ ” Cribbs said. “I respect the fact that this is not Watts or Harlem or East Oakland. I recognized that before I came here, and after coming here, I’m getting to know what that means in a new and different way every day.”
Cribbs’ resume was the third of 145 applications, and the selection committee knew immediately that they needed to persuade Cribbs to leave his large, all-black church in San Diego. San Marino had been struggling for years to bolster its 60-person membership and Cribbs’ charisma, depth and eloquence seemed to be the answer. His audition tape was so powerful it made the chairman of the selection committee cry.
“What we were really trying to work at is what is most needed in this community. What is most needed by us as a congregation. Where do we need to be stretched and grow?” said Donald Shenk, the committee chairman. “It really didn’t have anything to do with the color of his skin. This was going to be our Moses to lead us out of Egypt.”
In the year since the congregation’s unanimous vote, Cribbs has made superficial changes to the weekly services. He wears a richly embroidered, multicolored African shirt on Sundays instead of his minister’s collar, hosts a Bible study group called Soul Food and encourages the choir to dance in the aisles and experiment with more modern songs.
He rarely discusses his own childhood in Watts, where he was raised in one of the largest public housing developments in the nation, or the anger he felt when he was stopped by police in West Hollywood every day -- for no apparent reason -- as he drove to work in the late summer of 1969.
Yet congregants say their church today feels different. The open-minded spirit that was nurtured in San Marino’s pews for many decades has blossomed under Cribbs and the social activism at its core seems that much more urgent because of his presence.
“He wears being an African American man as sort of a mantle, in the sense that it frames the conversation and the understanding of what our country is, but it doesn’t dictate the only perspective,” said Carol Bennett, who joined the church six months ago.
“If you’re serious about your Christianity, you see that consistently Christ spoke up for the oppressed, the poor, the underdog,” she said. “What Art helps us do is to think through more specifically, ‘What does that mean in America?’ ”
Cribbs says the transition from his 250-person church in San Diego has been an easy one, but he acknowledges that he has moderated what he calls his “Afro-centric” style of preaching. Now, he preaches with a quiet intensity, his voice at times barely above a whisper.
On a recent Sunday, Cribbs made a point about racism by dividing congregants into groups based on the month of their birth -- and then lauded some months and said he despised others.
“January people, April people, July people, you know you should have done better choosing those months to come into our world,” he said. “You were never anything, you will never be anything, because you were denied at birth.”
Cribbs says such sermons -- and reaching out to people so different -- has given him a deeper understanding of his mission, a mission that goes beyond race and class to a universal truth.
“Being here with the people,” he said, “helps me to understand and feel what they are feeling and hopefully that deepens, if not my faith, then my humanity.”