City of Roses, the Clergy Community Coalition wants you to know it’s got your back.
Whether it be for low-income housing, social justice, health or the public schools, the nonprofit organization made up of pastors from more than 30 local churches has worked to bridge the gap between the community, local government and police since 2005. It has formed a tightly-knit group of community partners with other nonprofits, the Police Department, school superintendent, city manager and state legislators.
The CCC has a seat at the table affecting the community’s welfare, and together, the pastors work to keep the lines of communication open to address gaps in services, striving to improve the quality of life for the city’s residents.
“The key for us would be the churches uniting together across denominational lines and across theological conversations that sometimes stifle us or keep us from coming together, to unify as one church across this city,” said Pastor Kerwin Manning, the CCC’s president. “The emphasis lies in understanding the pulse of the city; we are always connected to causes and issues that help us expand initiatives to improve that quality of life.”
Initially, the CCC came together to address an issue that was impacting churches as well as the Pasadena Unified School District: declining enrollment due to soaring housing costs. Residents were relocating elsewhere to find affordable housing. Many of the churches, meanwhile, had expanded their land ownership over the years, and were now formidable stakeholders in the city. The PUSD superintendent at the time, Percy Clark, approached a group of pastors to discuss what to do with a surplus of land the school district held after closing some area schools.
“We came together to think outside the box about affordable housing, maybe try to do something with the surplus property,” said Pastor Jean Burch, CCC past-president and board member. “But as we met, we realized there were a lot of other issues affecting our community and that we as a group of pastors had to be more holistic in our approach to helping people around us. We decided maybe this is God calling us to do his work.”
The CCC began as a group of just five churches, but something critical happened in 2007: There was an uptick in gang activity across the city. Young people were getting killed in drive-by shootings, memorials were resurrected on sidewalks, pastors were sitting in hospitals with mothers who’d lost a child, and even Manning was dubbed the “gang funeral pastor.” Accusations of excessive use of force by police also became a hot-button issue nationwide, and Pasadena didn’t escape the criticism, with 38-year-old Leroy Barnes shot 11 times (seven times in the back) and killed by police during a traffic stop.
Suddenly, all the churches saw the need to be involved; this was affecting their congregations, their neighbors and what they saw as the faith of the city. They united around what the CCC called the three P’s: prayer, presence and participation. They wanted to be in the thick of the conversation before there was a critical issue — such as excessive force by police against an African American man.
To show congregations a public, united front, the CCC took to the streets, holding candlelight vigils, marching during Black History Month and gathering on the steps of City Hall. But gaining that public persona didn’t come without its criticisms, noted Burch, saying the CCC has fought to remain united “even if we’re getting tomatoes thrown at us.”
Manning supported that notion, saying, “Our perspective is that the only side we take is the side of God, which is justice and righteousness; and sometimes that doesn’t fall on any particular side. There have been times that we have embraced and supported and undergirded our police, but there have been other times when we’ve stood and demanded an audience with [police] and told them, ‘Things have to change.’”
That insistence never wavered, and with violence against African American men appearing to rise across the country in 2007, the CCC drew on lessons from leaders of the civil rights movement in the 1960s. It invoked “healthy agitation,” summoned the community to action and called on the Police Department for more accountability; the CCC listed actions it deemed possible for both sides, including gun buyback programs, gang interventions and meetings with open dialogue where community members could express their frustrations with law enforcement.
“We’ve really tried to be the voice for the voiceless at those meetings,” Manning added. “We’ve always believed in ‘community policing,’ where there needs to be a strong relationship between the police and the community. We’ve got to do the hard work of listening to each other’s story, engage our community around race relations. If there are things that have happened that are not right, they must be made right.”
More recent local deaths of African American men during police encounters exacerbated the community’s frustration, including that of unarmed 19-year-old Kendrec McDade (killed by police in 2012) and Reginald Thomas Jr., who died in police custody in 2016. The most recent incident involved Christopher Ballew, whose leg was broken during a violent 2017 arrest. But there has been a lot of perceived headway in police-community relations, notes CCC board member Mayra Macedo-Nolan, a pastor.
Police dash-cam video has been released more quickly, something the CCC lobbied for, and there has been comprehensive police bias training.
“These are requests that are getting traction now,” Macedo-Nolan noted. “The CCC has worked diligently to create trust. … We have a unique platform and a lot of leverage.”
Pasadena interim Police Chief John Perez confirmed the importance of the CCC in Pasadena. He has a close relationship with the pastors, he said, calling on them frequently — and sometimes at all hours of the night.
“The Clergy Community Coalition is such a vital part of the way this body operates, I just don’t see us as a city without it,” Perez said. “It’s a pretty tight-knit group, we have tough discussions about police and community issues, it really brings everybody together. It creates a new avenue of trust and confidence, and helps people gain confidence in each other’s systems.”
Perez said he often consults the CCC about Police Department initiatives, or just to help some of the people they deal with reach the services they need.
“The partnership between the city, community and clergy and that outreach has really worked well to improve the quality of life for people, with crime dropping significantly,” he said, adding that the pastors of the CCC have visibly worked to help reduce gang activity and reach gang-impacted family, with pastors out walking the parks and directly forging ties through family members to help turn a life around. “Their efforts make a difference — they are the chiefs of the churches, they have access to people we don’t.”
That access is vital, the CCC has realized. With it, people have asked them to intervene in arrests, making sure law enforcement is done without complications or violence. One time, a young man with an outstanding warrant was wanted for questioning, and police were actively searching for him. On the run, the man was afraid he’d be subject to a house raid or confronted in the presence of his children. His grandmother reached out to the pastors for help. The CCC arranged to bring the young man into the police station, where the officers waited for him.
Burch drove the car to pick him up. The wanted man was able to say some tearful goodbyes to his family, and Manning sat with him in the back seat, together saying prayers. The entire exchange was very peaceful, Burch recalled.
The CCC also works diligently with PUSD. For some years now, church partners have taken part in “Adopt-a-School,” a program under which a church chooses a neighborhood school to help stock its reading awards, back-to-school supplies or decorations for teachers to prepare their classrooms. This year, the CCC was given a list of the top six underperforming schools in PUSD, which the CCC has fondly dubbed “the Super Six.” At those schools this year, the group will have a team of volunteers at the ready to help provide mentoring and tutoring. The CCC has also provided college tours and paid internships, noted PUSD Superintendent Brian McDonald.
“The Pasadena Clergy Community Coalition is a remarkable partnership that brings clergy, schools and the city together to serve the needs of children and their families,” he said. “Since its inception, the CCC has worked together with schools to support the growth and success of our students.”
As it looks ahead, the CCC said it plans to remain focused on how to provide more low-income housing, maybe to help foment a plan to convert dilapidated motels or closed businesses into the latter. They also do homeless outreach, providing hot meals several times a week, and provide support to people exiting incarceration.
However, as the community changes, the CCC will be there, looking to bridge the divide where ever it can, Burch and Manning said.
“Issues come and go and change over the years, and we try to just ride the wave as we need to. But we’ve made the decision to serve — we’ll continue to be a positive force and find ways to help disenfranchised people wherever we can,” Manning said. “We’re excited to preach to our new neighbors as much as the old, and to cast a fresh vision for this city.”