What if Oakland is one of the thin places?*

*thin places: a Celtic term for those places where the division between earth and heaven collapse, where we can contemplate and experience the divine in the midst of our lived experiences.

This is Oakland.

and so is this.




I went to college in Baltimore, and some of my friends still live there. My friends see my Type A self not picking up a surf board and ask me why I haven’t moved back to the east coast where I clearly belong. “I love Oakland, man,” I explain. “Oakland’s like Baltimore. But with hope.”


I know people who go back generations on this soil and I know people like me who have been here a decade or less all talking about how there is just something about Oakland. I’ve lived in cities with stores for tourists to buy souvenir t-shirts; Chicago locals will wear Cubs or (preferably–it’s class warfare out there and I know where I stand) White Sox caps and shirts, but they’re not the ones buying the Chicago Fire Department t-shirts at the gift shop in Sears Tower. On the flip side, I have yet to convince a visitor to buy an Oaklandish shirt; it’s fools like me shelling out more than our paychecks can withstand to show some Town Love. (Or locally grown Real Oakland hoodies.)

Now the people I hang with are usually also quick to say we’re killing each other in the streets and there are actually two Oaklands, rich and poor (but even moreso gentrifiers who don’t care about those who were here before them and longtime residents), one of which doesn’t care about the other and the other of which doesn’t know how to love itself all that well. Which is why 40 organizations connect with each other and stand with each other in our shared work for peace, healing and justice through the Oakland Peace Center–there’s too much to do to do it alone.

But even when we are skeptical of city leadership, when we are not sure the police department’s relationship to its citizens will ever be healed, when we don’t know what will stop babies from killing babies, we have a sense not just of the resilience of the city but of its creative energy. This land has generated visionary artists and radical movement leaders. This is the land of Julia Morgan and Gertrude Stein, of Fred Korematsu and Richard Aoki, of Huey Newton and Angela Davis (not to mention John Lee Hooker and MC Hammer). In Oakland, we may feel like no one is going to make things better but us, but we also really believe we will be the ones to make things better. (Those who don’t believe it don’t stay very long.)


The other day I remembered a trip I made to the Scottish island of Iona about four years ago. Iona is described as a thin place: “Heaven and earth, the Celtic saying goes, are only three feet apart, but in thin places that distance is even shorter,” says one article.

Thin places connect us with the Divine, which is to say, they challenge us to be our best selves. A lot of people think thin places have to be remote, and Iona sure is. Some people think they have to be meditative and quiet and peaceful. But that’s not really true. Transformation rarely involves the luxury of peace and quiet. Don’t get me wrong–lack of access to food and the constant low-grade fear of violence do not make for transformation either. I am not romanticizing Oakland as being without its profound and sometimes overwhelming brokenness. But I believe we’ve actually created some thickness in a thin place.


I can take a bus from Fruitvale station and end up in a redwood forest, far away from the highway sounds always outside my apartment windows. And I’m very aware in those moments I’m in a thin place where I can listen to God or have conversations with a friend that go so much deeper than they would go anywhere else.

But I can also sit on the free shuttle downtown on my ride home and listen to a tale of abuse and survival and being constantly silenced and loving God but not trusting God if I actually bother to make eye contact with the schizophrenic woman in front of me who starts out our ride cursing and deriding me in the third person but thanking me for affirming her when she gets off the bus eight blocks later, without me saying more than three words.

And I can listen to the lived experiences of the young poets I sometimes get to work with who have faced the worst of what this city has to offer, and because of their own resilience and a few other visionary Oaklanders who had their backs, they’re hustling and also giving back and mentoring the next generation of kids growing up in their neighborhoods.

And I can sing and pray and shout and protest with deeply faithful people for the transformation of our city’s approach to jobs, and over months of people putting their bodies on the line and working out struggles with each other and stopping just short of throwing punches in planning meetings, see how a plan got passed but also relationships got built and hope got restored and people’s vision got much much bigger than the policy we are currently implementing.


There are plenty of places that do not feel thin to me when I walk the streets of Oakland. But I think we’ve made them thick with growing wealth disparity that “hollows out the soul.” I think we’ve made them thick with the loss of watching out for our neighborhood’s kids as if they’re our own. I think we’ve made them thick with the concentration of poverty and drug use and prostitution and sex slavery that dehumanizes the people affected by such devastating issues.


I think the palpable spiritual power of our forebears in this community is not an accident. Oakland has given the world some of its greatest visionaries and poets and changemakers because it is sacred ground, because it is a thin place. I see that in the redwoods and in the urban farming that is reconnecting longtime residents to their own land. I see it in the deep compassion of Belinda and Keasha with Project Darries and Marilyn Washington with the Khadafy Foundation as they stand with people in deepest grief and work to prevent the violence that leads to such grief. I see it in all of the partners at the Oakland Peace Center, all of whom are making Oakland a more obviously thin place.

I also think it’s no accident that so many of the most inspiring people and organizations I work with are practical or radical, but they have a profoundly compassionate and spiritual edge to their work. I believe there is more blending of the spiritual and the community-transforming in social service and advocacy and culture shift work in Oakland than anywhere else in America. Even most of my friends who hate religion keep articulating spiritual commitments in their work and vision without even realizing. I think they can’t help it–it’s in the thin air we breathe here.

I look forward to the day when all of us recognize what is sacred about this ground, what is sacred about us as we walk this ground, and what is sacred about the others sharing this land with us. Then I think this whole city will have the feeling of an Iona, of a thin place. It won’t be an easier place to live, but it will be a place where we can feel the transformation take root.

Sunset at world famous thin place Iona

Sunset over less-famous thin place Oakland


RIP, 5’10” caucasian male

Allen got a call at 4:45pm yesterday, and he contacted the police.

By the time I was aware of the situation, the coroner had come and gone.

Our neighbor, Stevens, who knows some of the regulars who hang around the building, didn’t recognize the man.

5’10” Caucasian male. That’s all I know. Under a blanket, surrounded by empty liquor bottles, on the patio, right outside of the apartment where I lived for four years. Right outside of fellowship hall.


Community care is self care is community care

On solidarity and not burning out and doing movement work well

I’m going to make a confession: I’m not awesome at yoga or meditation. I don’t care much for silence in general. I tried being a Quaker for a month in college because on paper it was the perfect match, but after about ten minutes of silence, I would find myself thinking of spiritual conversation starters. I would have been better off with pacifist socialist Pentecostals.

In the Bay Area, this is a character flaw, particularly in my very socially conscious and down for the cause while up with our self-care crowd I aspire to be a part of. And I know that when I force myself to meditate, I’m the better for it (the East Bay Meditation people of color sit is particularly awesome, although I always feel like the people who don’t know me shoot me a little shade for presumably being one of those entitled White people who sometimes show up because they think it’s wrong that people of color practice exclusion like that one day a week). My mind settles and I slow down and I breathe more deeply and I may even connect with the divine in a more profound way.

But for me, meditation is like kale: I consume it because it’s good for me, not because I’m jonesing for it. I would rather have Taco Bell or the spiritual equivalent of Taco Bell: reruns of Sex and the City. Sometimes I manage to make the right choice instead, but not always. (more…)

The original tracks of “Happy Brown Girl Vol. 2” (plus a bonus video BY ME!)

By now, everyone who asked for a copy of my CD should have received it. (If you want one, email me your mailing address; this is a labor of love I look forward to doing all year and if you’ll enjoy it, I would LOVE to share it!)

Last year, when I released “Happy Brown Girl Sings White Boy Angst,” which was covers of me singing mostly 90s grunge songs, a friend said she needed to hear the originals first. Who hasn’t heard “Come as you are” by Nirvana, I thought to myself, but it crossed my mind that this year’s album spans a lot of genres, so I thought I’d collect originals of all the songs I covered this year so you can compare and contrast. (NOTE: Scroll to the bottom for a youtube video of one of my covers.)


Police Militarization Makes Us Less Safe: Why I Oppose Urban Shield

“Because we deserve better,” I said to every West Oakland resident I encountered. The 87-year-old lifetime resident and the 30-something hipster alike nodded sagely and said, “that’s right.”

I was canvassing with my clergy colleagues, handing out flyers seeking information on the shooting of 23-month-old Hiram Lawrence, Jr. It was late November, 2011.

Since then, 16 more people under the age of 18 have been killed in Oakland.


My friends and colleagues who prioritize security concerns in Oakland note that the first people who will tell you we need more police on the streets are regular citizens and residents in west and east Oakland. And if you’ve talked to a lot of long-time residents, you’ll find that, with some nuance, that’s pretty true.


My friends and colleagues who prioritize civil rights will note that the people who are most frequently unfairly targeted by the police are also regular citizens and residents of west and east Oakland. They point out that the relationship between community and police is broken almost beyond repair, so that the people who need police protection the most also have the least reason to trust the police. And if you’ve talked to a lot of long-time residents, you’ll find that, with some nuance, that’s pretty true.


Tomorrow, October 25, the Oakland City Marriott will again play host to a program called Urban Shield. A combination of anti-terrorism training and gun show on steroids, County Sherriff Greg Ahern established Urban Shield in 2007 as a means of cashing in on federal funding for anti-terrorism efforts. Bay Area police will be trained by and with security forces from Bahrain, Israel and China, and they will see the latest in munitions and armored cars and drones.


If we are a city that is a war zone, some of my friends argue, we need for our protection crew to be armed for battle. And they are not alone. The War on Terror has moved police departments nationwide towards a strategy of militarization as they seek to make us safe in a scary time, to protect us against terrorists and gang members and suburban anarchists alike.


I am tired of watching babies, little girls, teenagers fall victim to violence in our community. So why would I oppose a program like Urban Shield?


on Kafani and Dreams Deferred and Not (and on violence, escaping it and not)

If you haven’t heard of Kafani, you’re probably not a hip hop head with a particular passion for Bay Area beats. Kafani’s a pretty respected hip hop artist with a somewhat well-known beef with Philthy Rich. He’s particularly famous right now for having been in the wrong place at the wrong time twice, both times making the news big time.

A couple of years ago he was on “the set” of a friend’s music video being filmed in rival territory (in the parking lot next to a liquor store in West Oakland) when a couple of guys rolled up on the filming and shot, wounding several and killing baby Hiram Wallace, whose father brought him to the video shoot. Last week, Kafani was filming again in rival territory (around Seminary and Foothill in east Oakland) when he was shot five times.Last I heard, Kafani was likely to survive but likely to be paralyzed by the attack.

I find myself thinking of two things while mourning the beef that led to the most recent shooting. (more…)

First person plural: the Lord’s prayer and liberation

This is a reconstructed version of the sermon I preached as my last sermon as pastor of First Christian Church of Oakland, July 1, 2013.


The “scripture reading” for the morning was actually this skit.


How many people in the congregation knew that the Lord’s Prayer is actually in the bible? (Most hands go up, and someone shouts “twice!”) That’s right—the original and the extended versions. And because we hear it so often, it can be easy to forget that there are many things that prayer is teaching us about who we can be together. In fact, here’s how MUCH we can take it for granted.