KALW's community storytelling project Hear Here has been asking Oakland and San Francisco residents about meaningful places in their neighborhood. KALW's Alyssa Kapnik chose her place, a church, because she used to pass it on her way to the BART station. Since Kapnik is from a totally different faith – she's Jewish – she wondered what it would be like to experience religion and God from such a different perspective. Fully aware that she’d be an outsider, she decided to go one recent Sunday, and she was the only white person in the entire congregation. She tells us in her own words what it was like to discover this place, the community within it, and a new understanding of how God can inhabit both.
So at the very beginning, when I got in there, everyone is singing. Some people are standing up, some people are sitting down, and they're waving their arms around and they're singing, and everybody seems to know all the words to all these songs. So I awkwardly stand up sometimes, and then sit down. And the pastor walks up, and his is dressed nice. He has got really nice suit on. And the pastor kept calling out, "Does anyone in this room have a relationship with Jesus? Does anyone in this room have a relationship with Jesus?" And everybody in the room is raising their hands and calling out, "Yeah God! I got a relationship with Jesus! I feel Jesus, I got Jesus in my heart!"
And it's this consensus; everyone has it. It becomes like a rhythm. Everyone in the room is moving around to this feeling of God. Like God is pumping them up. And they are just getting higher and higher and higher. And the pastor keeps asking, "Does anyone in this room have a relationship with Jesus?" And everyone raises their hand except for me, and the ten year old boy sitting in the row in front of me. And he keeps repeating the question, and it becomes more and more obvious that the only people in the room that don't have their hands up are me and the little boy. And the little boy is really brave. He is clean cut, he is well dressed and brave. He stands up in front of the entire congregation during all of this, and it grows really quiet for the first time in the entire service.
And he walks up with one of his relatives. And the deacons, who've been waiting for somebody to come and answer this question, sort of envelop him in a circle at the front of the room. And I sort of thought I was off the hook because this boy didn't have a relationship with Jesus. But the woman sitting next to me said, "Do you have a relationship with Jesus?" And I said, "No, actually." And she said, "Oh! Well they're there for you! You should go up there!"
I was like, "No... I'm good, I think. For now."
People start holding hands, and the singing has gotten sort of quiet. And the pastor is sort of, like, speak-singing. And the pastor is talking about pain. He's talking about. He said, "I know you're in pain. I know you're feeling this pain. It's hard." And he said, "In Oakland, just this year, there have been 126 shootings. And 83 percent of those shootings have been black on black violence." And he looked around the room and he said: "That starts here. We have to do something about that. This is us. This violence is with us, and we have to do something about it."
I feel like we have a lot of abstract conversations just living in Oakland and living in the Bay Area, and talking about race in these sort of abstract ways. We have all these conversations about the violence and the number of shootings. And it always feels distant. It feels like that's something that's happening, but it never happens to anyone I know. And in fact, I've never heard gunfire. I've never, you know, I've never felt afraid for my life. Just to think that that's real for these people. And that that's what they were there praying about.
It felt real in a way. I felt, the way that they were talking about God, the way they were talking about God as this very real entity, I felt like, for the first time ever, I felt like I understood God. Which disappeared as soon as I left. I don't feel that now. But it felt so clear, and it was so powerful in the moment. I couldn't believe how amazing that felt.
I've been thinking about this experience every single day since it happened. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life.
We should note, that since Alyssa visited the church, the total number of homicides in Oakland went up to 131.
What’s a place in your neighborhood that means something to you – and why? Our Hear Here community storytelling project wants to know the answer. If you’ve got a story of a significant place, visit the Participate page at www.hearkere.kalw.org and tell it to us! You can also find the project on Facebook and follow it on Twitter at @hearhereradio.
Hear Here is part of a national initiative of AIR, the Association of Independents in Radio, Inc designed to bring new journalistic and technical ingenuity to extending public media service to more Americans. From Chinese restaurants in Boston, to shuttered factories in Dayton, to the oil fields of North Dakota, to Bay Area startups, the ten Localore production teams are working with their public station incubators to uncover ground-up stories of America in transition. Follow their development, and learn more at Localore.net.