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Minister-Mayor Bows Out, Praising Tie That Binds : Conn Sees Link Between Life in Religion, Politics

November 13, 1988|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

By the time church was over, James Conn's congregation had planned a vigil against the AIDS initiatives, announced a fund-raising fast for a human rights organization and offered spiritual uplifting to the Hopi Indian tribe.

This was a typical Sunday at the Church in Ocean Park, a progressive, non-traditional United Methodist Church where Conn, the retiring mayor of Santa Monica, presides.

Preside might be a formal word for a church short on formalities.

Simple Surroundings

Worshipers sit in theater chairs facing each other and the minister delivers his message from a stool. Old spirituals are sung a cappella, led by a woman with a gray ponytail in baggy pants who snaps her fingers to the beat. There are no altars, no pews, no organs.

Those in attendance readily join in as the minister speaks, sharing their feelings and impressions. They sip Celestial Seasonings herb tea and break homemade bread at the end of the service.

Finally, the entire congregation holds hands in a wide circle, giving praise, thanks and mutual support.

Conn, dressed in a red pullover, argyle socks and loafers, seems relaxed in the setting. In the 15 years since becoming pastor at the small, 65-year-old church on Hill Street, Conn has rebuilt a dying congregation into a loyal following of about 100 people, with a mailing list five times the size.

The church has also become nerve center for a $1.5-million network of social service agencies offering assistance to battered women, homeless and problem teen-agers.

Conn, who is leaving the City Council after 8 years, sees a natural bond between religious activism and politics. It is a tradition in the Methodist Church that can be traced to the abolition movement of Civil War times and the American Revolution, when being a Methodist quite literally meant being a revolutionary.

In both his roles as mayor of a small city and minister of a church, he has traveled to Central America on a fact-finding mission, and to Nevada to join protests at the nuclear test site, where he has been arrested.

"I've always thought about social issues from an ethical perspective," Conn, 44, said. "The church ought to be a change agent in society. Being an agent of change in the community led me to becoming an elected official."

And in his role as mayor during the last 2 years, Conn regards himself as a mediator, a seeker of consensus, a finder of common ground. His supporters credit him with helping to alleviate much of the factional bitterness and divisive tension that once engulfed the city.

'Build Bridges'

Conn prides himself on using his tenure as mayor--just as he does in his church--to "build bridges" among diverse groups and rival factions in the community.

His critics, however, charge that Conn has betrayed the ideals of the liberal faction that first elected him, Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, lost touch with his original power base and sold out to developers.

Conn announced his decision not to run for reelection in June, saying he wanted to dedicate more time to his ministry, his personal life and to his son, Ethan, a 10-year-old who appeared at church recently sporting an earring and skateboard.

Some of his foes say he is dropping out of politics because of the criticism he has received--a claim hotly contested by his supporters.

If he is now attacked from the left, Conn once was the scourge of the right.

When he was elected to the council in 1981 as part of the slate sponsored by Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights, Conn was viewed by many leaders of the business community as another of the wild-eyed radicals taking over City Hall.

It was a time when an Old Guard was being replaced by younger, more progressive politicians. Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights gained a majority on the council and immediately slapped a building moratorium on the city. Only 2 years before, the tenants faction had brought strict rent control to the city.

'Establishment Was Skeptical'

"The business community in general was very suspicious about Jim," said Christine Reed, a 14-year veteran of the City Council who opposes Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights but who broke precedent in 1986 by nominating Conn as mayor.

"They only knew him as the minister of a kinda wacky church in Ocean Park. The Establishment was real skeptical."

Conn said polarization was to be expected in those days because of the dramatic shifts in power taking place in the city. People with one set of values, he said, were being replaced by people with different values.

"When I came to Santa Monica, a city councilman told me there may be poor people in Santa Monica, but they'll have to learn they cannot afford to live here," Conn recalled. "I said, 'We'll see about that.' If that is the dominant conscience, then anything to the contrary creates schism and polarization."

A political evolution followed. The mayor that Santa Monicans for Renters' Rights had put into office in 1981, Ruth Goldway, was defeated in a reelection bid, and later, the faction lost its majority.

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