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CITYSCAPES / NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN

Minister's 22 Years in Santa Monica Leave an Unusual Legacy : 'He is often the conscience of the community. A lot of people talked to Jim . . . about the right thing to do.'

July 01, 1995|NANCY HILL-HOLTZMAN

Conn served the few traditional congregants Sunday morning, but "what he really concentrated on was Sunday night," Abdo said.

That is when he drew people in with music, poetry, films, experiential "touchy-feely" programs--and dancing. On occasion, revelers disrobed. (It was, after all, the early 1970s.)

"We were in trouble all the time," Abdo said of the early days. "We figured if we didn't get a call [from church officials] every few months, we weren't doing our job."

But Conn survived, partly because the church became self-supporting, as required by church officials, but also because Conn and the congregation seemed made for each other.

"They had nowhere else to send him and no one else to send to us," Abdo said.

In some ways, Conn has not mellowed. When the National Endowment for the Arts threatened to cut funding for provocative artists in 1990, Conn produced "Naked in the Church," an avant-garde production designed to "affront the sensitivities of the prudish."

"We thumbed our nose at Jesse Helms," Conn said.

Years earlier, at the urging of then-City Atty. Robert M. Myers, Conn became the first mayor to be arrested at a nuclear test site in Nevada, starting a mini-trend.

An organizer involved in the Santa Monica rent control movement from its inception, Conn served on the City Council for eight years during the 1980s, the last two of them as mayor.

By all accounts, being mayor changed Conn.

"Once he became mayor, he saw he was leading the whole city," Reed said. "He had to rise to the occasion and he did rise to the occasion."

Conn's allies, however, attacked him for selling out and he was booed at a renters' rights political convention.

"People felt at the time he was sleeping with the enemy," said former Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District board member Connie Jenkins. "Basically, they were wrong. He was building bridges."

Bridge-builder is a term that comes up frequently in describing Conn.

That skill will come in handy in his new assignment. Conn has just 18 months of funding to make headway in seven troubled clusters of parishes throughout the county.

Conn will continue to live in Santa Monica. And for those times when he is in his car "office" far away from the surf, Conn can call upon the words of an African song, "Thula N'Zio," sung at his final service.

"Though I am far from my home, I carry my home in my heart."

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