OPC: 40,000 Square Feet of Love

As part of the NBA Incubate Initiative, we have the opportunity to partner with new health and social service ministries started by Disciples in order to support their growth in those critical early years.  One of these amazing ministries is the Oakland Peace Center (OPC) in California, led by Director, Rev. Sandhya Jha.  OPC brings together a wide variety of social justice organizations from across the city, housing them under one roof—a roof shared with First Christian Church of Oakland (Disciples of Christ). Here’s a story from their part of the world…

40,000 square feet is a lot of space.

40,000 square feet dating back to 1929 is a lot of space with deferred maintenance.

At least, that’s how the Oakland Peace Center feels some days. But yesterday, I walked a good chunk of those 40,000 square feet and all I felt was energy and relationship and healing and possibility.

OPC’s Third Anniversary

A big part of the reason I felt that was during the recent Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, the Oakland Peace Center celebrated our third anniversary, and we did it up right with a whole weekend of programming. Now, this MLK weekend was really special in the city of Oakland and the Bay Area of California. This was a weekend where people engaged in racial justice while boldly reclaiming the legacy of MLK. And while that was part of why the OPC launched on MLK weekend in 2012, it was pretty inspiring to know that our celebration happened in the midst of 96 solid hours of community actions for racial justice.

I had a moment or two of worrying whether we might be in conflict with those actions, whether our attendance would suffer, whether we should join the actions in solidarity.
Then, I remembered that the OPC maybe doesn’t fill the same role as the actions in the streets. Don’t get me wrong – we’re a collective of 40 different organizations doing every type of work to create peace you can imagine, from direct service work to advocacy to helping people find inner peace to disrupting cycles of poverty and injustice that lead to violence, and at any given time that means at least some of our partners are marching in the streets.

A Sustaining Space

But when there are already thousands doing that work, we can also provide a space for the people whose peace work doesn’t now and may never involve protests. We can provide a space for the people who have been marching so long that they need something to sustain them and strengthen them.

The OPC is technically a secular 501(c)(3), but it is not surprising that the partners most active in our shared work have a spiritual identity or longing that doesn’t get the opportunity to shine in the rest of their lives. Let me show you what happened over the weekend at the Oakland Peace Center, created by those 40 partner organizations.

Mallika and Armando from Growing Together partnered with Devonte from Black Alliance for Just Immigration to create a truly powerful ritual to plant fruit trees dedicated to racial justice. The soil was imbued with the names of Black people we have lost to police violence since Oscar Grant, and the water was blessed with our dreams of what racial justice and beyond can look like.

Janny from Boonache Presents led a workshop on connecting into the mystical power within each of us so we can transform our communities.

Shilpa from YES! led a workshop that really got people thinking differently about how they react to conflict and crisis so they can engage it in healthy ways. (I heard people saying they think that will affect their daily lives, not just their movement lives.)

Devonte from Black Alliance for Just Immigration led a workshop on ending mass criminalization. (This workshop came up during the film and panel, because one of the evening’s panelists was so inspired by what she learned that the knowledge carried over.)

A leader from Niroga led a really beautiful workshop on mindfulness that engaged children and elders alike; I got to eavesdrop on that one, and the level of connectedness people experienced was really inspiring to witness.

Liza from OneLife Institute led a workshop on sustaining the soul of activism, and I heard several people talk about how much they needed that renewal because they are aware of their risk for burnout and were grateful to reconnect to the source that can care for them as they care about the struggle.

Judith led the powerful follow-up to the workshop that people couldn’t stop talking about at our launch event three years ago, on Gift Circles. It remains a quietly subversive and yet deeply relational practice that helped people really come alive about what it could mean to build up an alternative community grounded in sharing our gifts with each other in such simple but powerful ways. One participant couldn’t wait to tell me about what she had offered and received from the experience; how empowering.

Tiffany and Tyrone from CircleUp Education led a workshop on restorative practices that allowed participants to understand restorative justice in tangible, practical ways they could apply in their own communities. So needed in this moment.

Jocelyn (who also prepared an absolutely perfect lunch for us along with perfect snacks on both Saturday and Sunday) led a workshop on food as a source of creativity, liberation and relationship. The people in that workshop were having SO much fun and got to connect to the earth and their own bodies in really beautiful ways.

We showed a screening of the movie Fixed, about technological advances for people with disabilities and followed it with a panel of disability justice activists who talked about the intersections of disability justice and racial justice and talked about what technology meant in relationship to further marginalizing poor people of color with disabilities and also what is powerful and meaningful about claiming a disability identity and being part of the disability community. They powerfully asked the question, why is the assumption that disability is the problem instead of a society that does not create space for people with disabilities?

We hosted a world café where people reflected on how they are peacemakers, what support they need around living out that identity and how they can tap into the network that is the Oakland Peace Center to remain grounded and supported.

We closed out the weekend with a concert for peace, with local (and nationally renowned) artists ranging from spoken word to jazz to folk to hip hop to klezmer. (One woman’s toddler kept clapping and shouting “mo’ music!” any time the musicians stopped. This was only problematic when he said it WHILE the spoken word artists were performing. And two OPC supporters mentioned that their 8-year-old sons kept chanting back and forth to each other on the car ride home, “When I say PEACE, you say LOVE! Peace! Love! Peace! Love!” inspired by the chant a hip hop artist shared with us.)

So when I walked through the building, I experienced the energy that the walls of the building have absorbed. But I also experienced the energy of the church that is in the process of giving us the building, First Christian Church of Oakland, who have and who continue to worship here since 1929 — a congregation that actually dates back to 1876, a congregation that racially integrated in 1950, and continues to represent racial and orientation and class diversity although its numbers are small.

Just Peace

The work of building peace in the Bay Area – not an “obnoxious peace” as Dr. King called it, purchased by the silencing of the oppressed, but a just peace where the dignity and worth of all people are uplifted – is no short process. We join a long and rich history here and also a legacy of injustice. We bring together people who had been struggling to do the work on their own who are now buoyed by each other. And every once in a while we come together to learn and to share and to celebrate.

Sometimes, I am surprised 40,000 square feet can fit that much love.

Sandhya Jha serves as founder and director of the Oakland Peace Center, a collective of 40 organizations creating access, equity and dignity for all in Oakland and the Bay Area. OPC is also an NBA Incubate Partner!