Bridging Histories through Dialogue

Bridging Bay area histories through dialogue: Reverends George Cummings (l) and William McNabb (r)

Eleven o’clock on a Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in America, say Reverends George Cummings and Bill McNabb. This pointed observation is one they witness every week at their respective churches.

Dr. Cummings resides over a predominantly African-American congregation at Imani Community Church in Oakland, and Dr. McNabb’s Piedmont Community Church is in the affluent, predominantly white and Asian-American town of Piedmont. Both California churches are merely six miles from each other, yet in some ways they are worlds apart.

Dr. Cummings and Dr. McNabb met at a community clergy meeting in 2006 and decided to take an unusual leap. They planned a one-time event to bring members of both congregations together and develop what they hoped to be an on-going, deep-reaching partnership between the two churches.

Now, six years into the partnership the sister churches recorded interviews with StoryCorps San Francisco to further their efforts to foster dialogue and sharing. The idea was to encourage members to sit down with one another, share stories about their lives, and reflect on their churches’ partnership. Hosted by the Imani Community Church, several members of the two congregations shared their stories with each other.

Interview participants Malcolm Westbrooks (l) and David Schmidt (r)

John Nichols talked with his fellow Imani Church member, Midge Davidson, about his childhood in East Texas during the Jim Crow era. In his twenties at the time, John decided to move to Oakland for greater job opportunities and found work as machinist. However, he quickly realized racism persisted beyond the South when he was often blocked from promotions despite his excellent work record. Imani elder member Clarence Payne was interviewed by Malcolm Westbrooks and also discussed job discrimination, which he experienced in the Bay Area auto plants. He spoke of the changes he witnessed after the Civil Rights Movement, including the right to vote; for Clarence, this was a momentous shift, and he urges everyone in his life to not take it for granted.

Imani's Fannie B. Jeffrey (l) and Piedmont's Polly Jackson-Smart (r) bond over being grandmothers

Some interview pairs were complete strangers before sitting down to talk, like Polly Jackson-Smart of Piedmont Church and Fanny B. Jeffrey of Imani Church, who found commonalities in their upbringings in working class families and in being grandmothers. However, they also recognized their differences in access to certain jobs and educational opportunities when they were younger.

The recording day also included a conversation between Dr. Cummings and Dr. McNabb, who reflected on their initial meeting and the many challenges and joys since. Their vision was to bridge divides between their church communities, initiating an honest dialogue between their members about race, history, and their lived experiences.

The dream has since come to fruition. Today, members participate in joint Sunday worship services, concerts, cook-offs, and community service projects. According to the Reverends, the most challenging but impactful component of the partnership has been the group discussions about segregation, the Civil Rights Movement, and the need for social justice in their communities. In opening up honest dialogue despite differences, the Imani and Piedmont Churches continue taking steps toward the change they want to see.



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