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Rev. Jim Conn: Giant of Justice

Rev. Jim Conn starts things. If it isn’t a new social service project, he’s stirring up trouble somewhere else. Throughout his adult life it’s been social justice or politics or human services. One of his life-long friends calls him “an entrepreneur of the social sector.” Others just think he is crazy, but it’s all rooted in his faith commitment.

When “church” in Southern California was a pretty buttoned-down affair, Conn started “The Church in Ocean Park” – an intentionally secular-styled multi-tradition community of seekers – people who had given up on church but still wanted some way to tap into their deep faith roots. His own journey into faith-based activism started well before then.

As a seminary student who had avoided the draft, Conn led fellow students to the sidewalks of LA, supporting young men resisting the draft during Vietnam. While on an internship year from seminary with the CORO Foundation, he co-directed a 54-hour immersion into the city called The Urban Plunge. Later he led a caravan of 200 cars to Coachella Valley to support the Farm Workers, and it was there that he was arrested the first time.

His most recent civil disobedience joined employees of UCLA hospital in blocking the region’s busiest intersection. In between he has been arrested in non-violent civil disobedience demonstrations more times than he can count. He was the first mayor in America arrested at the Nuclear Test Site in Nevada – an action that rejuvenated national focus on closing that facility.

Conn was elected mayor of the city of Santa Monica after serving six years on the Council and at a time when council members were deeply divided between pro- and anti-rent control advocates. He was swept into office as a council member when a pro-rent control majority took charge of the city – the result of his work co-founding Santa Monicans for Renter’s Rights, a grass-roots political and economic reform movement that set a new direction for the city of Santa Monica and launched a beachhead for progressive electoral politics in Southern California.

The base of the political reform movement grew from the network of social services that Conn founded, revitalized or incubated within the walls of the Church in Ocean Park. In his lifetime, he has initiated or helped incorporate some 25 non-profit organizations providing services to homeless people, mentally ill homeless women, runaway youth, and nursery-aged children of low-income families. He has nurtured a poverty law office, a medical self-help clinic for women, after-school learning centers and food pantries. He served as the founding Chair of the LA Homeless Services Authority of the City and County of Los Angeles, a regional agency setting public policy and making funding decisions about programs addressing the problem of homelessness.

In addition to his ministry at the Church in Ocean Park, Conn created the position of “Urban Strategy” for the California-Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church. In 10 years he raised $10 million and coached churches into starting a dozen social service projects to reach more deeply into their neighborhoods. Since 1998, Conn has been a member of the National Teaching Faculty of the Asset Based Community Development (ABCD) Institute based at Northwestern University in Chicago.

For the five years leading to his retirement in July 2010, Conn directed the Office of New Ministries for the California-Pacific Conference where he was responsible for starting new churches and supervising the work of Urban Ministries and Latino Ministries.

Conn is married to Ms. Susan McCorry, a Master Gardener, certificated by the University of California. Her daughter practices psychotherapy in Southern California, and his son mixes sound in venues and for film in New York City. They have two grandchildren.

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