Autumn Cruz / acruz@sacbee.com

During a sermon at Capital Christian Church, Pastor Rick Cole apologizes to two people who were wronged by the church years ago. He apologized to Ben Sharpe, an African American who was stripped of his valedictorian status in 1995 after shaving his head in the 8th grade. Also mentioned was Christina Silvas of Sacramento, whose daughter was not allowed to attend school there because Silvas worked as an erotic dancer in 2001.

Q&A: Sacramento pastor builds bridges across religions

Published: Sunday, Jul. 13, 2014 - 9:48 pm

A Pentecostal pastor, a rabbi and an imam walk into a restaurant. Then they go to a synagogue. For Ramadan, Pastor Rick J. Cole of Capital Christian Center – one of the region’s oldest and largest fundamentalist churches – gave a sermon to about 500 Muslims and their friends at the Sunrise Event Center in Rancho Cordova on Friday.

Cole, 56, was a featured guest on Imam M.A. Azeez’s weekly talk show, “Heart of the Matter.” The show has explored women’s rights, justice, self-expression and democracy in the Muslim world.

Cole, whose 98-year-old Assemblies of God church was long considered the most conservative in the region, has been reaching out to gays, Jews and now Muslims to break down barriers and biases. Cole joined Azeez and Rabbi Mona Alfi at Congregation B’nai Israel on June 18 to mark the 15th anniversary of the one of the most heinous – and ultimately unifying – events in Sacramento history, the pre-dawn firebombing of three Sacramento synagogues. Those blazes were followed by the firebombing of a building housing an abortion clinic and the murder of a gay couple – Gary Matson and and Winfield Mowder – while they slept in their Happy Valley home in rural Shasta County.

Cole, who replaced his father, the late Pastor Glen D. Cole, at the helm of Capital Christian Center in 1995, told the audience at B’nai Israel he’d been to Israel seven times and asked forgiveness of those he may have had been intolerant toward. “I’m now intolerant of people who are intolerant. I’ve got to figure out how to tolerate intolerant people,” Cole said. “We make things about issues instead of people,” he said, adding that he now has a growing number of gay congregants. As for those who don’t accept believers of different faiths or sexual orientation, “if they’ve got a problem, I’m not going to let it become my problem. They really need to talk to more people!”

Cole – whose church’s motto is “Truth, Growth, Love” – has 7,000 congregants, about 4,000 of whom attend one of his three Sunday sermons. Some of them speak in tongues. He oversees the 1,000 students at his church’s Christian school; serves on the board of Sacramento Steps Forward, a partnership addressing the needs of the region’s homeless; and provides help to inner-city schoolchildren through Equal Start. He also works with Champions, which assists special-needs families, and he supports the Center for AIDS Research.

What’s inspired you to step outside the box and reach across the aisle?

Rabbi Alfi, Imam Azeez and I started meeting for lunch at Plates (a restaurant that trains homeless moms) three years ago. Rather than assuming things about each other, we’ve developed a good friendship through direct communication. Too often we stereotype groups and determine this is the way everyone is within that group. There are many people of the Muslim faith who are not interested in violence. Often, they become characterized that way by 9/11 and other incidents that have occurred. There are far fewer Muslim people of faith who embrace extremism than those who are pushing it away. Imam Azeez has become a friend, I see him as a man of hopes and dreams for building a better world and not for tearing it down. The more common ground we can all find, and the more we learn about each other’s belief systems, the more we grow. Friday, I said, “I know the Quran is a great source of wisdom in understanding who God is. We share four of the five pillars of Islam: there is only one God; daily prayers; give to the poor and help the hurting; and fasting, self-control and self discipline.”

Your church has long been considered a bastion of conservatism. What’s changed?

We still lean toward a Republican ideology, but today we have strong representation across the aisle. We have a real passion for ethnic diversity, and people of other ethnicities often tend to adopt a more Democratic ideology. When we blend together different points of view, that’s quite important in challenging how we come together. ... There are so many things that divide us ethnically, socioeconomically, spiritually. Part of my role and goal is to unify and honor people, bless people and affirm people.

In the 1980s, Capital Christian Center threatened to quit the Interfaith Service Bureau for admitting a gay-oriented church, and in the 1990s gay and bisexual protesters accused you of “a long history of anti-gay political activity and bigotry.” What’s happened since?

It’s something I’ve grown into the last five or six years. Life is a journey, and we should always be learning and growing along the way. It’s OK to have strong beliefs and convictions, but when we make that the only message, it becomes a dividing line that doesn’t help us build community with others who don’t see things quite the way we do. I had a revelation that God wants us to find ways to love people and not separate them. God’s heart of love for each of us is equal. Homosexuality’s still a complex subject and can cause some to be judgmental. I can maintain convictions but don’t have to impose those convictions on people who don’t share them.

If we take homosexuality as an issue, we dehumanize the person, and I don’t believe God ever does that. God loves each of us right where we are. In the past we have chosen to communicate a certain belief from scripture that homosexuality is not acceptable to God and push that way, instead of leading with, “God loves you and we do too.” I’ve adopted a love for gay people from my own heart, and we have a really great dialogue about faith and how we can encourage one another along the way. Our church has gone from where we wouldn’t know if we had any gay congregants to where we know we have at least several dozen, and instead of being afraid to come here, God wants us to make this a safe place for people to grow.

In 2009, you apologized to Christina Silvas, a former stripper who’d been asked to remove her children from your school in 2001, and to Ben Sharpe, an African American star student who was banned from eighth-grade graduation because his buzz cut violated school policy in 1995. Who are the intolerant you’ve got to learn to tolerate?

There’s a lot of intolerance when it comes to ideas – the political atmosphere in our country is so polarized. It would do us all good if we could have more conversations instead of accusations. Immigration is obviously a great concern – we have to have a heart of compassion for these children coming every day. The more grace we have for others, the more grace we receive. I’m concerned about those who want to make this issue non-human – these are precious people and we need to try and put ourselves in their shoes and practice empathy and see the world through their lens – ‘What if it were me?’ There are those who want to build a utopian world for ourselves. That’s not what we’re here for; we’re here to help each other.

It’s an evolving understanding of our role and how we pursue our place in the community. We aim to heal people who have walked through broken dreams, broken relationships, broken health, and give them a place to find hope and purpose. If we reach out to the hurting, the disadvantaged, the underserved, the overlooked, that’s more in the sweet spot on God’s heart. We have a really passionate outreach to the homeless, and we’re partnering with four inner-city schools, providing mentoring, tutoring, after-school care and encouragement. In the summer, we take kids ... to places they’ve never been, ending up at various universities for a sit-down with administrators. My goal is to honor God, his truth and his creation. I’m not trying to push any buttons and create controversy. I really want to bring harmony.


Call The Bee’s Stephen Magagnini, (916) 321-1072. Bee researcher Pete Basofin contributed.

Read more articles by Stephen Magagnini



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