Derrick and Cayla Sanderlin model the ministry of togetherness
“Yeah, Derrick is the gentle dissenting voice in the community.”
Even though Cayla keeps a matter-of-fact tone she explodes in laughter with Derrick. I’m caught in the vitality of their spirits. Cayla rocks back and forth while Derrick tries to keep his glasses on. He rolls his eyes, half in embarrassment and half in endearment at Cayla’s proud affirmation. With chopsticks in hand, in between bites of chicken donburi, cold soba noodles, and rice, we laugh with each other in a small Japanese restaurant in Japantown, San Jose.
Cayla’s punch line provided a moment of levity as they recounted the March 2019 People Acting in Community Together (PACT) dialogue they helped to facilitate at their church. It was a dialogue exchanged between police from across Santa Clara County and local community members affected by the misuse of power by law enforcement.
San Jose is situated in Santa Clara County, an area with a strained relationship with law enforcement. It’s within this context that Servant Partners operates. Cayla and Derrick Sanderlin are longtime members of the San Jose Servant Partners community; Cayla works on staff and Derrick serves as a volunteer. With other Servant Partners team members, they live and serve in the spirit of Jesus by intentionally positioning themselves in marginalized or materially poor communities—in this case, low-income neighborhoods of San Jose with significant Latino and immigrant populations. The mission of Servant Partners is to train and empower local churches and people to transform their own communities in ways that will continue long after they are gone.
Flesh and Blood
In this cultural moment, topics surrounding police use of force toward people of color can divide a room in half. It can leave many steaming from the collar in defense or in renunciation of their trust in the American law enforcement system. As peacemakers and reformers, Derrick and Cayla refuse to see the tangled knot regarding policies, social issues, and humanity as an academic problem to solve. Instead they are choosing to follow the tangled threads to the people they connect.
During the PACT dialogue that the Sanderlins facilitated, community members shared personal stories about law enforcement, many of which recounted past mistreatments. Derrick described how, at a follow-up meeting, one police chief bemoaned the lack of respect given to officers for their dangerous job. Derrick sensed the deep roots of emotion beneath the chief’s tone. He took those cues as a kind of syncopated jazz rhythm in the song of conflict and ran with them on the spot. Raising his hand in response to the chief he said, “I won’t speak for my whole group, but I would say, personally, for me it sounds like you felt like you were attacked, and that wasn’t our intention. I’m sorry that happened. I won’t apologize for the families and what they shared, because that’s their truth to share, but I will apologize for communicating in a way that made you feel like we were attacking you.”
With that acknowledgement of the chief’s emotions and humanity, the tension diffused.
“We need to find all the different ways to break down the masks of ‘chief’ and ‘organization,’” Derrick explains. “We can make this mistake where we start to believe that institutions like law enforcement are [like] a [mythical] giant, but it’s usually just a few people making decisions being controlled by a system of doing things.”
From Cayla’s perspective, one of Derrick’s gifts is reminding people that they are just flesh and blood. When he recounted this story, I understood why she described Derrick as the gentle dissenting voice of the community. He did not deny the human qualities of the police officers even though they were part of a system that had historically wronged his neighbors and friends. He also refused to deny the human anger expressed by his grieving neighbors at their mistreatment.
“We’re the same,” Derrick says in a soft voice. “And we’re connected.”
In the context of mistrust between their neighbors and law enforcement, Cayla and Derrick are re-envisioning movements of resistance by taking the slow, peaceful, and relational approach—using honest dialogue to guide both law enforcement and layperson through the loops of their emotions and the twists of the system. This untangling is their way of reminding the people and police of San Jose that they are connected to the same thread of life, and that any tangled knot in the community is one that affects everyone. It’s this sense of connectedness to each other that can make strangers into comrades down the road.
From Competitors to Co-laborers
Cayla is intentional about telling me how important it is for her as a person of privilege to give up her voice and her position frequently so that people who are at the periphery of society’s vision can be seen at the center. When I requested some pictures of Cayla at the PACT community dialogue, I wasn’t surprised that she couldn’t find any. The pictures she sent in an email update to supporters were of Derrick, another speaker, and the event in general.
“For [white] people of privilege, yes, [we] have a place in God’s heart for all people, but we are not at the heart of the world–even if the world believes that lie,” she says.
“It’s this sense of connectedness to each other that can make strangers into comrades down the road.”
Cayla’s calling to be in relationship with people on the edges of society finds its roots in her teenage years. When Cayla was in high school, a friend from the color guard team lost her mother; the mother went in for a minor surgery and never came out of anesthesia. The death left Cayla’s friend and two brothers orphaned, so her friend moved in with an older brother who sold drugs out of the house to make ends meet. Realizing the dangerous situation that her friend was in, Cayla asked her parents if she could live with them.
During that season Cayla realized that God loved and cared for her friend in a special way. She became drawn to the passages in scripture about those on the edges.
“God has a deep unquenchable heart for those who experience material poverty, and all other invisible forms of poverty,” says Cayla. “He loves them in a special way that is different from how he loves the privileged.”
As we spoke she quoted Paul’s letter to the Ephesians as a way to make sense of the unequal systems that she frequently confronts. We spoke at length about how both systems of oppression and the principalities and powers that followers of Jesus resist are invisible entities.
In the Hebrew scriptures, God’s people are called Israel, meaning ‘one who struggles with God.’ I used to think this meant people who struggle with God face-to-face in contention. I imagined Jacob’s wrestling match, or the desert years of Israel raising their fists in doubt.
After seeing the years of Derrick and Cayla’s work in their San Jose community, I re-envision a picture of Israel over time struggling with God side by side—not as competitors, but as comrades. Not against, but with God. Co-laborers, as it were. When I asked Cayla how her work at Servant Partners is reforming the community, she replied that she doesn’t think she reforms anything—she thinks God reforms. She told me that she felt called to be with people, not to reform them. Like Derrick, Cayla is also keenly aware of herself as flesh and blood.
“God has a deep unquenchable heart for those who experience material poverty, and all other invisible forms of poverty”
The Togetherness of Christ
While sitting on their living room couch, Cayla told me about a close relationship she cultivated over six years with a girl named Marina. When Marina was sixteen she became pregnant. Cayla was a new intern at Servant Partners during that time and accompanied Marina to nearly every doctor’s appointment. Together they watched the baby grow and develop.
During her pregnancy, Marina’s boyfriend began stepping slowly into the picture. But because the context of his life was gang impacted, he was shot and killed in the neighborhood three months later.
Cayla has attended a lot of funerals. In six years of living in this neighborhood, she’s attended four funerals of young men between the ages of 19 and 21. Three of those deaths were the result of gang violence. She frequently asks God why he called her to a neighborhood where she has to bury the people she loves.
The death of Marina’s boyfriend shook Cayla with grief. She became sick. She missed the funeral service because she was running a one-hundred-and-three-degree fever. She remembers imagining the funeral service of Marina’s boyfriend, and all the family and friends bowing in communal suffering. Then she imagined herself in her bedroom sick with fever. The picture shows the sufferings of people from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds: distinct but not divided, bound together by relationship.
It’s from the trust built during that season that Cayla earned the nickname comadre from Marina. The Latin prefix co in means “together” or “with.” When grafted onto the Spanish word madre meaning “mother,” a sense of togetherness blooms from Marina’s motherhood. Togetherness is a theme in Cayla and Derrick’s work with Servant Partners. Their lives seek to follow the way of Jesus by being with people in their ordinary lives. I’m reminded of the simplicity of the incarnation story: the Great Immortal Deity shrinking itself into flesh and blood so that it can be with ordinary flesh and blood humans.
Cayla and Derrick reassure pregnant teenage Latinas, communities affected by police violence, and orphans-turned-siblings that they are struggling with God—not in an arm wrestling match but arm-in-arm. The Sanderlins insist with their lives that the shape of Christ has never been something out of the ordinary, but rather something inside the ordinary. Whether the shape of Christ is in a comrade or in a comadre, the togetherness of God is always primary. Derrick and Cayla remind us that the body of Christ is touchable because it has the same components as yours and mine—the components of flesh and blood.
My time with the Sanderlins reminds me that there is a special crowning for those who are ignored by the religious and social systems, those who weep and rage at exploitation, and those who have no place in society. Let us not forget that Jesus is always with that person. More precisely, let us not forget that Jesus is that person.
Photos by Brandon Scott.
“The Sanderlins insist with their lives that the shape of Christ has never been something out of the ordinary, but rather something inside the ordinary.”