In the wooden pews that stretch like open arms across the chapel of the North Oakland Missionary Baptist Church, a man sat alone. The stillness of the chapel seemed to flow from him. His head bowed, he flipped through the thin pages of his Bible quietly — whatever was happening outside of these walls, it didn’t matter in that moment. When photographer J Michael Tucker, on the other side of the church, saw him, he “was overwhelmed by the beauty of this scene.” So, he captured it, and with it the legacy of the Rev. Sylvester Rutledge Jr., the late pastor of North Oakland Missionary Baptist Church, the second-oldest Black church in Oakland.

Tucker and fellow photographer Nicolò Sertorio have spent years documenting the spiritual leaders of Oakland, California, in their joint project, “Sacred Paradox,” which explores the intrinsic wisdom, transformative potential and profound connection each of these leaders have to their hometown. It comes at an inflection point for Oakland. While the rest of the nation is seeing falling violent crime rates and felonies, in Oakland they’ve risen. Burglaries have increased by nearly 25%. The city’s three professional sports teams have all been lost in a matter of a decade. Police services and violence prevention initiatives have been curbed. Businesses have left the city due to break-ins and crime, while an ever-growing homeless population continues to lose the battle against a stilted housing economy.

Phyllis Scott, pastor at Tree of Life Empowerment Ministries, believes that now, more than ever, “the community has to go back to caring about one another.” This conviction is one that connects each spiritual leader featured in “Sacred Paradox” — regardless of denomination, religion, race or identity. In it lies the hope that the togetherness that Oakland so desperately needs can be resurrected. “We’ve turned our back on the everyday people and it’s time for us to turn around and see them and rebuild this city,” she says. And it simply starts with faith.

Sylvester Rutledge Jr.

Late pastor at North Oakland Missionary Baptist Church

For over three decades, the Rev. Sylvester Rutledge Jr. pastored at North Oakland Missionary Baptist Church, where he led the second-oldest historically Black Baptist congregation in Oakland. The Rev. Rutledge moved to Oakland in 1964 after leaving family roots in Alabama and serving in the Air Force. Under his leadership, a 65-unit affordable housing project was opened by the church in 2003, marking a step forward in Oakland’s housing crisis.

Marjorie Wilkes Matthews | Nicolò Sertorio for the Deseret News

Marjorie Wilkes Matthews

Pastor at Plymouth United Church of Christ

Marjorie Wilkes Matthews didn’t intend to become a pastor, but the open arms in her church has proved to be her “most profound treasure.” At a time when many churches are shrinking, Plymouth United is growing. “It’s a radically welcoming church,” she says. “The sense of ‘welcome home’ is the thing so many people here feel.”

Sundiata Rashid | Nicolò Sertorio for the Deseret News

Sundiata Rashid

Imam at Lighthouse Mosque

Sundiata Rashid was raised in East Oakland, where he found religion as a teenager. “Shariah, the word for Islamic Law, means ‘the road that leads to water’ in Arabic,” he says. “In the desert, everyone wants a road that leads to water. People have to live their own lives. What they want to do is what they have to live with. I try to not be judgmental.”

Jacqueline Thompson | J Michael Tucker for the Deseret News

Jacqueline Thompson

Pastor at Allen Temple Baptist Church

Jacqueline Thompson was 12 when she dedicated her life to God in Allen Temple Baptist Church. In 2019, she became the first woman to serve as senior pastor in the church’s 100-year history. “This mission still ignites me as it did that girl in the balcony many years ago,” she wrote in The Oakland Post. “We are still called to serve the least, the lost, and the left out. We are still called to lift our voice on behalf of the voiceless and stand in the gap for those unprotected.”

Darryl Rains | J Michael Tucker for the Deseret News

Darryl Rains

Former stake president in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

When data showed homelessness spiking in a span of two short years in Oakland, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints partnered with government officials to build nine affordable housing units. “We are happy to be able to work with those most in need, with those in our community,” says President Darryl Rains.

Yoshi Akiba | J Michael Tucker for the Deseret News

Yoshiba Akiba

Senior teacher at Oakland Zen Center

Yoshi Akiba Sensei was born in Japan in 1942 and was orphaned during World War II. After moving to Maryland as a young woman, she found a love for music. With her husband, the Rev. Gengo Akiba, she moved to Oakland, opened the Oakland Zen Center in 1994, and has since co-founded the nonprofit 51Oakland to bring music and art to underserved Oakland public schools.

Dovid Labkowski | Nicolò Sertorio for the Deseret News

Dovid Labkowski

Rabbi at Chabad Center for Jewish Life

In the early 1900s, the Oakland area had one small synagogue. Today, there are more than 70 centers for Jewish faith, including the Chabad Center for Jewish Life, established by Rabbi Dovid Labkowski to create an “inclusive, vibrant and engaged community in Oakland.”

Phyllis Scott | Nicolò Sertorio for the Deseret News

Phylllis Scott

Pastor at Tree of Life Empowerment Ministries

Pastor Phyllis Scott believes that the messages of love, compassion and tolerance cannot just be centered in one’s own community. “We need to listen more,” she says. “The community has to go back to caring about one another.” With those values leading, she believes there is a way to bring any city back, even hers. “I have hope that we can resurrect the togetherness that we so need in Oakland.”

This story appears in the April 2024 issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.