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Christina Renee Joubert and Jonathan Pangburn, seen here at Miramar Park in Redondo Beach, are on a mission to help others understand where hatred and intolerance come from. (Photo by David Rosenfeld)

It was just a few days after violence erupted, in August 2017, during a Unite the Right rally in Charlotttesville, Virginia, and Redondo Beach resident Christina Renée Joubert, 40, sat on a bench at Miramar Park, overlooking the ocean. She tried to clear her head. Complex thoughts rushed through her mind.

“I was really struggling with the way those of us who believe ourselves to be tolerant were talking about people with different beliefs,” she said. “If we call ourselves tolerant then we need to have tolerance for all people, even those with different believes or values. We’re kind of reaping what we sow because most people are inherently intolerant.”

Amid these thoughts, Johnny Pangburn skateboarded toward her, emblazoned with swastika tattoos on his arms and legs. For some reason, still not completely understood by Pangburn even now, he said hello.

For Pangburn, a white 35-year-old who grew up in the South Bay, approaching Joubert was the first time he had spoken meaningfully to an African American woman his entire life, he said.

“My heart swelled and I just felt like going for it,” Joubert said. “There’s no time left for us to not have hard conversations in a compassionate and loving way.”

Joubert blurted out that she was struggling with the amount of intolerance in the world. The next words out of Pangburn’s mouth shocked her.

“He said that everybody was afraid,” Joubert remembered, before reciting his next sentence directly. “‘I used to be too until I started learning how to love.’”

Joubert, with Pangburn by her side, recently returned to the ocean spot at Miramar Park where they first met, and recalled that initial interaction for a reporter.

The conversation the two began that day has continued and blossomed into something so much more. The pair posted a video of another conversation, which was well received. They’ve become friends. Posts on social media about what they were experiencing were getting liked and shared.

Now, through Joubert’s company, Teaching the World to Love, she plans to spread the message further of turning intolerance into love by telling Pangburn’s story and the lessons they have learned to as many people as possible. Joubert calls it the I Choose Love Project.

For Pangburn, who possesses 33 Nazi-related tattoos, including lightning bolts on his scalp, the transformation is still a work in progress. These days, he straddles two worlds. While undergoing the slow process of having his tattoos removed, he is still regarded as a racist extremist. But his smile and how he feels on the inside reflect a new reality, a more loving persona that Pangburn is just now getting used to.

Sometimes that creates difficulties, like when someone confronts him. Pangburn, who often chooses not to cover up the tattoos, instead wearing shorts and short sleeves, accepts such encounters as challenges.

“Every situation that I’m encountered with someone who has an aggressive position, I think about Christina and the way she would handle the situation with compassion and understanding,” Pangburn said.

Road to transformation

At the time he ran across Joubert at the park that day in 2017, Pangburn had already completed three years at Delancey Street residential facility, where he finally started to change his mentality. Pangburn had been in and out of prison three times and nearly received a third-strike offense that could have sent him away for decades.

Meeting Joubert, he said, accelerated his change of heart.

“I wouldn’t really be doing what I’m doing or having these types of feelings if it wasn’t for Christina’s guidance,” Pangburn said. “I wouldn’t be talking to anybody about anything if it wasn’t for her willingness and her desire to allow me to even enter her life and open a friendship with me. That level of trust I’ve never had before.”

Before all this, when Pangburn was a full-fledged white supremacist, he said, he lived his days in hate, going out of his way to instill fear in people. He would hand out extremist propaganda and intimidate people on the street. He was sent to jail for drug possession, burglary and resisting arrest. So what was it that made him that way? Pangburn said it was self-hate more than anything.

“Anybody who is racist, angry or has negative emotions, that’s all excess baggage,” Pangburn said. “It’s us projecting our own hate for ourselves onto other people. That’s what I learned about myself. I hated other people and displayed it so vehemently in the past because I had a lifelong achievement of non-achieving.”

He was raised by his mother and step-father, the family living briefly in Palos Verdes. Pangburn was later expelled from several South Bay high schools. Addicted to drugs, he turned to stealing, which landed him in jail, exposing him to racist extremists.

He used to strut his Nazi tattoos. Now, he feels embarrassed. The political climate being what it is in the country these days, he said, has made it difficult for him to go unnoticed.

But both he and Joubert say this is perhaps the perfect time to tell their story.

“Now everyone is so hyper insensitive,” Pangburn said. “The fire is being fueled for everyone to hate one another. We’re doing this at a time that’s extremely difficult. But it’s extremely important at the same time.”

Another former white supremacist who turned his life around, Christian Picciolini, has spread a similar message lately, through a memoir, speaking engagements and a television series on MSNBC. In a 2017 TED Talk, Picciolini said he has helped more than 100 extremists leave the movements they were involved in, not through debating or reasoning — but through compassion.

“What brought them out was receiving compassion from people they least deserved it from when they least deserved it,” he said. “I challenge you to find somebody you think is undeserving of your compassion and give it to them because I guarantee you they are the ones who need it the most.”

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