Inclusion, diversity mark homecomings for San Joaquin churches

By Pat McCaughan
Posted Aug 13, 2013
Members of St. Paul's, Bakersfield, hold a welcoming service on July 28 in celebration of the return to their church property. Photo: Bakersfield Californian

Members of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bakersfield, California, hold a welcoming service on July 28 to celebrate the return to their church property. Photo: Autumn Parry/Bakersfield Californian

[Episcopal News Service] The Rev. Tim Vivian plans to march this Labor Day weekend.

Vivian, priest-in-charge of St. Paul’s Church in Bakersfield, California, will join others along a 280-mile pilgrimage from the state capital in Sacramento to Bakersfield, to urge lawmakers to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

Participating in the pilgrimage, a reconstruction of the historic 1966 march organized by Caesar Chavez for farm workers rights, is meant to focus attention on the suffering of families without citizenship status. It signals both a new chapter and mission for St. Paul’s, the fourth property in the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin to be returned to the Episcopal Church after theological differences divided the diocese in 2006. Former members left the Episcopal Church but attempted to keep the property.

“It’s important to be part of it because, if we’re going to talk theologically about everyone being created in the image and likeness of God, it doesn’t make sense to have people be second-class, and not citizens,” said Vivian, a professor of religious studies at California State University at Bakersfield, who will march the last leg of the journey, about 30 miles, from Delano to Bakersfield.

“If you’re second-class, you’re somehow a lesser human being and we really want to live out the Gospel message that we’re all equally loved by God.”

“I’ve been fighting that fight for 15 or more years here,” Vivian said, about inclusion. “It’s an affirmation of who we really are and how we’re really trying to be a Gospel church … a neighborhood church, a downtown church,” he said.

Unlike other San Joaquin returning congregations, in Turlock, Ridgecrest and Sonora, most of St. Paul’s members aren’t going back to a familiar church home. Most of the congregation – numbering about 200 – began as two start-up house churches – Grace and St. Brigid’s in Bakersfield – after the initial split.

“Neither [congregation] exists anymore; on July 1, 2013 we both became St. Paul’s,” said Vivian, who helped organize Grace as a house church with just a handful of members six years ago. As they grew, the congregation eventually rented a small chapel at another local church.

A July 28 ‘welcoming’ celebration for all
It wasn’t a typical homecoming, but more of a welcoming, festival Eucharist on July 28, when about 200 Episcopalians from across the Diocese of San Joaquin and community members gathered at St. Paul’s to celebrate the return of the property.

After San Joaquin Bishop Chet Talton knocked three times with his crosier on the church door, the congregation burst into a song with poignant meaning: “All Are Welcome.”

“We had 14 people confirmed or received into the Episcopal Church,” according to Vivian. “I was struck by the diversity of the confirmands. They were Latino, African American, gay and lesbian; there was a group of five young people, twenty-somethings, from an Assemblies of God church.”

He added, chuckling: “Someone told me after the service that during the confirmations and receptions I looked like a proud papa.”

Many in the congregation “teared up” during Talton’s sermon, a message of inclusion, added the Rev. Deb DeBoer, a Presbyterian minister who serves as St. Paul’s assisting minister and is developing the congregation’s Latino ministry. “He repeated several times that all are welcome.”

“It’s been an exciting time for us over the past few months, as we have received back four church properties, which means that four Episcopal congregations are able now to focus on ministry and service, which is our purpose,” Talton said.

DeBoer, like others, said she first joined Grace in 2012 because of its inclusiveness. “I had an immediate sense of ‘I’m at home and why didn’t I come here before?’ even though I’m not Episcopalian,” she said during a recent telephone interview.

“My husband and I had been worshipping in a Presbyterian church and it was the best of not-great options for Presbyterians in the valley,” she said. “We came from the East Coast and it just wasn’t what we were used to. It was getting harder and harder to worship there, and there was church conflict. I’d stopped going for about a year, and then someone invited me to Grace.”

The celebration “wasn’t a typical homecoming for me, because it’s never been my home before,” she said of the church. “St. Paul’s is odd in that way. We’re from all the different churches and a whole lot of people who weren’t from any church.”

For bishop’s warden Philip Holt, 53, the welcoming celebration was overwhelming. “I was born in Bakersfield and I’m gay and I had one goal when I was younger and that was to get out of town,” he said during a recent telephone interview from his home.

“I discovered the Episcopal Church when I lived in Los Angeles, then I found myself back in Bakersfield, where I never thought I’d be, and I’d resigned myself to the fact that I was never going to have a church home in this community,” he said.

He joined Grace, not only because the congregation was welcoming but also because they were focused on mission and outreach. “The time is ripe for us to keep growing,” he said. “It’s pretty exciting, it’s the season for this because it [inclusion] has just become such a strong force – almost like a movement in some ways.

“It’s incredibly gratifying for me to be part of a growing community that you have no doubt the Spirit of God is in the center of [it] and is the foundation for which your community is being built.”

Nathan Boles, 28, who was baptized at St. Paul’s as a child, said he left the church while Mark Lawrence was rector (1997-2007). “It was terrible the way people turned on one another,” he recalled. Lawrence went on to become bishop of South Carolina in 2008 and in October 2012 sought to disaffiliate that diocese from the Episcopal Church.

But Boles, a community college teacher, “wanted to be there for the first sermon on July 7, the first Sunday after we got the building back.”

That first Sunday: “I didn’t know what to expect, except to be back in the old pews,” he said. “I was overwhelmed by what I saw and felt and how truly inclusive they were. It was an honest-to-God church trying to serve God and all people. I thought, wow, I’ve heard that said so many times but I’ve never seen it actually manifest. I never thought I’d see in Bakersfield that actually happen.” He authored a guest column for the Bakersfield Californian newspaper about his experiences.

A ‘dramatic change’: returning churches reconsider focus, mission
For many of the churches that met in alternate locations, the returning presented interesting challenges – both physically and spiritually.

When the Rev. Kathie Galicia received the keys to St. Francis Church in Turlock, she and “a small army” of volunteers had just two days to get it ready for a June 2 first Eucharist.

She “marveled at everything, from the large marble baptismal font with the lovely Paschal candle next to it” but recalled concern about the return. Coming from an open space to a formal church structure, “would we still be able to focus on doing outreach in the community?”

Her concern was quickly allayed, as the congregation has “cooked and served a meal at the Turlock Gospel Mission” and spent a “very hot July 4 handing out free cold water to parade spectators and participants, proudly displaying our banner that simply says, ‘St. Francis Episcopal Church: All are Welcome!’”

At. St. Michael’s Church in Ridgecrest, which first met in the church June 2 and celebrated its homecoming on June 23, the Rev. Linda Huggard said a temptation for returning congregations might be to think the next step has to be a “big thing.

“But I am reminded of all that we have been doing here at St Michael’s, cleaning, painting, gardening, moving furniture, figuring out the air conditioning, dealing with the bank, the waste company and the PG&E [Pacific Gas & Electric], and, that this is all ministry . . . and just providing a comfortable place,” she said.

“And that could well be our legacy, just as all the highfalutin’ stuff like liturgy, theology, and policy, and may well be what people remember when we are long gone, that we were a comfortable place, not a small thing at all.”

The church, which had met previously as All Souls at the local historical society building, on July 11 celebrated the first gay marriage in the San Joaquin diocese, since two June 26 U.S. Supreme Court rulings, nullifying parts of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and rendering California’s controversial Proposition 8 unconstitutional, paved the way for gay marriage.

DOMA denied federal benefits to same-sex couples; Proposition 8 was a ban on gay marriage. Those decisions paved the way for Kent Birch, the bishop’s warden, and his long-time partner, Steve Howe, to marry legally.

“The wedding was really happy and fun because all the people in the parish got together and made a reception for them. The community got them a wedding cake and decorations and flowers,” Huggard added.

But the festivities were bittersweet and short-lived, as Birch, who had been battling cancer, died nine days later, on July 20. The congregation gathered for his memorial service July 23, she said.

Howe could not be reached for comment.

“It was really good that DOMA passed just in time for them to get married,” Huggard said. “They had been together more than 20 years. They were able to get married, and to get their earthly affairs in order legally so his spouse could inherit his house.”

Many more directions for ministry at Sonora’s ‘red church’
In Sonora, a name change and a July 1 move from a converted yoga studio to the town’s historic “red church” have been both a game-changer and an attention-getter, according to the Rev. Eldon “Andy” Anderson, priest-in-charge.

The yoga studio was located in the neighboring community Jamestown, (where) “we had to cover up a lot of mirrors” to do church, joked Anderson. “At that time we were St. Mary in the Mountains,” located about 50 miles northeast of the Modesto-based diocese.

Now, a short move three miles, to the center of Sonora and the name change, to St. James, has meant an increase in visibility and in ministry possibilities, but not in “our firm belief that our God is a God of love and compassion who welcomes everyone, no exceptions,” he said.

The congregation plans a festival homecoming celebration and Eucharist at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 8 and the entire community is invited.

“We have people residing in Sonora and the surrounding area that are attending the Episcopal Church as their church of choice and they are excited to see St. James Episcopal Church’s doors open to all who wish to enter for worship,” he added. And they do, tourists, often stopping to photograph the building or step inside during worship to view the church, built in 1860.

“This building is featured on every advertisement directed at tourists,” Anderson said. “We have four organizations leasing our parish hall and we are on the schedule for a symphony series to have two performances in the church next year,” he added.

A planned project is underway to update church pamphlets to welcome visitors for tours. The new location “increases our visibility which in turn enhances our opportunities for ministry in many more directions,” he said.

Other disputed properties throughout the diocese are in various stages of litigation, according to diocesan chancellor Michael Glass. Another church property, St. Paul’s, Modesto was returned July 1, 2009 prior to litigation.

“Based on our successes in the courtroom earlier this spring, we successfully recovered five parish properties over the summer in relatively good condition,” Glass said in an Aug. 12 e-mail to ENS.

A fifth congregation, in Delano, was returned to the diocese; the current ministry continues there, diocesan officials said.

“However, we still have five more cases to contend with and resolve, which involve approximately 33 more properties, including the Camp and Conference Center, and the cathedral, along with the related diocesan investment accounts,” he said. “It is likely that most or all of the remaining five cases will proceed to trial, with the first case scheduled for trial in early January.”

–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.


Comments (1)

  1. mary p weir says:

    it is amazing that the episcopal church welcomes all. My dad could not participate in his parent’s funeral Mass but any sinful other person could. then he could not be buried from the church he gave his life to because he was an Anglican member makes me wonder what the episcopal church uses as a measure of welcomeness, He was not gay, he did not commit adultery, he gave up his pension and left the church he loved because he did not believe in giving up Jesus’s teachings to make society happy and make more money. I dare you to share this and argue my point.

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