[Episcopal News Service] Stories of faith and personal witness animated the historic Feb. 29 – March 3 “New Community Gathering” in San Diego of about 300 Asian, Black, Latino and Native American clergy and laity from across the Episcopal Church.
Community engagement, mission focus and collaboration ranked high on the agenda for the event, themed “Reclaiming our Mission; Reinterpreting Our Contexts and Renewing Our Communities.”
Organized through the Ethnic Ministries offices of the Episcopal Church, the gathering challenged enthusiastic participants – as well as the wider church – to embrace renewal through creative mission, sharing resources and honoring ethnic and community context.
“There was a sense the timing was right for this historic gathering,” said the Rev. Winfred Vergara, missioner for Episcopal Asiamerica Ministries (EAM). “It is simply a time of sharing joys and hopes and rethinking possibilities.”
“We need to find resonance in each other’s experiences because we have experienced feeling unwelcome, and because we have the capacity to welcome and embrace,” he said. “The Spirit is here, expressing that we can reach out to one another because of common experiences of pain and common vision of hope.”
All were welcome to attend the gathering although the focus was multiculturalism. The idea for the event grew out of General Convention multi-ethnic festivals and vocational discernment conferences for young adults of color, but was the first leadership development event of its kind, Vergara added.
Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori greeted participants March 1 via Skype from Taiwan while President of the House of Deputies Bonnie Anderson addressed the gathering during a March 3 plenary session on lay vocation and discernment. Bishop Stacy Sauls, Episcopal Church chief operating officer, presided over a commissioning service and presenters included the Very Rev. Michael Battle of the Raleigh, North Carolina-based PeaceBattle Institute, Inc. and Dr. Rodger Nishioka, associate professor of Christian education at Columbia Theological Seminary in Decatur, Georgia.
The Rev. Angela Ifill, Episcopal Church missioner for Black ministries, said she hoped participants would continue to use insights gained and to seize future opportunities “to come together to understand one another from our various communities and to appreciate the perspective of each other … and a sense that this is good and we need to keep doing it.”
Reclaiming mission: a Richmond story
The Rev. Lynne Washington, vicar of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, in Richmond, Virginia, described how the congregation worked to reclaim its mission amid a changing context.
Initially St. Peter’s, founded in 1858, seemed a mismatch for its adjacent community, where 40 percent of the residents live in public housing and do not graduate high school. Most of the congregation’s parishioners were college graduates and commuters, she said.
After extensive discipleship training, congregational and community surveys, and re-visioning the church’s mission, Washington redesigned the Sunday liturgy to fit community needs.
“If you have a community where 40 percent of the people have not completed high school, the prayer book is a stumbling block,” she said. “The 1982 Hymnal is a stumbling block. So I hired a Baptist musician and she has been wonderful because it’s music the community can relate to.”
The service booklet is used as a teaching tool and she adapted the popular U2charist to “a trial mass called the ‘Earth, Wind and Fire Mass.’ My first thought when I saw U2charist was, that’s nice, but it’s not going to fly here,” Washington said.
“We have an average attendance on Sunday of 45. But at the Earth, Wind and Fire Mass we had over 125. Maybe for now we’ve caught on to something. Maybe it’s an evangelism tool. I just know that Sunday, it worked.”
The church invested in a web page and advertising in local African American community newspapers, re-energized community outreach and intentionally focused ministries on both youth and senior citizens, she said. Still, limited resources make hiring a youth leader or Christian education director unlikely; she hopes to share resources with other congregations “and not necessarily Episcopal churches,” she told the gathering.
“I’ve asked for missionaries to come into the inner city and learn from us,” added Washington, who until recently also served as the executive director of the St. Peter and Paul Community Center. Founded by the church, the center relocated from the parish hall to a recently constructed building across the street several years ago. “I know it’s possible because many of these same individuals are at the community center volunteering to tutor children.”
The good news is, the congregation is open to change, she added. “When we began this process it became a mantra for us — to grow we have to be willing to change. We’re also very clear that we’re not looking for the diocese to rescue us, and that’s important as a congregation.
“We have our own sense of independence because for many, many years we had this paternalistic DNA that somebody else was going to help us or somebody else was going to fix us. That took a lot of our own power away from us, and we’ve gained it back.”
Bishop Jim Mathes of San Diego, who welcomed the group, said the diocese is also in the process of relocating its headquarters to the Ocean Beach area, where it currently provides 3,000 service contacts monthly in the form of 12-step groups, meals, legal and medical assistance, even haircuts.
“We’ve established mission and ministry there. Now we’re going to gather those who are being served and find their congregation,” he said.
Contextually, the diocese identified its mission focus as advocacy and action in the areas of immigration and border issues, poverty and homelessness and veteran’s assistance.
Moving into the community in a new way is exciting, he said. “I’m going to be changed by this location … leadership will be changed in this missional approach. The whole community will be changed.”
Evangelism and community renewal
Hearing the personal faith stories of others is among the most powerful evangelistic witness available, yet often Episcopalians don’t even consider it an option, said the Rev. Anthony Guillén, Episcopal Church missioner for Latino/Hispanic ministries.
“We don’t realize what great sales people we are,” he said. From computers to movies to restaurants, people are always talking about their favorite choices, offering a kind of sales pitch without even realizing it, he said.
“We sell every day, telling people where they ought to go to get everything except what we proclaim as the good news,” added Guillen, who hopes the San Diego gathering will exemplify “an image of what the church will be.”
“If I have a great meal, I tell people about it and where I got it. We have to start telling them where to go to satisfy the hunger we have in our souls.”
An encounter with a kind chaplain in an Anglican school in Hong Kong was so powerful that 30 of the 33 Buddhist students asked to be baptized at graduation, recalled Mimi Wu, Province VIII Asian Ministries network coordinator.
She was one of those students. “I say evangelism is love in action and I’ve seen it,” said Wu, of the Diocese of Hawai’i. “The chaplain shepherded us, he gave us so much love and understanding.”
Evangelism, for the Rev. Canon Rene Barraza, came in the form of persistent invitations from friends, who kept inviting him to St. Athanasius Church in Los Angeles, where he now serves as canon pastor.
“When I first arrived from Mexico, I felt out of place there. I didn’t like it (St. Athanasius) at all,” recalled Barraza, 69. “It was wooden and small and dark. I was used to big Roman cathedral churches with stained glass windows. It scared me. I decided not to go back. But my friends kept inviting me.
“Now, I’m glad I went back with an open mind. They invited me to read and then to acolyte and one thing led to another and I’ve been growing in my faith ever since.”
The Rev. Joseph Jerome said evangelism has meant intentionally reaching out to others in the Sunnyside community in the Diocese of Long Island, where he is rector of All Saints Church, a mostly Anglo congregation.
For them it has meant intentionally being welcoming and disregarding a popular saying that “there’s two sides to Sunnyside, my side and the other side,” added Jerome, who is Black and serves as president of the diocesan Hispanic Commission.
Evangelism for the Rev. Edgar Gutierrez, came in the form of a warm welcome he received. “I am a gay man who left the Catholic Church because of its stand on women, and gays and lesbians,” he said.
The rector of St. Luke’s Church, a bilingual, multi-ethnic congregation in Boston, said he has “felt a calling to the priesthood since I was a child.”
The gathering offered a chance to “recharge” as well as “a sense of family, the way a family nurtures us, and a source of information and inspiration.”
Honoring multiculturalism; the importance of interconnection
Marcel Pereira, 31, attended the gathering from Brazil’s Diocese of Curitiba and discovered that “the issues you’re facing in the United States are very similar to what we’re seeing in Brazil.
“The multicultural world we are living in and how to embrace diversity without becoming something else are just some of the issues,” he said.
“The solutions we are finding about the New Community is an answer for all other parts of the church,” he added. “They are the same 21st century issues, welcoming everybody in a radical way, changing language and culture. Plus technology. We used to be book-oriented; now we’re image-oriented and we have to understand how to embrace this culture.”
For the Rev. Brandon Mauai, 27, the interconnection of sharing stories and resources drew him to the San Diego conference.
“We all have different stories of where we came from that show our diversity. I have an Asian, Native American and Polynesian background,” said Mauai, who serves as youth minister on the Standing Rock Native American Reservation in South Dakota. “My experience is the Filipino experience in Hawai’i and it helps to share our stories with each other and the Episcopal Church,” he said.
“It helps nurture faith and hope and love as we live it everyday and helps us show it to others, to have a ripple effect” especially with youth of the reservation who desperately need to feel that hope.”
Bishop Dave Bailey said the conference represents another step along the journey through “self awareness to self-determination” for his diocese of Navajoland as well as other struggling communities.
“It’s important for us in this gathering to come together as the New Community in support of one another in new and life-giving ways, recognizing that we don’t have to be in competition but to confirm our commonality and appreciate our uniqueness,” he said.
“I believe this is a new beginning for the life of the church and in many ways can be life-giving to many of our dioceses that can be stagnant.”
Bishop Suffragan Diane Bruce of Los Angeles called the gathering “the new face of the church.” She came “to learn and to support the conference. This is just the beginning,” she said. “I look forward to more of these conferences and coming together with more people and their bishops.”
It was a follow-up meeting for Bernadette Wyche of the African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas in Philadelphia and Trevor Bryan II of St. Luke’s, New Orleans, whose two congregations are partnering through the Office of Black Ministries New Visions Initiative.
The program pairs thriving African American congregations with smaller churches. Bryan said the San Diego gathering “offered a lot.
“Whenever we get a chance to couple with indigenous, Asian and Latino/Hispanic communities we discover we have very similar experiences. We’re at different stages of those experiences but there is a lot we can learn from these exchanges of culture.”
Episcopal Church Native American Missioner Sarah Eagle Heart said the gathering afforded missioners an opportunity to tell their own stories because “sometimes people don’t really understand what the ethnic missioners do.
“Our job runs the gamut from Christian formation to advocacy to theological training,” she said. Missioners have developed videos, she explained, so the wider church will get a sense of the range of their responsibilities and of the importance of ethnic ministry.
She hopes the church will “help bring back culture and language because they were part of the church that took it away … and hopefully will help to give it back.”
She described workshops at the event about the asset-based community development and healing programs she oversees, which are “a powerful approach to develop a wider circle of people to invest in … and to realize ambitions by discovering and mobilizing their resources already present in that community.”
Indigenous Christians have much to offer, said Eagle Heart, who is Oglala Lakota. “Our people have a multitude of gifts and cultural knowledge to share with one another as they walk their spiritual journey … to have a family of supporters who share common challenges and can encourage one other as they continue the ordination process or lay training is a unique blessing.
“I am proud of my team of ethnic missioners who were prophetic in laying the foundation of this conference on lifelong Christian formation to ensure this event was a transformative moment of renewal. The sage and water blessing by elder Deacon Reynelda James (Paiute) with indigenous women was a sacred time of healing for the circle of relatives gathered.”
Other workshops presented included: mission and advocacy; evangelism; Jubilee and social justice; School to Prison Pipeline; the Doctrine of Discovery; ministry of the baptized; environmental formation; technology in ministry; and stewardship.
Longkee Vang, 24, of the Church of the Holy Apostles, in St. Paul, Minnesota, which has the Episcopal Church’s largest Hmong population, said he felt compelled to attend the gathering because “I want change.
“I came to show that I’m willing to help make change, to be among people who feel the same way I do, to be among the mover and shakers and people who make a difference in the church.
“I want to see that real change does come, what we have dreamt about. This is an opportunity to connect with others who want change too.”
— The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service. She is based in Los Angeles.