‘Sanctuary’ defines San Francisco congregation’s sense of mission on more than immigration

By David Paulsen
Posted Aug 3, 2017
Sacred sleep mats

“Sacred sleep” mats are arranged on the floor at the Episcopal Church St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco, California. Homeless visitors can rest weekday mornings on the mats in the church. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Richard Smith.

[Episcopal News Service] The small Episcopal congregation of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco, California, has embraced its role as a “sanctuary” church in ways that go well beyond the current political debate over federal immigration policy.

St. John is engaged in the immigration debate, to be sure, with its vestry voting this year to offer sanctuary to those facing deportation by the Trump administration. The congregation had offered immigrants similar protection during the first sanctuary church movement in the 1980s.

But for the congregation’s few dozen active members, sanctuary also means providing a place every weekday morning for the city’s homeless population to rest. It means reaching out to members of the LGBTQ community and making them feel welcome. And it means mourning victims of police brutality and supporting victims’ families.

“I’m always sort of worried we’re going to stretch ourselves too thin,” said the Rev. Richard Smith, St. John’s vicar. But as the congregation updates its list of commitments, it has been able and willing to take on more than its modest size would suggest.

“We have to be able to tell our kids and our grandkids that at the end of the day we did everything we could, whatever that may be,” he told Episcopal News Service.

At St. John, this sense of mission – Smith calls it “radical hospitality” – extends to Episcopal rituals as commonplace as the post-worship coffee hour. But it doesn’t end on Sunday. On Monday morning, the doors of the church open at 6 a.m. to invite 70 to 75 homeless city residents each weekday to take shelter.

Sleeping on mats

St. John is open to homeless visitors every weekday morning, with breakfast served once a week. Photo courtesy of the Rev. Richard Smith.

This homeless outreach program started about a year and a half ago through a partnership with the local Gubbio Project. Known as “sacred sleep,” the program offers homeless visitors comfortable orange mats, similar to what a hiker might take for sleeping on a backpacking trip. The congregation also serves coffee and, once a week, breakfast before sending the visitors on their way by noon.

“It came as a big relief because homelessness has been a big problem in our neighborhood for many years,” Smith said. “We just didn’t know what to do about it, so this gave us a chance to do something.”

Sometimes, the homeless visitors return to attend Sunday service, though filling the pews isn’t the priority. It has been worthwhile, Smith said, just for St. John to connect with members of its community who otherwise might not set foot in the church.

The congregation has been small for much of its history, starting with its founding 160 years ago in San Francisco’s Mission District, said senior warden Diana McDonnell. Today, average attendance at Sunday worship service is about 65 to 70.

Such numbers tell only part of the story, McDonnell said. The congregation is small, but many of its members are passionate about supporting social justice ministries.

“We’re all there because we want to be there,” McDonnell told ENS. “We are doing this specifically because we are Christians. This is what Christians are about.”

It’s what drew McDonnell, 47, and her wife to St. John about 10 years ago, after they moved to San Francisco from New Jersey. She saw it as a “Goldilocks” congregation – not too big, not too small – and one that worked to bring the word of God into the world.

St. John’s commitment to social justice isn’t a new development. The 1980s were a particularly active decade, when the congregation joined with churches across the country, and across denominations, in offering sanctuary to people fleeing wars in Central America. Children arriving in San Francisco from El Salvador also benefited from a tutoring program launched around that time at St. John.

Separately, St. John was becoming another kind of sanctuary to gay men facing discrimination and the rising AIDS epidemic.\

“It was a community that was really under siege, even here in progressive San Francisco,” Smith said.

The congregation welcomed them then and continues to do so now, at a time when the Episcopal Church has pursued full inclusion of the LGBTQ community, such as through the ordination of gay clergy and creation of same-sex marriage rites. And partners and friends still visit St. John to remember some of those who died of AIDS years ago, their ashes scattered on church grounds.

Smith, 67, was ordained as a priest in 2001 after leaving a career in the corporate world of Silicon Valley. He became vicar at St. John about five years ago and embraced the congregation’s social ethic.

The church houses a food pantry, open every Saturday morning. It has participated in regular antiwar vigils, raises money to provide clean water in a Nicaraguan village and joined marches in the city after a 21-year-old immigrant from Guatemala was shot and killed by San Francisco police in February 2015.

The Guatemalan man, Amilcar Perez Lopez, had been involved in a violent argument with another man when he was killed, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Smith officiated at a memorial service for Perez Lopez held at St. John.

During his tenure, the congregation also has assisted three immigrants from Central America, a Guatemalan woman and two Honduran men, who are seeking asylum because of threats of violence in their home countries. Each is staying with parishioners in the community, not at the church, but the congregation is prepared to shelter them in the church if that becomes necessary to protect them from deportation orders, Smith said.

The decision this year to become a sanctuary church wasn’t a difficult one, McDonnell said, given the congregation’s 1980s history and its continuing social justice work. Several other Christian churches in San Francisco did the same.

“We’re Christian, and this is what I believe Christians are supposed to do,” she said.

– David Paulsen is an editor and reporter for the Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at dpaulsen@episcopalchurch.org.


Comments (21)

  1. The Rev. Fred Fenton says:

    This is typical of the faithful and courageous congregation of St. John the Evangelist in San Francisco. I have been privileged to worship with them a number of times when in the city. The congregation is inclusive–in ever way!–and absolutely committed to living the Gospel in concrete and sacrificial ways. Father Smith is known throughout San Francisco as a prophetic voice and an activist who regularly puts his body on the line. If we had more congregations like St. John the Evangelist we would win the respect of many who have given up on organized religion as too compromised to be taken seriously. I encourage everyone to visit St. John the Evangelist for inspiration and to find direction for living as a Christian in today’s world.

  2. Pjcabbiness says:

    This is not radical hospitality. This is lawless, leftist, progressive, social action that is completely without theological basis of any kind. I am weary of the left endlessly reinterpreting and mythologizing scripture to suit their own world view and political agenda. I am also deeply troubled by the fact that our Episcopal leadership has encouraged the transformation of our denomination from an enlightened body of Christian thought, worship and expression to a base and misguided progressive, secular political activist organization.

    1. The Rev. Deacon Jacqueline Cherry, St. John's San Francisco says:

      If you are ever in San Francisco, please come visit our parish. You may be surprised by our deep commitment to follow after Jesus both inside and outside the church. We are progressive, but in no way misguided. Our worship is grounded in the Anglican tradition, and our values are rooted in the Gospels. Whether or not you agree with how we express our our Christianity in the world, come see who we are, come join us in worship.

      1. Keith Coppage says:

        There you go. 🙂 Thanks

    2. Lisa Roncella says:

      Jesus was a Jewish liberal who was crucified for political religious reasons. My coworker at St John fled Guatemala in fear of his life after a coworker was murdered while they were doing outreach to the poor there. He has his temporary work papers but if fighting to remain in this country. I would give him sanctuary without a second thought. There is nothing remotely criminal about him. To know him is to love him. I am proud to be part of The Gubbio Project at St. John’s.

  3. Edwin Thomas Hines says:

    I like to think that the Episcopal Church would follow thelaw of the land. Render unto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s. To many illegal aliens come to Sanctuary cities knowing full the local authorities will dis- regard immigration laws when they get into trouble and all of illegal aliens are already law breakers.

  4. John Miller says:

    I applaud and pray for this congregation that has found its evangelical mission in its location. It is acting out the Gospel in concrete ways. I always find it interesting when those who disagree with this action use the render onto Ceasar what is Ceasar’s. And what is Ceasar’s in a democracy? This country and the church throughout history has had moments of civil disobedience that have changed the world. We, so-called leftists, do not mythologize the Bible, we struggle with it and try to listen for its meaning for our times. Just as Jesus challenged the religious establishment of his time, so we need to do soul-searching in our time.

  5. Pjcabbiness says:

    Post modern relativism and the rationalization of the unlawful and immoral do not a Christian faith make. This subject is not equivalent to legitimate issues including, but not limited to, racial inequality. To put the immigration matter in the same category is thoughtless and offensive.

  6. Sarah Lawton says:

    Thank you for writing an article about my small but faithful congregation! The writing captures a lot about who we are. I would only add that the heart of our work is prayer and that our social justice work flows from and back to the liturgy. The space seen in photos is very well prayed in, indeed.

  7. Anne Dillenbeck says:

    Let not the oppressed turn away ashamed;
    let the poor and needy praise your Name.

    Thank you for sharing about the work of this courageous and blessed congregation–it’s inspiring!

  8. Pjcabbiness says:

    Conspiring to break reasonable, fair and thoughtful laws to the detriment of others in regard to public safety and just societal constructs is not an act of faith at all. It is false to argue the action as having anything to do with justice or a compelling scriptural duty. This is twisted progressive thinking that pretends to have some connection to our faith. If one believes that this course of radical, harmful, illegitimate, illegal action is somehow correct or noble, that is one’s right but please stop masking this indefensible line of thought and conduct with collars and crosses. Instead, form your own secular non-profit Marxist social action organization and carry on.

    1. Michael Scullary says:

      The most you post, the more I am reminded of many in the ruling Jewish aristocracy that challenged Jesus throughout the Gospels. They too believed they had a monopoly on Scriptural legal/theological interpretation and who/what was “immoral” and “unethical” as well. You may wish to open your eyes and your mind when you re-read the Gospels to the direct/indirect and visible/invisible social/political/religious example that Jesus was — and still is — overall. Sometimes “rendering onto Caesar” intertwines with “rendering onto God”… it takes attempting to understand the larger picture without assuming that your opinion is the only one.

    2. Michael Scullary says:

      I can also imagine that you were one of the many non-Catholics that cringed when His Holiness praised the contributions of Dorothy Day when he gave his address before Congress last year…

  9. Dianne Aid says:

    I am encouraged by this. Our very small congregation of about 50% immigrant families are preparing to offer Sanctuary. We also feed the homeless and are engaged in voter registration. All of this is rooted in prayer, study and reflection on Scripture and a sense of where God is calling us.
    The stories of many off the saints (Francis for one) give us examples of faith and engagement with oppressed and marginalized people, and of course there are our contemporary profits such as Desmond Tutu.

  10. Dianne Aid says:

    I am encouraged by this. Our very small congregation of about 50% immigrant families are preparing to offer Sanctuary. We also feed the homeless and are engaged in voter registration. All of this is rooted in prayer, study and reflection on Scripture and a sense of where God is calling us.
    The stories of many off the saints (Francis for one) give us examples of faith and engagement with oppressed and marginalized people, and of course there are our contemporary profphets such as Desmond Tutu.

  11. Catherine Cheek says:

    God’s peace and blessings to St John’s. This is exactly what Jesus would do. Our parish is awesome, too. We have a thriving street ministry.

  12. Jennifer Jones says:

    I love St. John’s. It is the church that helped to raise my two daughters into the women they have become after they left home and college. This church gave blessings on my oldest daughter’s marriage, baptised my first grand child, and sponsored the ordination of my youngest daughter. It is near and dear to my heart and I visit frequently, almost every time I am in town. It is a special and truly sacred place. I am blessed to have sat and worshiped within its walls.

    Jennifer Jones, Albuquerque, NM

  13. Terry Francis says:

    Amazing how progressives like Michael Scullary always consider people who disagree with them “closed minded”. Amazing but not surprising. We’re not the Jewish aristocracy and we’re not challenging Jesus, we’re challenging misguided people like yourself. People who believe left wing dogma and the Gospels are one and the same. If any group believes they have a monopoly on scriptural interpretation it is progressives, not conservatives or traditionalists. I don’t need to re-read the Gospels in regards to these issues Michael, but perhaps you do, because you seem to be getting a lot of stuff out of scripture that isn’t there. (visible/invisible, social/politcal/religious???) Jesus was totally apolitical. Stop making Him out to be something He wasn’t! Same goes for you Lisa Roncella. Jesus a Jewish liberal? You are kidding right? Finally Michael, as for understanding the larger picture, which larger picture are you referring to? The one based on traditional interpretation of scripture, or the one based on progressive interpretation?

  14. Mark E. Bailie says:

    Well I don’t see anything wrong with progressive interpretation. After all, Jesus interpreted the Old Testament rather progressively for His time on Earth, confronting the traditional interpretation of Scripture made by the Pharisees.

  15. Sarah Rachel says:

    Good luck with this…. Ask Kate Steinle’s parents about illegal immigration. Separation of Church and State. The Episcopal Church has become a puppet of radical left=socialism. All funds should be stopped to sanctuary cities/states. Churches should follow the U.S. law.

  16. Pjcabbiness says:

    Excellent point Sarah Rachel!

Comments are closed.