[Episcopal News Service – Fresno, California] The recent three-day revival in the Diocese of San Joaquin was an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual journey by Episcopalians there to discern what God is calling them to be.
The journey has brought Central Valley Episcopalians to the point where they are ready to share their healed selves with their neighbors.
“We have spent nearly 10 years needing to focus on our own rebirth. We are ready to look outside and to really live into this revival of the Jesus Movement,” the Rev. Nancy Key told Episcopal News Service as the gathering began. “We needed to heal, and then, once healed, we needed not to stay there. We needed to go out into the world.”
For the Rev. Suzy Ward, the first woman ordained in the diocese, “life has been blooming but this event really acknowledges the fact that things have turned a corner. Things are being made new.”
The “Called to Be…” celebration spanned the length of the diocese on the eastern side of central California, with stops in Stockton, Fresno and Bakersfield. The revival included emotional stories of fear and frustration from immigrants, a Stations of the Cross-like neighborhood prayer walk, liturgical pomp and tradition followed by a food-truck dinner, and Episcopalians filling yellow backpacks with goods for people living on the streets. It included touchstones from the past – an old quilt and an old bishop’s ring – as well as interfaith visitors and powerful testimony to the rebirth of the diocese.
At every turn, people stopped to reflect on the nearly 10 years since then-Bishop John-David Schofield and a majority of Episcopalians attending a Dec. 8, 2007 diocesan convention voted to disaffiliate with the Episcopal Church. Schofield was at odds with the church over the ordination of women and gay clergy and issues of biblical authority. Those who left call themselves Anglicans, although the Anglican Communion does not officially recognize their organizations.
The intervening years were at first marked by the introspection Key described, a turn inward to take stock of what and who was left in the diocese. Key, now a deacon, was a layperson in 2008 when she and others helped those who remained Episcopalian pick up the pieces and reorganize the diocese.
Returning to church buildings but looking beyond their walls
The rebuilding years also took Episcopalians to court to recover the property of the diocese and the Episcopal Church. They persevered and succeeded. All but one of the property suits have ended. With that success has come discernment about the future shape of the diocese. The diocese has decided it will try to sell 25 properties, planning to invest the proceeds in future ministry. About 21 congregations are viable, but many, if not most, are struggling financially. There are few paid full-time clergy. They work with retired clergy and clergy who work full-time but earn part-time salaries.
As church properties came back to the diocese, the very small diocesan staff joined with elected diocesan leaders to take inventories, assess deferred maintenance and prioritize needed repairs.
In some cases, they arranged for Anglicans to stay in the buildings until they could make other arrangements, according to Cindy Smith, the outgoing Standing Committee president. Smith told ENS that the diocese, in some cases, allowed the Anglicans to take memorial donations with them when they left.
Taking possession of the recovered property required both administrative and emotional work, she said.
Those assessments and calculations about keeping or selling a church building, based on the viability of congregations, led to a deeper discernment, according to another Standing Committee member.
“Of course, we’re rebuilding. We need the infrastructure and all that, but we’re not just rebuilding the things one needs to run an office,” Erin Rausch, a young woman who became active in the Episcopal Church of St. Anne in Stockton after the departures. “We have an opportunity to call into question who we want to be as a community of faith. That’s a challenge and a gift.”
That discernment has not always easy, said Bishop David Rice, who was invested Nov. 18 as the diocese’s fourth bishop diocesan. There is always the temptation to keep doing what had been done and to resuscitate rather than be resurrected, he said.
“We’re going to travel light for as long as I am here,” he said in an interview in the raucous parish hall of St Paul’s in Bakersfield on Nov. 19. “That is not anti-building or anti-growth – [it is] realizing that keeping this minimal and simple is true to how we have emerged over the last nine years.”
Rice’s own path to this revival is an example of that minimalism. The diocese elected him in March 2014 as its fourth bishop provisional. Then in March of this year, delegates to a special convention overwhelmingly voted to elect him as their diocesan bishop. Rice was the only nominee in a somewhat unusual election. It marked the first time in recent memory that a bishop moved from provisional to diocesan. Moreover, the election came without the typical bishop search involving multiple nominees and what diocesan officials estimated would have cost upwards of $50,000.
Remembering the past but not being deterred by it was a theme of the weekend. Rausch suggested that the “Called to Be…” revival “is an opportunity to not put this behind us but to carry it with us into whatever we do next.” Ward agreed, saying San Joaquin Episcopalians don’t want to relive the past but rather “just want to learn from it.”
The learning is hard, sometimes. “All those years of isolationism” from ecumenical partners, adjoining dioceses, and the wider Episcopal Church, as well as from the local contexts, couldn’t be overcome overnight, Rice said. That work is ongoing, he added, and reaching out to Central Valley residents in new ways is a “challenge for a lot of people.”
However, folks are getting there. The Rev. Lyn Morlan, standing in a courtyard of Lincoln Elementary School, across the street from St. Anne’s in Stockton where she is the rector, explained how her parishioners now tutor students at the school, which receives federal aid because of the high number of low-income students. She recalled that they “stepped out in faith” and donated the proceeds of a recent fundraiser to the program. That money is usually “the budget balancer” fund, she said.
St. Anne’s Episcopalians are seeing that “God isn’t confined in the that little red church,” she said, pointing back toward the church. “God’s out here.”
Episcopalians in Visalia have been back in their building just shy of four months. Recovering St. Paul’s property has been a challenge and a gift, said Ward, St. Paul’s priest-in-charge. Those who remained Episcopalians and those who joined the church after the departures of 2008 had been renting a small house and worshipping in a synagogue. St. Paul’s campus takes up just more than half a city block. The congregation worried about how its return to that large space will change them.
St Paul’s location and size give the congregation visibility, Ward explained. More importantly, it is an asset that Visalia Episcopalians want offer to the community as part of the hospitality they value. The parish hall has hosted community meetings and trainings for social service organizations. It will soon become an overflow night shelter for the local Rescue Mission’s homeless ministry.
“We’re trying to find our way. That’s a part of the revival: how do we revive this place in a way that is meaningful for the community in a way that it might not have been used before,” Ward said.
The Rev. Nick Lorenzetti is a former Roman Catholic priest who retired to the Modesto area from Philadelphia but found no Roman Catholic parishes that would welcome him and his husband. The couple began attending St. Paul’s Episcopal Church there. When the Rev. Kathleen West fell ill, then-Bishop Provisional Chester Talton asked Lorenzetti to help out with preaching and home visits. Four years ago, Talton received Lorenzetti’s orders and made him an Episcopal priest; he is now priest-in-charge in Modesto.
Lorenzetti said the San Joaquin model of community engagement is something he longed for in his previous parish-priest days. Back then, the priest stayed in the office and prayed that people would come, he said. In this diocese, “it isn’t just about how many people are sitting there on Sunday; it’s about whether the gospel is being lived and whether we’re making a difference in the communities in which we live.” None of that work, he added, can be done without clergy developing and enriching lay ministry.
Whether it is helping to form Unify Stanislaus (County) so that Muslims, Jews, Christians (including non-English-speakers) and Buddhists can quickly respond to immigrants in need of help, working in homeless ministries, gathering produce for area feeding programs, or counseling women suffering from abuse, “we’re doing church in all those situations,” Lorenzetti said.
Tom Hampson, another person who retired to the Modesto area and is now in the diaconate process, agreed. “We’re reinventing what church is going to look like,” he said, sitting in the Helping Urban Bicyclists (HUB) ministry’s storefront shop in downtown Stockton.
As street people came in to ask for a bike, get their bikes repaired or join in some conversation, Hampson, who worked for Church World Service for 30-some years, observed, “This is what church looks like.” Many weeks the Rev. Stephen Bentley and his crew at the HUB minister to more people than attend worship at St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church down the street.
Bentley, a deacon who developed and runs the HUB, added that helping people see church in new ways is part of the HUB’s goal. The idea of “having people realize that the church is much more vital than four walls and an altar – it’s how we engage with people, it’s how we engage with the community, it’s how we minister to them – is new, and not just for Episcopalians.
“Everyone that comes by here wants to know what we’re all about and why are you guys so open,” said Bentley, who is also a cartoonist who draws the comic strip Herb and Jamaal. Those people also ask, “How come you don’t think like the rest of them? Why are you guys so different? What are you guys doing?”
Much work remains to be done in the conservative Central Valley, Smith said, “to share an inclusive message and to be that inclusive church.”
The HUB is not to be confused with three other hubs in the diocese. The northern, central and southern deaneries each have what are being called “ministry hubs.” They are meant to help the diocese’s slim resources go farther by sharing expertise, equipment, personnel and ideas. Congregations are encouraged to do the same. The churches in Visalia, Tulare and Hanford, for instance, share a treasurer.
San Joaquin is a far-flung diocese that stretches from the agriculturally rich Central Valley floor to the high desert and to the mountains. Driving such vast distances, especially in the winter in the mountains, can be treacherous. Governance and training are happening in virtual, video meeting rooms.
“This is an incubator, a holy laboratory, this is a great and wonderful experiment,” Rice said, noting, “there is no risk aversion in this diocese.”
Praise from the church, and a check from the diocese
“You may well have shown us the future hope of the Episcopal Church, and its witness in this world,” Curry told San Joaquin Episcopalians during the Nov. 18 service at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Fresno. “You have been a witness for Jesus by standing up for love … and you have shown the whole Episcopal Church that we can do it. We can witness to justice. We can witness to compassion. We can witness to goodness. We can witness to kindness. We can witness to Jesus.”
“Thank you, San Joaquin,” he shouted to thunderous applause.
The Rev. Gay Clark Jennings, president of the House of Deputies, reminded the congregation at the service that a decade ago, women and LGBTQI people in the valley were not fully welcome in the life of the Episcopal Church.
“You are called by God to go the margins and to serve in places that we couldn’t possibly have imagined a decade ago,” she said, noting Episcopalians’ ministry with homeless people, victims of human trafficking, and people in prison. “In your journey, you have found strength not just for yourselves, but for the people of God across the San Joaquin Valley. Here, in this place that once turned away so many of God’s people, you are following Jesus into new life.”
“You show the rest of us in the Episcopal Church what it truly means to believe that resurrection follows death.”
The Fresno service included the passing of a large check, both in amount and size. That check, for $1 million, represented the conclusion of years of support and some months of negotiations.
The church’s Executive Council agreed last month to forgive $6.8 million in loans to San Joaquin, along with the accrued interest. In return, the diocese promised to pay the Episcopal Church $1 million; fund the cost of remaining property litigation along with all costs of repair, lease termination and maintenance of recovered properties, including the costs of selling any of them; and fully pay the costs of having a bishop. The diocese also agreed to begin paying its full assessment to the churchwide budget in 2019.
Council agreed to the deal because it was, in the words of one member, a “significant investment in this diocese.”
“They definitely made an investment in us,” Smith told ENS. The loan-forgiveness deal means “sustainability long-term, being able to not be completely focused on surviving but thinking about how we thrive.”
Smith echoed Rice in saying that if San Joaquin is the testing ground for new ways of being church, then she hoped “our experiences and our experiments can be used by the rest of the church. That would be a wonderful thing and a wonderful way to pay back the support and generosity that people have given us.”
Rice said during the Fresno service that the check for “$1 million to the Jesus Movement” represented “resurrection and a new lease on life for the Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin” and a way of “offering our own gratitude, expressing our own generosity.”
The shape of the revival
On Nov. 17, the revival began with Episcopalians, friends, faith partners and civic leaders gathering at the University of the Pacific in Stockton, to hear people’s stories about immigration and DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). A Latina high school student, two Episcopal priests (one Latina and one Nigerian) and a doctor who is Muslim spoke. Each round of testimony included prayer and singing and ended with remarks by Presiding Bishop Curry.
The next day at St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Fresno, ministry leaders and partners went on a “neighborhood prayer walk” to highlight how ministry in the diocese is increasingly inclusive, ecumenical and interfaith. The walk ended at the church doors and led into the Eucharist during which Rice was formally installed as bishop of the diocese and seated in the cathedral. Curry preached and a food-truck dinner followed the service.
During the service, Bishop Bavi Edna “Nedi” Rivera, whose father Victor was San Joaquin’s second bishop diocesan, gave Rice her father’s episcopal ring. She and one of her sisters also returned to the diocese a present Episcopalians had given her father and mother, Barbara, when his 31-year episcopate ended in 1989. It was a quilt with panels from every congregation.
Also during the service, Jennings presented the House of Deputies medal to the diocese. She established the medal in 2012 to award to laypeople and clergy for distinguished service to the House of Deputies and the Episcopal Church. This is the first time Jennings has awarded the medal to a diocese or group of people.
Curry preached and presided on Nov. 19 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Bakersfield on the southern end of the diocese. Following worship and brunch, participants took the “1000 Yellow Bags Challenge,” filling backpacks with toiletries, socks and other necessities for the homeless.
At the end of the Fresno service, Rice sent out the congregation with a gentle admonition that could almost be the unofficial diocesan motto. As he began his blessing, he said, “Take this blessing. Embrace it. Use it and make sure it’s alive.”
— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.
Editor’s note: In a previous version of this story, the lead caption mistakenly located St. James Episcopal Cathedral in Bakersfield, California, instead of Fresno, and mistakenly named the founder of the Helping Urban Bicyclists ministry as the Rev. Stephen Brantley. He is the Rev. Stephen Bentley. Also, the Rev. Kathleen West spells her name with a K, instead of a C, as in the earlier version. In addition, Bishop David Rice is the diocese’s fourth diocesan bishop. A previous version of this story reported that he was the third.