[Episcopal News Service — Philadelphia, Pennsylvania] The Episcopal Urban Caucus spent three days learning about different approaches to urban ministries using the Diocese of Pennsylvania, which includes Philadelphia and its suburbs, as a backdrop for what has worked in the region.
The caucus meets annually in a different city as a form of continuing education. Because each city is unique, ministry methods from an urban lens may also be distinct.
The Rt. Rev. Daniel Gutiérrez, bishop of the Diocese of Pennsylvania, told Episcopal News Service that he “admires and respects” the work members of the Episcopal Urban Caucus do.
“They devote their lives to proclaiming Christ, not by word but by example. And they go, they step into the pain, and they place it at the forefront,” Gutiérrez said. “That’s what our church should be. Not at a distance, but we enter into it. It’s what we call the incarnation.”
Approximately two dozen Episcopalians gathered here Nov. 1-4 to learn about managing ministries and church finances during the Episcopal Urban Caucus’ 2023 assembly.
The caucus is an organization of Episcopalians dedicated to advocacy and influencing The Episcopal Church in prioritizing different aspects of racial justice, including anti-racism and hunger reduction initiatives, focusing on cities with high concentrations of poverty and other systemic injustices.
The first day of the conference included a tour of the Diocese of Pennsylvania’s diocesan center in nearby Norristown. The second day included presentations from multiple speakers representing different diocesan ministries, The Episcopal Church’s Office of Government relations and others. All presentations were done at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia’s Chestnut Hill neighborhood.
The third day was the busiest for participants. After morning prayer at St. Paul’s, several guest speakers addressed various angles of systemic racism, such as engaging with local political leaders and law enforcement, as well as making Episcopal schools more inclusive and relevant to the neighborhoods they serve. Lailah Dunbar-Keeys, a local educator and “spiritual activist who integrates social science and spirituality to affect transformational change,” discussed how to be anti-racist and work toward eliminating social injustices in communities.
“What do you call a city? What do you call a town? What is suburban? It all depends on context … but all the presentations applied to all the areas that The Episcopal Church serves here in Pennsylvania and other dioceses,” said the Rev. Gayle Fisher-Stewart, assistant secretary of the Episcopal Urban Caucus and a priest in the Diocese of Washington. “It’s all applicable because you’re talking about how the church serves in their location. Whatever your location is, you can take that information and apply it.”
All the presentations focused on this year’s assembly theme, “A Year of Jubilee: God is With Us,” which reflects on “all that is good and wonderful about this diocese,” and working with urban ministries, the Rev. Jordan Casson, the Diocese of Pennsylvania’s canon for peace and reconciliation, told ENS. He said a goal of the conference was to inform participants how the diocese is approaching ministries from an “urban mission” context, including from a financial perspective.
In the afternoon, participants toured St. Jude & the Nativity in Lafayette Hill, which is currently the temporary church home for parishioners of the Church of the Crucifixion in Philadelphia, which is under renovation. St. Jude’s and Crucifixion are both predominantly Latino parishes. Crucifixion was originally a Black parish that attracted significant figures in church history, including W.E.B. Du Bois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The Rev. Yesenia Alejandro, the first Latina priest in the Diocese of Pennsylvania, is missioner and vicar of both St. Jude’s and Crucifixion. While touring St. Jude’s, she explained how her congregation has been able to house migrant families during the ongoing migrant busing crisis to designated “sanctuary cities,” including Philadelphia. The parish itself is tiny, but the basement was converted into a dormitory-like setting and now includes showers, a kitchen and other facilities migrant families may use. Currently, several migrant families of small children, women and men live at St. Jude’s. Upstairs, one room was converted into a “beauty salon.” The parish also offers a media room for children and young adults to develop tech skills and supplement their regular schoolwork. Additionally, doctors, counselors and physical therapists volunteer to help anyone in need at no cost.
“Look at the work [Alejandro] has done with St. Jude’s. She is the kind of person that people would gravitate to, and that’s not a big church. But you look at all the stuff that’s going on in there, which is clearly reaching out to her community and doing on-the-ground work,” said the Rev. Diane Pollard, treasurer of Episcopal Urban Caucus and a current member of Executive Council. “[Alejandro] is a great example of urban work.”
After touring St. Jude’s, participants attended a special All Souls Day worship service at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood. Gutiérrez served as celebrant and homilist. During the service, the bishop blessed a new shrine of the late Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, the first woman consecrated a bishop in the Anglican Communion. Before serving as bishop suffragan of the Diocese of Massachusetts, Harris, a Philadelphia native, served as interim director of the Church of the Advocate, best known for being the parish where the first women priests were ordained in The Episcopal Church, colloquially known today as the Philadelphia Eleven.
“It was wonderful having [the Episcopal Urban Caucus] here during this time, especially blessing the shrine,” Gutiérrez said. “Harris’ family was here, and people who have journeyed with her, and it just took on so much meaning and hope.”
During the worship service, members of the Episcopal Urban Caucus walked to the front of the altar to reaffirm their “commitment to God and to each other.”
As a priest, Harris served as a member of the Union of Black Episcopalians and president of the Episcopal Urban Caucus. To Pollard, Harris was also a “very good friend.”
“The service was absolutely perfect, really lovely,” she said. “[The shrine] really represents her vestments — those are her vestments. If you look up a picture of Barbara Harris, you will see that was a very good job. Someone did some very good research.”
The timing of the Diocese of Pennsylvania’s dedication of Harris’ shrine and the caucus’ assembly was coincidental, according to Fisher-Stewart, who called it “providential.”
“God’s hand was in it,” she said.
-Shireen Korkzan is a reporter and assistant editor for Episcopal News Service. She can be reached at email@example.com.