By The Rev.Edward Dondi, St. Nicholas, Atwater
Emergence of Episcopal Diocese of San Joaquin:
A Transformational Challenge
Guess Who is Coming to Dinner is a 1967 American Comedian drama film produced and directed by Stanley Kramer and written by William Rose. It stars Spencer Tracy, Sidney Poitier and Katharine Houghton. The movie was released after the Supreme Court struck down laws in more than a dozen States that banned mixed race marriages. The film underlined Kramer’s belief to teach “people to think outside the box, to be daring.”
That same year the white daughter of US Secretary of State Dean Husk married a black Stanford University Student. The New York Times called the film “a most delightfully acted and gracefully entertaining film. That in my own opinion was the emergence of mixed-racial marriages in America.
Luke in his Gospel challenges us as Episcopalians in San Joaquin Diocese to think outside the box, to be daring. (Luke 24:36-48) One of the great things I cherished as an Anglican/Episcopalian is the opportunity to look back during the season of Lent. To travel with Jesus and climb with him the mount of Transfiguration, to look back as it were and consider how the past has affected my ministry and in addition to think about what the future holds.
My family and I immigrated from Kenya in 2001 and our first visit of the Episcopal Church was St. Michael and All Angels in Concord California, a predominantly white community. A year later we moved on to St. Albans’ Episcopal Church, Brentwood. During my stint as Assisting Priest there at St. Albans’, I wanted to know the history of the Episcopal church and why it is a predominantly white, so I held numerous conversations with the Senior Warden. I asked him what was it like growing up in the seventy’s as an Episcopalian. He said as a teenager, moving to a new school, the kids would be asking, “What church do you go to?” Not only was church membership normative but it provided a ready way to examine someone very carefully. It was also easy to speculate where someone lived, their family, education level but more so which church they attended or their denomination for that matter. The Senior warden narrated to me that Doctors and Lawyers were either Episcopalians or Presbyterians while persons of less fortunate background belong to other Protestant denominations. Is this still the same or something has changed? If so what do you think we could do to incorporate persons of the less fortunate? Yes, a lot has changed the demographic landscape has changed but the church has not. There is declining attendance in most of our congregations. Meanwhile the church has not looked carefully the demographic changes, the fact remains that the Episcopal Parish/congregation, community has few, if any the people of different cultural background members.
That brings us to our reflection topic: What does our “emergence” look like in our place locally? I love the word emergence. But does anyone understand what emergence means? You can’t emerge without first submerging! English Oxford dictionary defines “emergence” as the process of becoming visible after being concealed. Mark Scandrette (ReIMAGINE! San Francisco) defines emergence as a quest for a more integrated and whole life of faith focusing on more kingdom theology, the inner life, friendship/community, justice, earth keeping, inclusivity and inspirational leadership.
Bishop David Rice defines emergence as a new way of being church, going deeper. While our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry defines emergence as a “Movement”, Jesus Movement. We must find new ways of being church for our communities to look like Jesus Movement locally. In other words, we must as a diocese first embrace the Kingdom of God and retrieve the ancient understanding of the gospel that dramatically transforms church practice. What is the Gospel? Simply put, Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was arriving, evidenced by his person and signs that accompanied his ministry and urged his hearers to forget their silos and warned them that to oppose the coming of the Kingdom was to oppose work of God as revealed in the Gospel of Mark. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news.” (Mark 1:15-16).
At the onset of the Gospel narrative, the good news was not that Jesus was to die but that God returned and all were invited to participate with him in this new way of life, in the redemption of the world. It is this gospel that we have to seek to recover in our fresh expressions as emerging Episcopalians within our communities locally. How? Two things:
We have to identify with Jesus and his way of life. After the resurrection Jesus appeared to his disciples on numerous occasions. Luke tells the story in a way that emphasizes Jesus’ humanity – and being human. The disciples forgot their manners until Jesus reminded them in the simplest way that he was human, one of them and he would enter their community if invited. But they were so wrapped up in Jesus as their Lord that they had trouble letting him be one of them. Luke tells us that they were caught up in their misery, their fear, their doubt. Even after Jesus proved to them that he was human by eating broiled fish they handed over to him, they were still caught up in bewilderment. Two thousand years later, we still prefer the divinity of Christ to the humanity of Jesus. We glory in the grandeur of our Easter celebrations, we forget the reminder of Christmas – that Jesus was God in the human flesh. What does it mean to identify with Jesus? to identify with Jesus is not just methodology, not about his mission, not about his church, but Jesus and his glory, his life. To know Jesus is not an event, a ritual, creed or a religion. It is a journey and adventure.
Secondly we have to identify with the life of Jesus – his engagement with his culture, as embodied in community and given verbal in the Sermon on the Mount. Modern readings of Jesus are prone to dismiss his life and focus on his death and resurrection and are preoccupied with a believer’s interior experience of Christ. In contrast Jesus welcomed the outcast, hosted the stranger, and challenged the political authorities by creating an alternative community. Jesus entire life, including his words, established the way of Jesus, and it is this way, that should influence our Diocese as we emerge in our community locally.
The challenge will be to maintain our identity, while recognizing new ways of being church. All too often, of great barriers that hold back the seas of change is fear. Our fears as Episcopalians is to name and celebrate Jesus loving presence in the stories of all people. We ought to get out of our doors. I believe God loves our worship, but we are called to do more than sit in a building. If we can be out showing that God is present in a non-threatening way, then we are planting seeds – new ways of being church – growing in faith, going deeper in our relationships, engaging people of different racial, cultural, socioeconomic, educational, geographic or ideological backgrounds.
We are in the midst of a mighty emergence, but one that will be for the better. A true rebirth, a fresh start, kind of a resurrection morning. Will this transformational change be easy? of course not! Change is always unsettling under the best of circumstances, and embracing people who are different from us invokes a complex set of emotions, memories and shared experiences. But if we take a deep breath, pray, and trust the mighty works of Holy Spirit, we will find as a church that there is indeed rebirth, and resurrection in our future communities locally.