‘We Get to Be the Church’

Beds in the nave at St. Stephen’s Church in Sebastopol, California.

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

As rampaging October wildfires forced thousands of Northern Californians to flee for their lives, St. Stephen’s Church in Sebastopol opened its doors to the most vulnerable and received a surprising lesson in Christian hospitality.

The call first came from relief workers caring for 500 evacuees in a gymnasium-turned-shelter at nearby Analy High School. Elders between age 70 and 100 were not doing well in that environment. Could the church quickly provide shelter for about 30 people?

Yes, answered the Rev. Kate Sefton, a deacon. Parish volunteers rallied, movable pews became beds, Red Cross cots arrived, and shaken elders began arriving. But it was in enabling others to be hospitable, including non-churchgoers and displaced fire victims, that St. Stephen’s gained a deeper understanding of the practice.

One crystalizing moment for Deacon Sefton came when a tall man in his early 30s spotted her in her clericals at Analy High School. When he explained that his home had burned to ground, Sefton offered him condolences and a meal. But he insisted that what he really needed was not food.

“He said, ‘No, you don’t understand. I’ve just lost everything. You need to give me something to do to help someone else. Please help me to help someone else right now,’” Sefton said.

“In that moment, I realized how important being a bridge between the church and the world really is,” she said. “There are people in communities — in Puerto Rico, Houston, everywhere — who are in communal pain. And what can assuage that pain to some degree is to be able to help others.”

Such accounts of reimagined hospitality are resonating this year as the Christmas season arrives. Tradition summons Christians to be especially generous toward the homeless and disadvantaged, especially as they remember circumstances of their Savior’s birth in a stable because there was no room at an inn.

This year, conditions across the globe have made displacement — and the question of how the church might respond to it — an especially prominent theme. Worldwide, an unprecedented 65.6 million people (including 22.5 million refugees) have been forcibly displaced, according to June figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. In the United States and Caribbean, hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria this fall compelled new mass migrations, whether temporarily into shelters or, for thousands, permanently to new locales.

Displacement is not always as dramatic or visible as it is in disaster zones. It can also be psychic or economic in nature. Events of 2017 have stoked a sense of insecurity among immigrants who worry what new travel restrictions or deportation practices could mean for their families and communities. Many Americans feel displaced by a new political environment under President Donald Trump, by a loss of livelihoods in the heartland, by a merciless opioid epidemic, or by gentrification in fast-transforming neighborhoods where, rather suddenly, they can no longer afford to live.

“People are trying to figure out, how do we live in this time without going crazy?” said the Rev. Nell Archer, vicar of Iglesia de Santa Cruz in Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood and planter of Bushwick Abbey, a new church. “We try to provide a place where people can think, talk about these things, and have opportunities to take some positive action.”

For congregations, ministry to the displaced has traditionally meant helping stabilize lives that have become detached from familiar moorings. In the Diocese of Southwest Florida, a $20,000 grant from Episcopal Relief & Development helped with the immediate response after Hurricane Irma, such as emergency tree removal and preparation for long-term recovery.

In Santa Rosa, California, Church of the Incarnation raised more than $50,000 to help fire victims, including individuals struggling anew to stay in their homes. Among the beneficiaries is a housekeeper, said the Rev. James Richardson, priest-in-charge. Her entire income stream vanished when all the homes she used to clean were reduced to ash and rubble.

In discerning how to help, many churches tend to be more comfortable as hosts than as guests, said the Rev. Jesse Zink, principal of Montreal Diocesan Theological College and author of Backpacking Through the Anglican Communion. They would rather sponsor a refugee family or cook a meal for the homeless than be guests of either group, Zink said in Boston at a November meeting of the Society for the Study of Anglicanism.

But Christians should also agree to be others’ guests, Zink said. The theological rationale: “Because in the Incarnation, the Son of God became our guest.”

“Not only are we called to be hosts, we are also called as Christians to be guests,” Zink said. “And the people we may want to make ourselves guests to are the very people, migrants, whom we thought we were supposed to be hosting. In my experience, this is a much more difficult step for people to take.”

Yet it’s a crucial step. Displaced people strengthen their sense of identity and establish new grounding as they are hosts, no matter how tenuous their circumstances might be. When the world serves up turmoil, many find security in the unchanging nature and ways of God.

Zink noted, for instance, how immigrant communities of Pentecostal Christians eagerly host newcomers to the United States. Many also delight in hosting long-established Americans, including Episcopalians willing to be on the receiving end of hospitality.

In the tumult of 2017, congregations and clergy have expanded what it means for them to care for the displaced. At St. Stephen’s in Sebastopol, the congregation provided more than a venue where church members could supply comfort through food, blankets, phones, and prayer. They also made room for neighbors of various religious and non-religious backgrounds to share their blessings.

Psychologists trained in disaster counseling used the church to give local counselors a crash course in handling disaster-related trauma. A masseuse helped calm elders’ nerves by offering free massages. A pedicurist donated her skills at the church to help one elder evacuee alleviate a painful toenail problem.

In Brooklyn’s Bushwick neighborhood, where Latinos have seen friends and relatives flee to outer boroughs to escape ever-steeper housing costs, Bushwick Abbey and La Iglesia de Santa Cruz have used their stature to celebrate a different anchor in the community: the bodega, or small grocery store in which the owners and customers converse in Spanish.

It is in these street corner stores that foods from native lands are sold and enjoyed and neighborhood news is shared over coffee. To honor the ties represented by these durable institutions, the two congregations this year launched the Bodega Advent Project. It involves installing 25 works by local artists — one per day, starting Dec. 1 — in 25 Bushwick bodegas. The project marks a nod to how these stores welcome wanderers in search of a resting place, much like Joseph and Mary in the time of Caesar Augustus.

“They’re kind of a citadel or refuge in themselves for people in the community who might be kind of on the fringes,” Archer said. “They offer their own kind of hospitality for people who need kind of a respite.”

These days, helping the displaced gain a new toehold in society can involve activism on the front lines of immigration policy. In South Texas, Presbyterian pastor and theologian Helen Boursier ministered to 5,000 mothers and children at three Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facilities in 2015 and 2016. Her ministry involved guiding them to tell — first verbally, and then through visual artwork — the often-difficult stories of situations they left behind in Central America.

Boursier’s goal was twofold: help the detained move past trauma through the making of art and enable the preparation and rehearsal of personal narratives in such forms that they would meet criteria for immigrants receiving asylum in the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security revoked Boursier’s visiting privileges after she showed photos of detention conditions at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion, a professional association of scholars, in November 2016.

Despite her expulsion, she still sees her hospitality as one of having empowered victims to speak immediately about their traumatic experiences. This can include talking about threats of violence they faced in their native Honduras or El Salvador, even if they would rather forget or repress such memories.

“They don’t have a lot of time to deal with this, you know what I’m saying?” Boursier said at a 2017 AAR workshop in Boston. “They’re locked up. They need to be able to say, ‘I will be directly persecuted, threatened, killed if I am deported, and this is why.’”

As congregations stretch their understandings of what hospitality can entail, classic formulations of the virtue are being reinterpreted, too. St. George’s Church in Bradenton, Florida, frequently plays host for the displaced. This can mean anything from feeding the chronically homeless to operating a non-emergency shelter in the aftermath of a storm, which the church has done at least three times this year.

Hosting the displaced at St. George’s does not always mean retaining control. It can mean surrendering a measure of it, along with some convenience and familiar comforts. When St. George’s shelters evacuees, Sunday coffee hour moves outside to the sidewalk because the parish hall is occupied. The parish’s electricity bills spike 25 percent during those periods.

Even when no one is sheltered at the facility, worship at St. George’s increasingly means sliding over in a pew to accommodate someone with a pungent body odor. The people of St. George’s are learning to regard such experiences not as a burden but as a unique blessing.

“We get to be the church,” said the Rev. Bryan O’Carroll, St. George’s rector. “People are coming to know the depth of their faith by being given permission to live it out in really bold and sometimes crazy ways that weren’t necessarily accepted before. Now we have children who see homeless people and see them as people.”


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