By Charles Hoffacker
Founded in 1908 as a Japanese mission of the Episcopal Church, St. Peter’s in Seattle first met in homes and then constructed a building in 1932 during the Great Depression. A decade later, the church was closed when by action of the federal government, the members of St. Peter’s and thousands of other Japanese Americans were relocated to concentration camps throughout the United States. Together with other Episcopalians, members of St. Peter’s continued to be the Church during their time of captivity.
When St. Peter’s opened again after the war, its mission became rebuilding and reclaiming damaged lives. A practice that has continued throughout the years is caring for one another in good times and bad and maintaining threads of connection that reach back to past generations and forward to future ones.
The current congregation is diverse in many respects. “We see our diverse makeup as a gift from God, one that enables us to more authentically be Christ’s Body in the world, ” the church’s website announces. Because members of the community have experienced racism and exclusion, St. Peter’s affirms that it strives to “stand in solidarity with those who are still outsiders, and to be a place of wholeness and healing.”
St. Peter’s is now closed for the second time. Parishioners are not interned in government camps but are sheltering from a pandemic. The coronavirus came early to Seattle, but the crisis is not yet over. Once again facing genuine hardship, St. Peter’s remains very much alive. The parish offers a virtual Sunday Eucharist followed by a popular Zoom coffee hour where viewers enjoy seeing one another’s faces.
A system of care groups has been established by the rector, the Rev. Edmund Harris. Each group includes a small number of parishioners and a designated “shepherd” who serves as a facilitator. The facilitator checks in regularly with each member, mainly by email, to find out how that member is doing—physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Is there something that member needs or can offer? What would the member like prayer for that day? Check-ins also occur through Facebook, texting, and Zoom.
Shepherds are repeatedly inspired by the parish’s oldest members, whose comments are characterized by faith, strength, and hope. “I am praying,” says one. “We gotta do what we gotta do,” says another. A woman says of her husband, “Oh, he never complains.”
Bruce Rogers-Vaughn of Vanderbilt Divinity School offers a perspective on pastoral care in our time that applies to St. Peter’s. He claims that the primary challenge in caring for souls today is not to fix discrete personal problems or even redress specific social injustices. It is to cultivate and strengthen religious collectives such as parishes that embody the care of soul and articulate deep meanings able to ground the lives of their members. Thus people find their footing in an unstable world. This is no simple task, but at St. Peter’s it is a challenge joyfully accepted and vigorously pursued.