In the Shadow of Disneyland

By Neva Rae Fox
Correspondent

While the pandemic forced society into isolation, two Los Angeles area churches and their clergy grew attached through cultural crossover services and pastoral support, all while transcending language and socioeconomic differences and barriers.

Anaheim, widely known as home to Disneyland and a sprawling convention center, is “a working-class community in Orange County,” said the Rev. Juan Jimenez, rector of historic St. Michael’s Church.

The Rev. Cindy Voorhees at St. James in Newport Beach | Lissa Schairer

When he arrived in 2000, “the church had a declining English-speaking congregation and a growing Spanish-speaking one,” Jimenez said. “The Spanish-speaking congregation was made mostly of immigrants from Mexico, many of them undocumented. They came from small towns and farms, and some were illiterate in both English and Spanish.”

Pre-pandemic, average Sunday attendance was 425 in four services — two Spanish, two English. “The English services were focused on second and third generation Latino/as who prefer English to Spanish,” Jiminez said.

With Disneyland, many hotels, and restaurants in the parish’s back yard, “The majority of the people work in the hospitality, housecleaning and gardening industries,” Jimenez said. Because of COVID-19, “many are out of work, and the ones who are still working are exposed to the disease daily.”

Like churches across the country, St. Michael’s postponed in-person services in March 2020. “The area around the church has been one of the hardest affected by the pandemic in Orange County,” Jimenez said. “We have buried more than 10 members and many families have been infected.”

Only 20 miles away, St. James Church in Newport Beach, “a predominantly white congregation in an upscale demographic location,” was seeking a relationship that would develop into mutual ministry, said the Rev. Canon Cindy Evans Voorhees, vicar.

St. James looked to St. Michael’s for a partnership with a “large sister congregation. St. Michael’s has been especially hit hard with COVID-19 because a majority of the congregation is Latinx and live in multi-generational homes.”

St. James recognized in St. Michael’s “a significant number of parishioners have been furloughed from working at their service industry jobs, particularly Disneyland,” Voorhees said.

“I approached Fr. Jimenez at St. Michael’s about six months ago to see how he was doing and could tell he was having a very challenging time meeting his pastoral care obligations, which were overwhelming, while navigating livestream services, and maintaining a budget without a plate offering,” she said. “Over the course of a few conversations, we found that we had a lot in common theologically.”

An in-person visit led to collegial support between the clergy and financial support for St. Michael’s. “We now text or email back and forth to see how we and our congregations are doing,” Voorhees said. “We also decided that we would try to do some cultural crossover worship services once the pandemic has ended. For instance, we will most likely celebrate Good Friday together and have a Fiesta in the summer. We also talked about a pulpit exchange because I can do a Spanish Mass when I have to.

“The St. James leadership and congregation unanimously supported the relationship with St. Michael’s,” and the next step was financial, which has been substantial. “My congregation unanimously agreed to financially support his church at $1,000 per month for 2021,” Voorhees shared.

Prayerful partnership was next. “We also have incorporated the name of his church into our prayers of the people and the eucharistic prayer when appropriate,” Voorhees said. “So, my congregation is consistently reminded that we are in a sister relationship.”

The relationship will not end once restrictions are lifted. “I expect that once the pandemic is more under control, we will have more combined services and other activities,” Jiminez said.

He remains optimistic. “It is going to be a growing experience for both churches. There is a great disparity — socioeconomic, linguistic, and cultural — between the two. In everyday life, the folks from St. Michael’s would be servants, gardeners, pool cleaners, or nannies to the members of St. James. But if we cannot learn to love and care for each other in the name of Christ, we are doomed.”

Voorhees hopes for “a mutually beneficial spiritual relationship and cultural exchange. I also hope this is a long-lasting relationship where we share each other’s successes and burdens as we move toward the common goal of bringing in the kingdom of God.