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Renewing Beauty in Salinas

Restoring and moving into one of the oldest homes in Salinas, California, was more than an adventure in historic architectural preservation for the Diocese of El Camino Real.

Relocating diocesan headquarters this year from upscale Seaside to hardscrabble downtown Salinas is also helping renew a neighborhood’s confidence and connect communities divided by disparities in wealth.

“It felt very Episcopal for us to restore an old home relative to this area and at the same time to be located across the street from two halfway houses for PTSD victims,” said the Rt. Rev. Mary Gray-Reeves, Bishop of El Camino Real. “To not be afraid to be here in this neighborhood was a very important witness for the rest of this community.”

A population of 150,000 makes Salinas a small city, but it grapples with big problems from gang violence to prostitution and poverty. The city sits on an invisible border and rival gangs wage turf wars for control of the methamphetamine trade. Signs of human struggle are never far from the new headquarters as homeless people walk the surrounding streets or lie down for a rest.

In 2014, the diocese invested $1.2 million in a year-long restoration of the 1896 Sargent House, in which John Steinbeck played as a child who grew up nearby. Known locally as “The Grand Old Lady of Salinas,” the 4,000-square-foot Victorian went from a cold, dark space to a bright, handicap-accessible one that now includes upstairs offices, an updated kitchen, a conference room, and a chapel.

This environment draws people from across a vast diocese to visit a neighborhood many would likely not enter otherwise. Such bridge-building marks a continuing challenge for the diocese. Its 45 congregations minister to a wide range of communities across a 200-mile stretch, from high-tech enclaves in Silicon Valley to poor rural farming towns in the Central Valley. Coming together as a diocese requires travel, intentionality, and commitment.

For such purposes, Episcopalians now have a centrally located headquarters, one that allows for new types of partnerships and hospitality. The diocese has opened Sargent House to the Monterey County Historical Society for meetings in the conference room. The chapel has become a place where domestic violence victims can come to pray between meetings at the district attorney’s offices located one block away.

“We do hope we can be a pastoral presence, particularly in the civic life, because we’re right there,” Gray-Reeves said.

The restoration already stands as a testament to the belief that Salinas has a bright future despite its challenges. Older, historic homes in the area often have not tended to be well-maintained or restored, Bishop Gray-Reeves said. Against that backdrop, the Sargent House restoration stands as an exception and a sign of hope.

“It is stimulating the restoration of some other homes,” Gray-Reeves said. “That is a very good thing for Salinas.”


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