St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Tustin, CA celebrated 60 years of worship with a gala celebration on Sunday — nearly 200 in church, 12 confirmations or receptions, and four baptisms, plus the magnificent music that is among this parish’s hallmarks. The St. Paul’s chancel choir, supplemented by strings and brass, offered among other splendid things a new anthem composed by associate pastor, music director, and youth minister the Rev. David Milligan.
Capped by a delicious lunch, where gorgeous flower arrangements went home in exchange for a $10 donation, it was an epic festival day, marking the anniversary of 60 years since the first worship service on Jan. 29, 1964 in the church’s Wass St. quarters. That same week, “I Want To Hold Your Hand” hit number one, and the several states ratified the 24h Amendment, putting an end to the racist Jim Crow poll tax.
Overseeing it all, cheerfully and expertly, was the Very Rev. Kay Sylvester, who became the St. Paul’s rector 12 years ago after serving as associate rector since 2005. She’s been the parish’s friend since an internship year in the late nineties. Beaming from the transept seats was her longtime friend and colleague and a former rector, the Rev. Reese M Riley, who served two decades and steadied the parish after some rocky years that preceded him.
Another former St. Paul’s intern, I was along to preside and preach. I had trouble not smiling the whole time — at the glorious music, Kay’s beautifully crafted baptismal liturgy, and all the good news in the gospel and at St. Paul’s, including more children in Sunday school than anytime since 2011. Kay also announced before worship began that the loan that had capped a recent capital campaign, to build beautiful new parish offices, was paid off a year early.
All in all, it felt like church the way it used to be. Except it is still going on in Tustin. The Episcopal Church has a lot to learn from churches like St. Paul’s about the leadership factor. A healthy, growing parish is the vocation of many hands and hearts, lay and ordained, but in our structure, the rector, vicar, or priest in charge still usually plays a vital role.
Now serving as dean of all the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles missions and parishes in north Orange County, Kay is a brilliant liturgist, preacher, and institution builder. She’s also a curious, friendly pastor who welcomes everyone and encourages them to stay by building up networks of friendship and connection, beginning on Sunday one. After the service, I told Kay and her welcome minister, Connie Ash, that I’d met a couple in the receiving line who were visiting for the first time. Silly me — I thought this would be news. Notwithstanding everything else going on, Kay and Connie had already met them and memorized their names.
A mentor told me that thriving churches devote half their energy to themselves and half to their neighbors. St. Paul’s reckons outreach as a pillar of its ministry, especially Sunday Supper, in its 14th year offering a sit-down meal to over 100 food insecure neighbors, and the also-weekly shower ministry. While the anniversary celebration continued on the church plaza, another longtime friend of St. Paul’s, our archdeacon, the Ven. Laura Eustis Siriani, introduced me to a half-dozen clients, all housing insecure, who’d come for showers, clean clothes, and St. Paul’s fellowship. My ice breaker was NFL football, about which I am knowledge insecure, enabling the clients, especially a certain displaced Steelers fan, to shower me with insight about the day’s playoff games.
Serving graciously as my chaplain was the Rev. Sun-Hwan Spriggs, a deacon who recently moved to California from New Jersey with her spouse, Dale. The Rev. Valerie Hart is assisting priest. One of our subdeacons was Michael A. Penn, son of peace and justice activist Mike Penn, who died three years ago. It was a blessing to get caught up with Michael’s mother, Carol, another giant of justice, who misses Mike while taking care of others she loves.
Archdeacon Laura also introduced me to her friends from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Orange, co-stewards of three great Orange County hospitals, including St. Joseph’s, where I did my Clinical Pastoral Education program. CPE teaches and tempers self-understanding in the crucible of hospital chaplaincy. I did many of my hours at an Orange convalescent hospital under the mentorship of Sister Hildegard, who, I was delighted to learn, is going strong and celebrating her birthday today.
Our scripture readings concerned the first-century church’s ministry to the Gentles, which is to say to say everyone the world who wasn’t Jewish. In relatively primitive times, it was a radical idea that can only have come from God — everyone, everywhere bathed in Jesus Christ’s comforting, redemptive love and invited to reciprocate by pouring themselves out for one another. Though this parish’s namesake is sometimes described as an enemy of the law, what really irked Paul were laws or rules designed to make it harder for someone to step into the universal circle of love.
In these secularizing times, when we bear witness to Christ risen to save the world, everyone included, across all barriers of race and nation, identification and orientation, we encounter misunderstanding and criticism, just as the first apostles did. From those who hear we’re Christians and lay at our feet the sins of siblings who have used the law to exclude and hurt people. From those who find it hard to hear the good news because it means they have to give up privilege, share with their neighbor, or put others ahead of themselves.
But as Jesus told his friends to do, we bear witness to the Gentiles of our time — everyone who hasn’t yet come to understand that what Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry calls self-sacrifice love is the only thing that works. As it begins its 61st year bearing witness on Wass St., let us give thanks to St. Paul’s for making glorifying God and caring for God’s people looks like so much fun.