One hears the same thing over and over about St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, Long Beach, CA. Once people visit, they tend to stay. They’re right. Just today, I visited, and I had trouble tearing myself away.
After a beautifully designed Fourth Sunday of Advent liturgy, with 90 present in person, including a full choir (under the direction of David J. Feit-Pretzer), and the usual 25-30 watching on Facebook from all over the country, we decamped to the parish hall for a delicious lunch. We talked about the royals, people’s Christmas and wedding plans and their lives in the church, and the parish’s revitalized Episcopal Church Women, Diocese of Los Angeles, chapter. I got a tour of the beautiful gift boutique. Holly Graham, the Altar Guild director and a neonatal, obstetrics, and pediatric nurse at Hoag Hospital, was my expert chaplain.
Before I knew it, it was nearly two. That’s what happens when you’re having a great time. The gracious, friendly rector as of six years ago on All Saints Day, the Rev. Michael K. Fincher, a devoted ecumenicist, presides genially. His people love him and he, them. The wardens, Tamera Benedict and Dana Lindsay, are a delight. But it’s more than great leadership, though leadership is often discounted too much as a signifier of a parish’s success. There is something in the water at St. Gregory’s — intrinsically or intentionally, a DNA-deep cheerfulness and friendliness.
Speaking of the water, Fr. Michael and I took turns baptizing Hans and Mauricio’s twin baby daughters, Eloise and Marisa, named after their grandmothers. Hans’ mom, Elizabeth, was present; Mauricio’s is in his native Brazil (but no doubt watching on Facebook, since we live in an age of miracles). The Rev. Canon John Crean married this neat couple. The twins’ three-year-old brother, Lucas (locally famous for asking a priest at Holy Eucharist if he’d gotten his cookie, too), presided over the whole operation. Though Hans is a major fan, we tried not to be too distracted by World Cup notifications.
St. Gregory’s does world-class outreach — a food bank, meals served at the St. Luke’s Long Beach Saturday shower program, gift cards for clients of the LA county mental health department. The parish is also collaborating with neighboring St. Thomas’, sharing liturgies and fellowship. When missions and parishes are close to one another in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, it makes sense to promote sustainability by sharing. I’m grateful for the innovative thinking of Fr. Michael and his St. Thomas’ counterpart, the Rev. Sharon Sheffield. And I’ll be looking for excuses to go back and check on their progress. Because in these times of pessimism about the future of the church, it’s a joy to visit a parish that’s doing just about everything right and brims with life and hope as a result.