At St. Paul’s Episcopal and Emmanuel Lutheran Church in Santa Paula, the Episcopalians love Lent. The Lutherans enjoy these weeks of mounting anticipation of the start of the new church year in Advent.
Most of all, they love being together. In the thick of the pandemic, the Rev. Dr. Cynthia Jew, priest and pastor of this twinned Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles and Southwest California Synod ELCA parish, was the first to call and say that her people were begging to be back in church in person.
They take COVID seriously. I met two women this morning who lost their spouses to the disease. The parish lost five in all. Rev. Cynthia and her fellow parish leaders followed all the protocols. But the moment last spring when they could safely worship together, they reclaimed the promised land with a spring in their step and masks on their smiling faces.
I was along today to preach and celebrate at the 10 a.m. service. Cynthia probably introduced me to everyone, usually in terms of their multiple ministries. “Everybody does everything,” she said. A professor at Cal Lutheran University, where she teaches cultural proficiency (a helpful skill in a multicultural church), she serves part-time at the parish. Her leadership style is friendly, encouraging, and collaborative. “I tell them I just work here,” she said. “This is their church.” Attendance has doubled since she came aboard five years ago, and finances are strong thanks to members’ generosity and rental revenue from parish-owned real estate.
Kiera and Jordyn, Cynthia’s daughters with her late partner, Mary, support her ministry, and she theirs. Jordan recently organized an activity for folks living at a nearby convalescent facility. Kiera helps with music and digital communications while preparing for her graduate studies in speech pathology.
Beginning in 2013, the Rev. Michael K. Fincher, now rector of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church, Long Beach, CA, was priest and pastor in charge at Santa Paula when the intricate work began blending parishes, polities, and liturgies. No one says it was easy at first. Sharing, mutuality, and giving up what we love for our neighbor never is.
Every corner of this welcoming, happy church is lovingly cared for, including a library and exhibit space that looks like it was arranged by a professional curator, seeking to tell the story of two becoming one, soul by soul. Pianist Janelle Fanslow grew up Lutheran. My gracious and adept chaplain, Christine Fenn, is a lifelong Episcopalian, born in Glendale. Cynthia was at Bloy House, The Episcopal Theological School at Los Angeles, with Lutheran Bishop Brenda Bos.
These days, I was told over a delicious lunch, the differences are melting away. It feels like one church, honoring two traditions, anticipating the unity of Christ. It’s a good example for us all in these polarizing times. And oh, the things we will do, we pioneers of the reclaimed orthodox Christian faith, united in glorifying the Risen One and lifting up #thedignityofeveryhumanbeing.
Early in our service this morning, Janelle and the choir, with Kiera as soloist, offered up For King and Country’s “Together”:
Together we are dangerous
Together with our differences
Together we are bolder, braver