As at most of our missions and parishes in the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, those who attend St. Francis of Assisi Episcopal Church in Simi Valley don’t agree on everything — but they do agree on going deep in spiritual practice and doing service in Christ’s name.
Featured in a recent Los Angeles Times article, the exquisite St. Francis labyrinth is a love magnet for the whole neighborhood, as is its celebrated biblical garden. On the lower campus, the Samaritan Center of Simi Valley, which just celebrated its 30th anniversary, is the city’s most important nonprofit hub for those in need — the food insecure who come by the hundreds each week for meals and groceries as well as 40 young families who come weekly for diapers, formula, and toys at the Baby Closet, which St. Francis member Terri Harrington founded in 2017.
I was along Sunday to preach and celebrate Holy Eucharist. Before services, center executive director Annika Sumby gave me a guided tour and shared her vision for providing interim supportive housing for some of the the city’s unhoused, a cohort of at least 150 who live out of sight, in remote parts of town.
When worship got underway at 10:15 a.m., the Holy Spirit was definitely in the house. The music, nicely blending the traditional contemporary, was wonderful. “I Am The Bread Of Life” as the post-communion hymn closed the deal, as it always does. I suppose you could say St. Francis has a charismatic feel. I guess I must, too, because when I hear hymns like that one, at certain holy moments in church, I can’t help raising my hands. I also do it in the car when “Thunder Road” comes on.
Presiding over the whole beautiful enterprise with open arms and a smile that never quits is the Rev. Sarah Kitch, a longtime member formed locally as a deacon and priest and then called as the St. Francis vicar. For her charisma and stage presence, you might be tempted to credit her 33 years touring the world with the famed Covenant Players. It’s also her love of the risen Christ and her power in Spirit, which she shares with her spouse and fellow former touring Christian thespian David Kitch, a thoughtful leader for the church with whom I’ve had the honor to serve on the board of Bloy House, The Episcopal Theological School at Los Angeles. On Sunday he was kind enough to serve as my chaplain.
These two globetrotters still cover a lot of ground. While preaching twice a month at St. Francis, David’s the chaplain at the The Gooden School in Sierra Madre, while Sarah plays the same role at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Day School in Thousand Oaks, which has just decided to launch a middle school. Their diverse and complementary gifts, and willingness to serve three places at once, enable St. Francis to enjoy a depth and breadth of leadership (ably supported by wardens Amy Brown and Dan McCarty) at what a coarse secular observer would call an affordable rate.
As vicar, Sarah is energetic and empathetic, evincing joy in all she does. At a delicious potluck lunch after church, she was busy checking in with folks, making connections, and enabling me to get to know as many members as possible. It was a special pleasure to meet Megan Anderson, who with her late husband, Ken, played a leadership role in building the beautiful church building in the nineties. The congregation first met around 1950 at the Simi Valley Moose Lodge before moving to the current campus, where it first used the space the Samaritan Center now occupies.
According to several of the usual metrics, Rev. Sarah’s is one of the most diverse congregations I’ve visited recently. We try not to be too hierarchical these days. Yet the values of welcome and belonging across difference usually begin with curiosity and openheartedness being modeling at the top. As a number of folks who’ve joined in the last two years told me, when you come to St. Francis, you just want to come back. Read more about the church here — and the Samaritan Center here.