A funeral birthed new life for St. Mary’s Church in Lompoc. A yoga class launched an atrophying St. Peter’s Church into a vibrant Santa Maria downtown community center.
Their respective transformations — aka Easter lives — happened when they shifted into “Holy Currencies” mode by deepening community ties, saying yes to new possibilities, and taking risks, according to the Rev. Michael Cunningham, St. Mary’s rector, and the Rev. Canon Deborah Dunn, rector of St. Peter’s, who are married to each other.
“Holy Currencies” is the Rev. Canon Eric H. Law’s creation. He is founder of the Kaleidoscope Institute, a ministry of the Diocese of Los Angeles.
“Holy Currencies is a holistic model for stewardship and congregational vitality, moving beyond the traditional ‘time, talent and treasure’ to create missional and sustainable communities,” according to Law. Currencies of time and place; gracious leadership; relationship; truth and wellness; all recirculate and form a cycle of blessings that empower congregations, both internally and externally.
A funeral ministry, a ‘shepherd’s heart’
Alan Grant, owner of Lompoc’s Starbuck-Lind Mortuary, says the Rev. Michael Cunningham “has a shepherd’s heart” and goes above and beyond pastorally for those who are grieving.
“Unlike most pastors, he accompanies families to the mortuary when they come in to make arrangements and decisions,” Grant told The Episcopal News recently. “He’s there in a very hands-on shepherding capacity that is different from any of the other pastors I’ve seen. You usually have to track pastors down or reach them by fax, but he’s here before the family arrives and is the last one to leave the cemetery.”
The surprising number of funerals — at least 150 or about 15 a year since he arrived in Lompoc on July 1, 2007 — created an opportunity for evangelism, according to Cunningham.
“The first thing that happened when I got here was we had a death,” he recalled. “In August. This guy was a Marine, a World War II veteran. He’d been awarded the Bronze Star, and yet when I met with the honor guard, they said that previously they weren’t allowed to do military honors for veterans at this church.”
That changed immediately. “I said of course you can do it. This is a military town.”
About six years ago, a stalwart pillar of the church, a woman named Sally, died unexpectedly. At the same time St. Mary’s and St. Peter’s, located about 30 miles apart in Santa Barbara county, were co-hosting a “Holy Currencies” workshop.
St. Mary’s funeral ministry was born as a result when Eric Law challenged their respective teams to re-imagine an existing ministry, shifting it from being task-oriented to relationship-oriented.
Volunteers agreed to a range of roles. “We had greeters, who met people at the edge of the parking lot and stayed with them until they reached the church,” Cunningham said. A St. Martha’s guild hosted the reception. Others provided coffee and water in a private area for immediate family members.
“We’re talking there were 400 people at the funeral. And when it was over, they didn’t let go, they kept doing it, and people kept dying. It transformed the church.”
Ashes are placed in a memorial garden and the ministry has taken various forms, including: a yearly Sept. 11 commemoration; honoring first responders; a “stewardship of our lives” forum to contemplate health care and other end of life decisions, even making funeral plans.
Average Sunday attendance is up, and St. Mary’s reputation of offering “the best funeral in town” has grown.
Senior warden Howard Gould, who frequently assists with the funeral ministry, said it’s the hospitality “both inside and outside the church that has made the difference — the desire to try and help anyone and everyone.
“When someone gets sick in our church, Michael doesn’t just minister to the sick person, he ministers to the whole family, even if the family isn’t going to our church.”
Spanish Yoga; Martha’s meals; Lideres Campesinas
A few years ago, St. Peter’s prospects seemed bleak. In a rapidly changing downtown Santa Maria neighborhood, its congregation was aging; younger members had drifted away; the campus stood locked and empty most of the time. The Presbyterian Church across the street already had sold their building and merged with a suburban church.
“The congregation was saying they wanted to build a church somewhere else,” recalled Dunn.
Then a local hospital asked to hold a Spanish language community yoga class in the parish hall on Tuesday and Thursday evenings.
“There’s a wonderful teacher, Esther Guzman,” said Dunn. “The space was pretty awful. I felt really bad about them coming in and using the space the way it was because the carpet in there was seriously nasty.”
Initially, she planned to hand over a key so Guzman could open and lock up, as needed. But Law had challenged them to re-imagine existing ministries, and that became the impetus for change.
“We began to talk about it and think about it differently,” Dunn said. The more members talked, relationships deepened. The ‘they’ who wanted to build a new church elsewhere turned out to be only two people.
“It got a huge laugh when it was reported,” Dunn recalled. “We got to say at the end of it, ‘All of you love this building, you love this church. We’re not going anywhere. We’re rooted in this neighborhood. We’re going to make this place good, not just for us, but so we can share it,’ and then sharing it became easy.”
And then, everything seemed to shift.
“The hosting part could be a passive thing or actively taken on by the people of St. Peter’s,” Dunn said. “Where instead of just giving them a key, we show up, open up, we put out water, we make sure the space is nice for them, and that someone greets the people and sits at the door to make sure they aren’t interrupted.”
Volunteer hosts extended hospitality and brought meals to feed the homeless population that frequently interrupted the class. Yoga class members started attending the church’s Martha’s Market, a Thursday ministry that offered sack lunches for the homeless.
Former senior warden Mary Gears is a hospitality volunteer and loves letting participants know that “we’re there and we care about it. People have questions. I love watching them read our bulletin board and then come and ask me about it. We post announcements in both Spanish and English.
“We just did a fundraiser where we were selling bread braids and one of the women saw it and asked me about it and we had several people participate with us.”
Gears also volunteers with the Martha’s Meals children’s corner but feels her most important role has been to be supportive of Dunn “in involving as many different groups as possible, saying ‘yes, we can do this.’ Let’s provide the space and figure out how we can do it and then try to get other members of the congregation involved. I just believe in the ministry of us being an active part of the community. It really feels like we’re part of the community and obviously most of the people who are coming to get the food are coming from the community.”
“Once we had a bit of success with that, we started saying yes to other things,” Dunn said.
Like Lideres Campesinas, a Wednesday evening group of women who tutor women farm laborers working the fields near Santa Maria. “They’re teaching the women to teach the other women they work with in the field about the dangers of pesticides, male domination, sexual harassment in the field, wage theft — to give them a voice, to be able to stand up.”
One day yoga teacher Guzman handed Dunn an envelope of money, saying the class had begun taking up a weekly collection to start a fund to fix the parish hall floor. A parishioner heard about their collection and wanted to know what a new floor might cost. A local flooring company owner told Dunn he’d had a recent cancellation and would give her a 50 percent discounted price; $15,000.
St. Peter’s received enough donations to pay for the floor and a new kitchen. “That class became the impetus for us to go ahead, to spend the money, to renovate the parish hall and kitchen,” Dunn said.
Members of Lideres Campesinas joined St. Peter’s Friday morning “Mommy and Me’ reading circle for the indigenous people from the Oaxaca, Mexico area.
“So all of the sudden we’re doing all of this stuff with the community in this brand new space,” Dunn said. “Now the floors are hardwood floor as opposed to a ratty blue carpet. The kitchen got used for a 12-week “Pink and Dudes Chefs” program on Friday evenings with Spanish-speaking middle school children, 11- to 13-year-olds learning to cook in our kitchen … and all of it grew out of Spanish Yoga.”
More recently, “they’ve been asking for church, for prayers, and we’re growing into that. That’s coming on the back end of seeing the needs of the community and responding to that.”
Still, there is fear and challenge “as the Anglo congregation gets older and experiences the normal attrition … and people say, oh my God, we’re getting smaller; oh my God, we’re dying — but that’s not true.
“We’ve got about 125 on the rolls, that are in our directory,” she said. “We have 250 who claim to be Episcopalian but who never come. But we’ve got right now 200 people who couldn’t be considered Episcopalians in a formal sense but who see St. Peter’s Church as their lifeline.”
“It used to be …. just the people who came on Sunday mornings and then we started saying yes to people. Then, it was, ‘oh yeah, the people in Spanish Yoga, I know them. The people who come to the market, I know them, I know their children. So it’s like a moving target … and the target is, like, everybody. There is no them and us, there is only us.”
She added, “Eric has helped clarify for us why when all the currencies flow, you just feel better. You don’t get as anxious about one part of it or another. You just let it flow.”