An ongoing discussion in response to Anna B Olson’s book “Claiming Resurrection in the dying church.”
The Church is dying….
So begins Anna Olson’s latest book “Claiming Resurrection in the Dying Church.” Of course she says it in nicer words as she begins her book with, “This is a love letter to a dying Church…an invitation to take stock where we are and turn toward the center of the Christian story.”
St. Mark’s is dying. The parish that I have been called to and have served for 5 years now. There it is…I have said it. It is like an alcoholic admitting for the first time that they have an addiction. A note to parishioners who might be reading this…(Bear with me before you judge these comments too harshly or make that phone call to the other parishioner.)
Yes St. Mark’s is dying. It was dying before I came as so many of the faithful and strong old timers who kept the church running during it’s golden years the 60’s and 70’s as one by one they started aging, becoming home bound and finally died, many of whom were cared for with great love and generosity by my assistant priest Rev J who has been here attending to the women, children, Sunday school and shut ins for nearly 20 years. In the last year alone nearly a half dozen of our faithful older parishioners have died. As a matter of fact in five years, we have lost nearly 20% of our parish by illness, death, people moving away, or just getting out from under the appearance of an institution in its decline to go to sexier, richer, more successful and socially appealing parishes in the metropolis.
This does not include the death of significant members in the last years who have died by such tragedies as overdoses, cancer, suicide, and an entire family mom,dad and daughter in a tragic car accident.
In the 1960’s. St. Marks had nearly 2500 persons on its rolls.
The church had a seated capacity for 650 persons at a time to attend services and Sunday services were full to the brim. Average St Mark’s Episcopal Sunday attendance now is around 150 people divided into two English Services and one Spanish Service which for a year now has had the highest average attendance. (The other two Services for Ugandans and Koreans which are non denominational community churches is less than 50 at each service.).
Our neighborhood is also dying. We were at one time the model Suburb for all of the United States. This is the place where Marylyn Monroe grew up and went to High School along with other well known movie stars such as Robert Redford, Paula Abdul, Natalie Wood, Sally Field, Joseph Gordon Levitt, and Jane Russel. This of course was in another time when Van Nuys was mostly white, middle class, families who decided to stay after the war and had received GI loans to build modest houses. That famous movie ‘American Graffitti’ was about life in Van Nuys in its hayday. Even today, once a month Hot Rod cars stroll up and down the boulevard now driven mostly by latinos and even a few gang members to show off their fancy wares. The local police control the Drag Racing to a minimum.
The Van Nuys of today is another City completely. As you drive up the main boulevard named after the Founder of the City, a rich banker and sheep rancher, the names of the stores are no longer in english and many in Spanish. The restaurants are Mexican, Peruvian, Cuban, Guatemalan, and Salvadorian.
The faces are Asian, Black, Latino. The streets lined with a combination of Marijuana Pharmacies, Banquet Halls for XV and other Latino Fiestas, Swap Meets, Storefront Evangelical and Pentecostal Spanish Churches, and thrift shops, 99 cent stores, Discount stores and of course the variety of shoe stores that so many poor people buy their expensive tennis shoes of the latest fashion because they cannot afford the nice car, or the big house to show off their value and worth. The neighborhood is riddled with homeless shopping carts and pop up tents both day and night. Of course plenty of places to exchange cans and bottles for small change and daily survival. Much garbage is left behind by the homeless who set up their household and must pick up and move the next morning before the police come to shoo them away. A recent article in the Los Angeles Daily News said that over half of the homeless in Van Nuys are poor whites that have fallen through the cracks of our economic system in the US. And of course mental illness abounds. (See tourism video below)
Dying neighborhoods and dying churches make up what once was a bustling Suburb and Metropolis. We are only part of an ongoing social phenomenon that is much bigger than what we do inside our parishes. The new hope for St Marks has been the “new immigrants”. When the white, middle class parishioners started to move to better neighborhoods the new immigrants arrived. St Marks was lucky to be the recipient of many of those new immigrants, Koreans, Ugandans, Filipinos, and Latinos, make up nearly all of the faces of those who appear or attend one of the 5 different services that are held in any of these languages that represent these new immigrants. But new is not so new. Most of these immigrants have lived in the United States for 15-25 years now. Their children speak English and probably some of their mother tongue. Their children are now beginning to go to college and university if they can afford it or some vocational school. Others already are getting minimum wage in the service industry. Many of the same have not lived in the same house for more than five years since they must constantly move to cheaper places to rent or closer to their work place when jobs change which is frequent to say the least. Some are undocumented which leaves them vulnerable to the local authorities which also give them ample reason to move often. Moving targets are harder to hit.
What was at one time a parish of young immigrant families is now quickly becoming a parish of aging families, or poor younger families that must constantly send money to their home country to support those who were left behind in dire straits. It means that Stewardship Campaigns and Fundraisers that work so well in so many white middle class parishes is a fading dream for parishes like ourselves. People give what they can and many times very generously of their time and talent since money is scarce or needs to be shared among many and in a city that has one of the highest rents per capita in the USA along with other expenses like gas, food, and utilities. The parish alone pays $4,000-5,000 in Electric Bills bi-monthly alone for heating and air conditioning in the unreliable desert climate of the San Fernando Valley.
As Anna writes in her introduction, We are one of those historic churches that are dying. “Historic churches have some history in their neighborhoods and communities. They have served at least one full generation and are now living beyond that generation that they were planted to serve. While in most cases they were founded to meet the needs of a culture particular and relatively homogenous group, they now find themselves physically rooted in places that have changed beyond what that first generation could readily imagine.”
St Marks is just another community among many that are going through this modern day phenomenon. As Anna writes, “The churches I have served are canaries in the mineshaft of church decline: smaller, urban congregations in tough, fast changing, impoverished, diverse neighborhoods. Our churches feel the impacts of the shifts in culture more immediately, more harshly. As is the case for the people we serve, there is not much to cushion our fall- not much commonality with and among neighbors, not much money, not many resources designed for our contexts. We live from crisis to crisis, and in the midst of madness, we are told that our problems would be solved if only we formed more small groups, put up better signs, and websites, spent more on technology, and spiffed up our music.”
Anna Writes…”looking at death in the face has made me a better pastor.” I wish that I were so fortunate to echo her response. Looking at death in the face, has brought me to a deep depression that I have not experienced in my nearly 25 years as a parish priest and Dean of a Seminary in Mexico City. Every priest wants to be a success in his or her congregation. Failure is just not in our language nor in our theology. Unless we go deeper. As Anna tries to do in her book. She has found some liberation in the dying process. I have not got to that place yet, which is why I have decided to write this ongoing commentary about her book which is helping me to find the language I need to talk about what I have experienced over the last five years. She has finally given me permission to say it out loud.
The last years of my ministry have been the most challenging that I have ever met in my prime years as a priest. In part it has been what has lead me to Monasticism as a small part or solution to the dying church. Monastic practices, and principles are what have kept the church alive for nearly 1700 years since the church became “legal and recognized”. Smaller communities of prayer and contemplation, that focus on prayer, community and service as their core reason for being instead of becoming a social club of people similar to ourselves, has revitalized my own work as a parish priest and has forced me to re-evaluate every aspect of my ongoing ministry in the church.
Perhaps more about that latter.
So, I begin by saying, this is my world, and the world that many of us live in today. The church is dying, we must start there.
It is not the end of the story, as it was not the end of the Story of Jesus after his death. It is the beginning though of trying to find
A path to resurrection…