Advocating for the People of the Land and the City

by | Mar 18, 2023

Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.

Jeremiah 29:5-7

There’s a common saying, “Never discuss politics or religion in polite company.” And many a church member has judged a church’s faithfulness based on the presence—or absence—of “politics” in the pastor’s sermons. However, the Presbyterian tradition encourages Christ’s disciples to practice their faith not only within the walls of the church sanctuary, or within the confines of personal piety, but also in every part of our life, including our work, our family, our stewardship of resources, and our efforts to build a community that shows God’s compassion to all. The popular guidance from Jeremiah 29 was directed by God, through Jeremiah (in rather patriarchal terms), to God’s people who were exiled in Babylon. So the Judeans were to care for the homes and gardens, the families, this foreign city of their exile. I believe that we Christians are citizens of God’s realm, exiled in this broken world, but as followers of Christ, we are called to carry God’s grace into this world—not just to those we love, or only to the needy person in front of us, but into systems that oppress God’s children.

As such, Presbyterians have always been “worldly” Christians. We do not isolate ourselves from the world, but we engage in public education, in health care, in business, and in the legal system, in hopes that they may operate with integrity and consistent with God’s justice and mercy. I don’t quote this often, but our presbytery has a mission statement from before my time:

To expand the Kingdom of God in the San Gabriel Valley by building a relational Body of Christ that ministers to our congregations, each other, and the world.

  1. To strengthen, support and equip our congregations in their work of ministry;
  2. To take time for each other by worshiping, praying, celebrating, supporting and depending upon one another;
  3. To work for the transformation of the valley by sharing our faith in Jesus Christ, becoming a mosaic of Godly diversity in a deeply divided society, and by demonstrating our faith by engagement in public life.

This last week we were approached to give letters of support for two state bills that would further two of the main topics we covered in last month’s WinterFest. I have tended to shy away from other requests, but these two issues are very central to current priorities in our presbytery, and so with the support of the Presbytery Executive Commission, we submitted letters of support for these two initiatives.

The first is Senate Bill 4, the Affordable Housing on Faith Lands Act. SB 4 provides a streamlined process for religious organizations and nonprofit colleges to develop affordable housing on their property, regardless of local zoning restrictions. We as a presbytery have been pretty creative in the ways we have used the property entrusted to us for the sake of mission, first of course for our congregations, but also for the community. Our churches are places of worship and welcome, of food and education, of mutual support as people seek freedom from addiction, of family support and shelter, of the enjoyment of gardens and music. Some of our church properties are larger than the congregation needs, and we know that it can benefit the community as well as the host congregation to develop the unused land for much-needed housing. Some of our churches have already explored this possibility, but in some cases the zoning restrictions prohibited any success. This bill would remove the roadblock.

The other bill is Assembly Bill 667, for 210 Interstate Freeway Renaming. This bill would rename the 210 freeway as the Southern California Native American Freeway, and would place signage along the 210 to recognize tribal lands. We learned of this bill from Mona Morales Recalde, an elder of La Verne Heights Presbyterian Church who did such an outstanding job presenting to us on the first night of WinterFest. Mona is Gabrieleño/Tongva and an elected commissioner with the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission. She has been working with Assemblyman Chris Holden to sponsor the bill. The bill would help remind SoCal drivers that there have been people living along these foothills for 12,000 years. They may not know that according to the US Census, Los Angeles County is home to the largest concentration of persons of any part American Indian descent in the US, and the second largest population in the US claiming to be fully American Indian and Alaska Native.

It’s interesting to me that some of the most visible homages to our native neighbors have been installed by the Department of Transportation, in a subtle, artistic way. (Other than place names—Mona pointed out that town names that end in “-nga” like Topanga and Rancho Cucamonga have Tongva origins.) At the Baldwin Park Metrolink station, an installation by artist Judy Baca includes a prayer mound dedicated to Toypurina, who helped lead a revolt against the San Gabriel Mission that forcibly “baptized” and enslaved her people.

And for those driving on the 210 through Arcadia, you might have noticed the Gold Line overpass with two huge concrete baskets. This sculpture, designed by Andrew Leicester, honors the art of basket weaving of the native people. It is
California’s first artist-designed transit bridge and its largest, single art/transit infrastructure project.

I am aware and respectful of the differences people have when considering some political issues. For this reason, I will be asking the Presbytery Executive Commission to discuss how we consider requests for public support on behalf of the presbytery. But I trust that these two efforts fall squarely within our efforts to utilize our church properties to maximum benefit of our church members and their neighbors, and to honor the people who have been living in this land for thousands of years, in spite of the threat of illness and violence that came close to erasing the Gabrieleño/Tongva people forever.

Let us keep our eyes on the cross of Jesus Christ, and give thanks that he gave his life to save us. And let us remember that the best way to show our thanks is to give our lives for Christ’s cause of life-giving love for all the world. Let us keep our eyes and hearts open, for local efforts and global mission.

In Christ,