Advocating for the People of the Land and the City

Advocating for the People of the Land and the City

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, 


News from the Family

News from the Family

I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. Genesis 22:17

Lent is a season when we are reminded of our mortality. Many of us started the season at an Ash Wednesday service where someone put ashes on our forehead and said something foreboding like “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” (though some happy Christians can’t help but add something like “God can make amazing things out of dust!”).

So perhaps it was fitting that this last week we heard of a few colleagues and friends—members of that large clan God promised to Abraham and Sarah—who have left this mortal plane and gone home to God. One person was Rev. Dr. Burton Mack, long-time and beloved professor at Claremont School of Theology. I regret that we were not aware of his passing until his wife contacted us a year after his death, which was March 9, 2022. His obituary can be found at mack/. He was a New Testament scholar whose several published works reflect a forward-thinking and insightful mind all the way to the end.

More recently we heard of the passing of Rev. Dr. Cyris Heesuk Moon, on March 5, 2023. I knew Cyris when I first came back to California, as he was a strong and active leader at SFTS. Cyris was a pioneer among the Korean church in the PC(USA), and was also a published scholar, sharing the Koreans’ faith story and God’s concern for the minjung with the wider church.

Then we heard that our Presbytery attorney Kay Gustafson died on Saturday, March 11, 2023. Kay was very private, so did not let on about the seriousness of her health condition until just last month, but she had been battling colon cancer for almost a year. Kay was an ever-present and committed legal counsel for the Synod of Southern California and Hawai‘i and most of the presbyteries here. She was uniquely gifted for her dedication and diligence, and her love and knowledge of both civil law and Presbyterian polity. I would freely give her contact information to any of our churches who had a legal question, because as a faithful ruling elder, she would give her advice to any church that asked without charge, and even when she did charge for her services, she did so at a discounted rate. Kay was so dependable that I started to worry only after she had to cancel her regular session at our recent WinterFest. Though I didn’t dare ask her, I liked to think Kay and I had a lot in common, and we did quite a bit of work together on any manner of issues on behalf of Christ’s church. Our love and prayers go to Kay’s children and her husband, Rev. Curtis Webster, who is pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Ontario. You may know Curtis, who has been an interim specialist and, as interim pastor of Michillinda Presbyterian here in Pasadena, helped to bring about the merger that resulted in New Hope Church.

Yesterday, we had a baby dedication at Interwoven. (For those who are wondering—there might be a couple of you—I was consulted about this. While today, we Presbyterians would not encourage baby dedications in order to dissuade a family from baptizing their child, I am not aware of forcing a baptism on a family who are not prepared to present their child for the sacrament.) As I watched the joy of the gathered family—family of blood, choice, and faith—I couldn’t help but feel the bittersweet tone of the moment, because the baby’s aunt (the sister of the baby’s mother) died suddenly last year. As we celebrated this new life coming into our very large clan of Christians, I had this glimpse of what God sees in the descendants of Sarah and Abraham: young and old, living on earth and in heaven, a beautiful collection of beloved people of every kind of circumstance, gathered forever by the loving spirit of God. Mortal as we are, in Christ we are forever—forever alive, forever in love, forever one. Thanks be to God.



The Laughter of Grace

The Laughter of Grace

In your book were written
all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed. Psalm 139:16b

We are in the middle of the Lenten season. As I have mentioned, there are many different ways to understand and practice Lent, but personally, I tend to use Lent as a season of reflection on who God is, and how are we to respond. Perhaps this is the greatest proof of my Presbyterian theological roots, as John Calvin began his Institutes of the Christian Religion with the following premise:

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists in two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

Psalm 139 (or at least most of it) is a favorite reflection on who we are as creatures of a loving God, known by our Creator beyond any of our attempts to escape or hide the truth of our lives. But I was reminded yesterday that there are opportunities to witness the great tapestry of our lives, and the great love of God in weaving together the strands of that tapestry.

Tiffany Ashworth was ordained a minister of the Word and Sacrament yesterday, in a lovely worship service hosted by Knox Presbyterian Church in Pasadena. Before she gave the benediction, Tiffany shared eloquently how she sees God’s love throughout her life embodied in the people witnessing her ordination, people who have known her at different times of her life, representing a variety of backgrounds and faith traditions. (She said it beautifully, but I didn’t record it so I apologize now for my clumsy paraphrase.) I pray that each of us gets to see the panorama of God’s love in our lives.

Our Lenten reflections tend to focus on our broken, sinful, mortal nature (as, of course, Calvin did). But the full story of Christ’s sacrifice tells us that depraved as we are, God yet loves us so much as to die for our sake. After all, we are the very product of God’s intricate creative craft. As the Psalmist sings,

For it was you who formed my inward parts;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works;
that I know very well.                                                  Psalm 139:13-14

Indeed, in spite of our failings and the tragedy that surrounds us in this old world, we are reminded that there is no sin, no brokenness, that is greater than the power of God’s grace to save us. This, I believe, is another clumsy paraphrase, this time of Karl Barth. A quote that is often ascribed to Barth is “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” Which reminds me of the author John Updike, grandson of a Presbyterian minister, who described his happy childhood of faith: “My parents were inclined to laugh a lot and to examine everything for the fingerprints of God.”

While we would surely deceive ourselves if we say we have no sin (1 John 1:8), we discount the glory of God’s grace if we surrender to despair. We also miss the point of our lives if we simply revel in the saving grace of God and fail to share God’s love with others. Let me share one more quote, from Irenaeus of Lyons: “The glory of God is a living person, and the life of each living person is the vision of God.”

As we look honestly at our need for redemption, may we do so with the confidence in a saving God. And may we heed God’s call to join in the band of the redeemed to share the good news with others.





Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened.”

Matthew 13:33

Many people have asked me about my trip to Israel and Palestine, and even asked that I speak about it. I’m glad to hear of their interest, as this is very important to us as Christians but we have not paid much attention to it as a presbytery. However, I am still processing the experience, and I doubt I will ever be resolved enough to be able to give a succinct report of what I saw. Instead, at least for now, the experience will shape my perspective on life, and how we as God’s children are to act in the world. As we try to find ways to respond to the tragedy in Turkey and Syria, we yet look for glimpses of hope.

There are a few things that are quite clear to me (at least for now!). People refer to my trip in different ways, and this reflects the many ways we perceive this birthplace of Abrahamic faith traditions. Also, what we see and understand is greatly impacted by the persons we entrust to help interpret the land, and our own background that give us lenses that focus and filter our perceptions. (Now that I think of it, isn’t all that true of our faith formation?)

So, for instance, though I was instructed to tell the Israeli immigration officials that I was a “pilgrim,” and folks have asked me about my pilgrimage, it didn’t feel like a pilgrimage to me. While I and many others have referred to this land of Jesus as the “Holy Land,” I am uncomfortable to confess that I didn’t sense the place to be all that holy. Being the child of a politically active family did lead me to see things through a political lens, yet I continue to struggle with the stance that our denomination has taken, though I am deeply troubled by the political situation there, which is worsening from day to day. Having been raised with a very deep appreciation for the Jewish tradition and the Jewish people’s response to so many tragedies and persecutions over the centuries, I could not simply condemn what is happening in Israel as “apartheid,” though the only tears I shed came out of disappointment for a people I have always considered as moral exemplars of justice and compassion.

My response to the controversy over what to do and say about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians has always been two-fold. First, we Christians have no right to judge other people’s use of their faith as justification for persecution, especially if we dare to judge Jews, who have been victimized the most by those who claim to follow Christ. Second, anti-Semitism is always present, from microagressions and unspoken biases to bloody massacres all over the United States and the world, and I can’t see providing any fuel to allow that evil to grow. I have been told that once I got there and saw what was happening, my mind would be changed. This did not exactly happen. As troubled as I was by the worst aggressions against the Palestinians, I still remember (and was reminded at our WinterFest opening session) that people who claim to be Christians have been responsible for multiple genocides all around the world. And as focused as the Presbyterian Church has been on Israel and Palestine, I saw almost no presence on the ground; the Christian churches who were seen as peacemakers were Lutheran and Mennonite.

So how are we to respond? How can we contribute to peace in this troubled crush of religious passion and vengeance?

I now realize that this was my most basic goal of the trip. I have felt that the people of this land, those who were singled out for favor and calling by God, represent the first and last chance for God’s realm of peace to be realized. If we who all look back to Abraham as called by God to be our spiritual father cannot heed God’s pleas for justice, peace, and reconciliation, how can we ever expect to see shalom? What approach will further the cause for God’s peace, and how can our faith in Jesus Christ guide us?
Throughout my course, I questioned our leaders about how to work for peace in this land. They were:

  • Huda Abuarquob, a Palestinian Muslim peace activist and Regional Director for the Alliance for Middle East Peace (, an umbrella NGO with mostly Jewish leadership,
  • Marcie Lenk, a Jewish woman from New Jersey who moved to Israel as a young adult but came back to the US to earn a PhD in early Christianity at Harvard, and
  • Stephanie Saldaña, a Christian writer and journalist fellow with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture. She has lived for twenty years in Syria and Palestine and has studied with a shaykhah (the feminine form of sheikh, which among other things is used to describe a Muslim religious teacher).

All three women are devout in their faiths, have studied at Harvard, and two of them, Huda and Stephanie, have been Fulbright Scholars. They have different opinions and approaches to the troubles of the land in which they live, but what they have in common is a commitment to reconciliation through dialogue and mutual respect. While their efforts may not be incendiary or spectacular, they liken themselves to leaven, being that little speck of yeast that raises the whole loaf, even if some purists would try to rid themselves of it.

One organization they agree to support is called the Bereaved Families Forum or The Parents Circle Families Forum ( This is a group of parents who have lost loved ones to violence, and simply tell their stories. They have gone into schools in Israel and Palestine, and organize an annual service of remembrance on Israeli Memorial Day; thanks to COVID they have moved this event to Facebook and Zoom, so the 2022 service was viewed by 200,000 people around the world. (You can still view the service by clicking here; towards the end Huda speaks, as well as a most powerful message by Israeli activist Yuli Novak.) By simply telling their stories, they have changed hearts, faced threats of violence, and provided safe space for dialogue and peacemaking.

As I write this, I realize that I may be attracted to this approach because it is similar to the approach some of us have tried to take towards racial reconciliation here in the United States. While the dominant approach in the PC(USA) towards anti-racism is mandatory training, some of us who have been doing anti-racism training for decades prefer an approach that is less quantifiable but possibly longer-lasting: that is, sharing our stories so that we can see God’s child in each other. Like the yeast in the widow’s bread, like a dozen scraggly disciples of Jesus, like the tiny oft-occupied land of Israel, God often chooses the small, faithful efforts to further God’s plan of salvation for the world. As in this quote attributed to anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Let us live as thoughtful, committed citizens of the kingdom of heaven, in whatever circumstance that confronts us.



Living Stones

Living Stones

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

1 Peter 2:4-5

I am so happy to be back home, and WinterFest and our first Presbytery meeting of the year offered a nice way to re-enter from my sabbatical. Thank you for your prayers for my rest and renewal. I am still adjusting to the time change from Israel-Palestine (they are 10 hours ahead), but it was such an incredible blessing to be able to participate in this study program at the Tantur Ecumenical Institute between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. I am grateful to God and to you for enabling me to do this.

I am still processing my experience, which impacted me on many levels. And there is much to share from WinterFest and Presbytery, so I will hold off on sharing too much right now. But I will say that amidst all the ancient and holy shrines and basilicas in and around Jerusalem, I was much more moved by the efforts of God’s living stones, people of faith who continue to work for peace and compassion amidst very difficult and complex conflicts.

Of course, we have our own crises here in the USA, especially the multiple mass shootings from a couple of weeks ago, starting with the tragedy in Monterey Park. I was able to touch base with Rev. Ming Hsu, pastor of our Good Shepherd Taiwanese Presbyterian Church in Monterey Park, and he said that the people are doing well and their faith remains strong. I urge you to pray for God’s guidance as we face an almost insurmountable problem with the number of guns in this country.

The first evening of WinterFest was led by two outstanding speakers, Elder Mona Morales Recalde, tribal member of and community educator for the San Gabriel Band of Mission Indians Gabrieleno/ Tongva and elected Commissioner with the Los Angeles City/County Native American Indian Commission (and clerk of session of La Verne Heights Presbyterian Church!), and Dr. Elaine Enns, co- author of Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler Discipleship of Decolonization with partner Dr. Ched Myers. This session was the most impactful event I’ve experienced in the PC(USA) in my memory, especially as Mona shared her faith and expertise in confronting the near genocide of her people with her faith-based hope for the future. Elaine’s work with Ched at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries is well-known, and she shared a model for examining our own migration stories to uncover the intergenerational traumas that are impacting us and those we encounter. She highlighted the different ways by which we became settlers in lands that have already been stewarded over the millennia by Indigenous peoples—those who, as Mona emphasized, are still here! The book Healing Haunted Histories has been transformative for me, and Elaine was generous to share a way to purchase copies at a discounted price. If you are interested, go to the Wipf and Stock website and when checking out, type in HHHFEB23 in the “Coupon Code” field. Mona lifted up the recent return of an acre of land in Altadena to the Gabrieleno/Tongva tribe, and suggested some volunteer options that we will most likely take on in future months. More on that later.

Thursday’s sessions were led by Rev. Dr. Daniel Lee, reflecting his work as Academic Dean for the Center for Asian American Theology and Ministry at Fuller Seminary and author of the recently- published book Doing Asian American Theology: A Contextual Framework for Faith and Practice, and I led a training for new elders and deacons. Both sessions included opportunities for sharing from their participants

On Friday evening, Kay Gustafson was unable to lead her annual workshop on legal issues for churches, but if you want to receive a copy of her presentation, please contact Ally Lee at and she will send it to you, and pass on questions you may have to Kay for response. But we had two other sessions on Friday, one co-led by our Stated Clerks Ally Lee and Steve Salyards, on the amendments to the PC(USA) Constitution that came out of last summer’s General Assembly, and a leadership training session in Spanish led by Revs. Amy Mendez and Margarita Reyes.

Our Presbytery meeting on Saturday morning was the first fully in-person meeting in three years, and we thank Westminster Presbyterian Church in Pasadena for being gracious hosts. The main highlights from this meeting were the approval of 17 of the 33 amendments being proposed by the General Assembly, an update on Board of Pensions benefits and assistance programs from Senior Church Consultant Rev. Kristin Leucht (, the commissioning of Sam Bang as Co-Pastor for Congregational Life at Northminster Presbyterian Church, and the approval of the call and ordination of Tiffany Ashworth. Tiffany has just begun her ministry with Occidental Presbyterian Church in Eagle Rock, and she will be ordained on Sunday, March 5, 2023, at 4:00 pm at Tiffany’s home church, Knox Presbyterian. Let’s show our support for Tiffany and celebrate new ministries in our midst by attending her ordination service.

WinterFest ended on Saturday with a plenary session on “Reimagining Church Building Use,” with a panel of friends and experts on church property transformation: Rev. Carlton Rhoden (Westminster Presbyterian, Los Angeles), Rev. Victor Cyrus-Franklin (First Methodist, Inglewood), Phil Burns (elder at Pasadena Presbyterian but here speaking as Principal of the Arroyo Group and lead for the Congregational Land Committee of Making Housing and Community Happen), and Rev. Bert Newton, organizer for Making Housing and Community Happen. The panel spoke of ways that our churches can work with knowledgeable partners to repurpose underutilized property for community use and a new income stream for the church’s mission. If interested in exploring possibilities, you can contact myself or Wendy Gist (, or Phil Burns at (

I had to notice that both Mona Morales Recalde and Phil Burns are active elders in our churches, yet their “day job” expertise was made known to us only as we consulted community organizations. What incredible gifts we have among our own church members! And even as we look at making best use of the property God has entrusted to us, may we always remember our goal of bringing more of God’s children to Christ—knowing that the church is made not of concrete and plaster, but of us living stones.

Giving thanks for a good start for 2023,