Closer to Home
[T]hrough the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the
one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.
Ephesians 3:10, 4:4-6
Two weeks ago I said I would write on key characteristics of Presbyterian culture in two columns, then one on San Gabriel Presbytery. I am rarely disciplined enough to make a commitment for three weeks, but it has helped me as I don’t need to wonder what I will write on this week. However, it is also somewhat restricting as I am choosing to focus on this exercise about San Gabriel Presbytery over whatever matter might be more pressing at this moment.
The most pressing concern I have at this moment is the massive destruction of homes and other buildings caused by the tornadoes hitting Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Missouri, and Illinois. Laurie Kraus, director of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), wrote:
We have reached out to all the presbyteries within the field of the event, and have responses from some. We are working with Kenneth Dick and Western KY Presbytery, which was the worst hit and where the Mayfield PC was destroyed. Here is the up to date PDA info relative to this heartbreaking devastation.
We also have a page up on our website: https://pda.pcusa.org/situation/december-tornadoes/
The link for the donation page for DR000015 is www.bit.ly/DR000015.
Please pray for the communities who must make sense out of the utter destruction of their neighborhoods, and give through PDA or whatever legitimate non-profit you know is helping.
Now, for a handful of key characteristics of San Gabriel Presbytery.
The word that most people use to describe our presbytery is diversity. I have claimed that our presbytery is the most diverse, or certainly one of the most diverse, in the denomination. Perhaps a more precise descriptor is that we have many immigrant churches. More than half of our churches are immigrant churches or have immigrant ministries as a key focus for the church. We worship in nine languages, and about half of our membership are people of color, though currently we do not have significant African-American-centric or Indigenous ministries. Our leadership is almost 40% people of color, which does not quite match the membership but we’re working on it.
What’s interesting about San Gabriel Presbytery is that we have been diverse, in different ways, for generations. We have the oldest active Latino Protestant church, we think in California, in Puente de Esperanza. We have had diverse leadership over the years, including pastors like:
- César Lizárraga, who co-founded La Casa de San Gabriel with his wife Angelita;
- Ivan Walks, the Afro-Caribbean pastor of South Hills Presbyterian Church;
- Eugene Carson Blake, who went on to help organize the March on Washington with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.;
- Jack Makonda, who first translated the Book of Order into Indonesian, and even my uncle Don Toriumi, who was active in the Civil Rights Movement and was Moderator of Los Angeles Presbytery (our predecessor presbytery) 60 years
We also have had women leaders for several decades, especially in early years with women ruling elders. I’m trying to identify the first woman ordained Minister of Word and Sacrament by San Gabriel Presbytery; while Jan Willette was ordained by Redwoods Presbytery in 1971, the earliest ordination by San Gabriel that I have found is Barbara Stout in 1977, closely followed by Karen Kiser in 1978 (Bear Ride was also ordained in 1978 but by Pacific). Marguerite Shuster was ordained in 1980 and Sophie Eurich-Rascoe in 1981 and Dale Morgan in 1984. Though Mariko Yanagihara has served this presbytery for many years, she’s relatively new, just celebrating her 35th anniversary in 2021. When you called me to be Executive Presbyter after Ruth Santana-Grace, we think it was the first time that a presbytery called two women of color as executives, and there were white women before us. And when you consider the women I just named, you can note theological diversity in the presbytery as well.
Leaders from other presbyteries comment on our diversity, and I do believe we have done a better job than most at keeping up with the changes in our communities. From asking about the history of this presbytery, I’ve learned that some key leaders, including pastors and executives like Bryce Little, taught well the meaning of the Presbyterian “trust clause.” This clause states that regardless of whose name is on the property title or who paid for the church buildings, all church property is held in trust for the PC(USA), and the PC(USA) gives the presbytery responsibility for managing the properties in its geographic bounds. The church facility is not the personal property of church members; it is to be used for ministry for the community, and if the current owners of the property are not meeting the needs of the community, they should find someone who can. I have been impressed how our church leaders understand this, and actively seek out partners who can better connect with the changing landscape in different communities. This is a much more proactive approach than I’ve seen elsewhere.
The presence of immigrant churches gives our Presbytery a healthier perspective on world mission. Many of our mission initiatives have grown out of the personal experiences of our members.
Immigrant Accompaniment is supported partly because so many remember what it’s like to be new to this country. We have raised funds for churches who have connected with their home churches or friends in the Philippines, or Mexico, or northern Iraq. With these relationships, mission isn’t just charity, it’s family.
Speaking of relationships, this continues to be a request of presbytery members over the years. I remember one person writing “We already do enough mission; what we need is to build relationships with each other.” This has been a challenge for us, though, and I’m not sure why. But we keep trying to find ways to facilitate and deepen relationships, with each other and between the Presbytery and individual churches. Interestingly, some of the best conversations I’ve had in our presbytery have come out of the anti-racism groups, because folks have been willing to share their life experiences, and not just related to race. And, because we believe relationships are crucial to our work to push back racism, we continue to seek to learn from each other, and support each other.
Lastly, I would suggest that we are orthodox. Even when we try new things, we are guided by the Book of Order and our own traditions as a presbytery. For instance, I see a deep understanding of the Presbyterian trust clause. We reinstated the Education Committee and the Winterfest training event, which were traditions of San Gabriel Presbytery. One goal of the “Reforming Presbytery Practices”
group is to improve our representation in presbytery leadership, which is an oft-mentioned priority in the Book of Order. And we are trying to figure out how to reinstate something like the old triennial visits in an effort to foster better relationships between church and presbytery. All of our new initiatives as a presbytery are in line with San Gabriel Presbytery tradition and/or denominational priorities such as Matthew 25, and we utilize our polity to help us plan our mission priorities.
As I reflect on the gifts of San Gabriel Presbytery, I am reminded what a gift you are to me, and to this denomination. Thank you, and may we continue to appreciate God’s blessings, throughout this holiday season and beyond.