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Nurturing Communities of Hope and Resilience

In the Fall 2018 issue of CATALYST, we introduce you to three of many communities of resilience from among the PSR community: two in the San Francisco Bay Area who are building communities around a shared language and full LGBTQ-inclusion and, out in the Central Valley, a historically Japanese-American congregation grappling with how to exhibit solidarity with other communities who now travel the path they once did. Each of these communities is nurtured by a PSR graduate. Their unique, interrelated stories of resilience illustrate the power of communities sustained by unquenchable hope and the victorious right hand of the Holy One they so boldly name.

It is Sunday morning and out in the Central Valley, a historic congregation assembles. Multiple generations of Japanese-Americans gather in a faith community built by first-generation Japanese immigrants. For almost 30 years, the community has been framed by a federated relationship between the United Methodist Church and the United Church of Christ and a legacy of Japanese-Americans who built the church and its forebears. The community that gathers this morning has become increasingly more mixed-race and Pan-Asian over the last several years. Today, the Japanese-American granddaughter of a kamikaze pilot stands alongside a man from Korea to lead the service together. The destiny of the moment is as palpable as is the Spirit in the room.

For almost a decade, Rev. Akiko Miyake-Stoner (MDiv 10) has pastored the United Japanese Christian Church (UJCC) in Clovis, California. Appointed to the position upon her graduation from PSR, Miyake-Stoner—who was ordained by the UMC and holds standing in the UCC—became the historic church’s senior pastor four years later.

It is evident that Miyake-Stoner bears deep affection and reverence for the members of this intergenerational church that is becoming increasingly more mixed-race with each generation. UJCC’s mother churches were established in Fresno and built by hand by first-generation Japanese-Americans. The two churches were merged 30 years ago under the pastorate of PSR alum Roger Morimoto (MDiv ‘85). Miyake-Stoner believes UJCC to be poised to shift from “social refuge to mission outreach.” Among her many pastoral expressions, she holds space within a congregation with a beautiful, complex identity, a community whose hallmark
is resilience.

Miyake-Stoner explains that UJCC’s mother churches were built by the Issei, first generation Japanese immigrants who “literally built the churches with their hands.” These churches “started as immigrant refuges—places where people could find safety in the midst of a threatening culture for immigrants, mostly men, who didn’t have families, who were isolated here. This was really the only safe place they could come—where they could speak in their language with other people.” The Nisei, the second generation of Japanese-Americans, built the church that exists today, many giving their entire reparation checks after having endured the Japanese-American internment during World War II.

“They’re always thinking about the future generations,” she said. “It gives me chills to think about how committed they were.” Holding deep appreciation for how the immigrant church created and then maintained sanctuary for its own people, Miyake-Stoner observes still within it an “immigrant mentality” that has indeed fostered an enduring resilience among its people, if not also yielding an “insular” view of its mission.

Her time with the predominantly Japanese-American church has convinced her that it has “a lot of important theological and cultural resources to offer,” such as “understanding the Exodus in a different way and with our experience with incarceration.” So for Miyake-Stoner, the moment in history is clear: “We need to start looking more outward and be in solidarity and in community with other immigrant communities.”

And that’s exactly what UJCC has been doing.

For years, the church has financially contributed to a Fresno-area interdenominational ministry that supports refugees—a population that is, Miyake-Stoner notes, majority Hmong with a growing number of Syrians. In recent years, however, Miyake-Stoner says many members have entered into a more hands-on, face-to-face relationship with the people the organization serves—participating in Christmas festivals, helping establish their community garden, and volunteering with refugee programs. “For the UJCC folks to get so wholeheartedly behind our budding relationship with them has been beautiful to watch unfold.”

Moving the congregation into a more visible, on-the-ground type of activism is ministry Miyake-Stoner has patiently nurtured. She invited them to march with her at the MLK March this past February but was unsure if they would respond. “I was excited about who showed up. And,” she added, “a little nervous about how they would respond to the more radical, progressive people there.” She views the experience as positive for the UJCC members who attended. “One man commented to me that he was glad he came, that he was surprised to see so many people he knew there, that he felt an important part of our Fresno community, and that he’d do it again!”

And then there’s the interfaith work the community does in partnership with the Islamic Cultural Center in Fresno. For example, during the church’s World Communion Sunday service, Miyake-Stoner partnered with the executive director of the center, Reza Nekumanesh, to deliver a joint sermon.

Today, Miyake-Stoner sees her role—and the role of UJCC—as a posture of “reaching outward and being in solidarity and in community with other immigrant communities who share a similar story.” For Miyake-Stoner, this mission must also include solidarity with LGBTQ people.

LGBTQ inclusion has long been a growing edge for the congregation. About 15 years ago, the church struggled with its response to the coming out of one of its teenagers, a moment when Miyake-Stoner regrets the community did not live up to its best self. She knew helping heal that wound and advancing the conversation would be part of her work among the congregation. It would not be long until the church got a chance to do better.

Last summer, the church’s music director announced that she was transgender—an identity unfamiliar to the community. Miyake-Stoner frames the experience as “this beautiful and challenging journey of both educating the congregation on what it is to be transgender and how we can help her feel completely and authentically supported in her transition.” Although some people left the church over it, she credits the support of the woman to UJCC’s deep cultural resources that have “equipped them in a special way to be able to embrace folks who are on the margins these day, including our music minister.”

Miyake-Stoner says it has often been the older generations who have led the way on LGBTQ inclusion. “I think often times we think of the old folks as being the ones ‘stuck in their ways—they have a certain way of thinking and they’re not going to change’. But so many of these 90-year old women have come up to me and said, ‘What’s the big deal? I don’t understand’.” She attributes their display of compassion and inclusion to the resilience of the Nisei in particular: “They know the pain of incarceration. They know what it’s like to be excluded and marginalized for nothing that they can help—because of how they look. They’re actually some of the most embracing of the LGBTQ community.”

Although the church does not yet identify as “Open and Affirming” or “Reconciling,” Miyake-Stoner feels hopeful about the church’s transformation on the issue. “We had been talking about LGBTQ inclusion somewhat abstractly. So to have her be part of our church family and to know that we are in a relationship with someone who is part of the LGBQ
community was pretty amazing.” Recently, a young lesbian woman in her mid-20s who “was born into this church and grew up in this church” called to discuss the UMC’s conversation about LGBTQ inclusivity and the denomination’s Commission on a Way Forward as it pertains to issues of human sexuality. In the conversation, the woman told Miyake-Stoner that as a young queer woman, she feels safe at UJCC. “The fact that she finds space here—that she feels safe here—gives me hope.”

It is a chilly Friday night. Across the Bay, in Oakland, a group of mostly queer, gender-diverse Latinx folks gather around a shared table. After sharing a light meal, they light candles and begin their service led tonight for the first time by one of the ministry’s trans members. The sacred texts for the night include Gloria Anzaldúa. James Cone. Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz. One of the members sings “I Know Where I’ve Been” by Queen Latifah. The group is invited to participate in moments of ritual including meditation, singing, and collective prayer. Then, they gather around the table and share communion with each other.

On the East side of the Bay, Rev. Rhina Ramos (MDiv 03) serves as the pastor of Ministerio Latino (ML), a ministry of Plymouth United Church of Christ in Oakland, California. Ramos created the ministry in 2011 specifically for the Latinx1 community and particularly for those who identify as LGBTQ, explaining that she designed it to be an “intentionally Spanish-language, queer-affirming source of hope.” ML is born out of Ramos’ own personal context—she is an immigrant from Central America, was raised in the Catholic tradition, and is a lesbian—and her deep compassion for immigrant peoples. Her deep desire and pastoral leading is for folks to “have a sacred space where they can reclaim their faith and spirituality.” She adds, “Ministerio Latino is a place where we can grow together in hope and inspiration and support each other, pray for each other, keep each other company and support”—the kind of community she knows is elusive for Latinx immigrants in the United States, particularly those who are queer.

Ramos came to the United States as a young teenager. But she spent her formative years in El Salvador steeped in the conflict in Central America during the 1970s that culminated in the Salvadoran Civil War. Who she is today as both an activist and a pastor bears the significant influence of her years in El Salvador prior to migrating to the United States.

Her memories as a child are full of stories of the resistance—from her father, who fought with the guerilla movement, to the homilies of Archbishop Óscar Romero she and her family religiously listened to on their radio at home.

Her mother even took her and her grandmother to a mass one Sunday at the San Salvador Cathedral where Romero was delivering the homily. “I don’t remember what he preached on,” she said. “But what I do remember is how people loved everything he was saying. Every time he would finish a sentence, the people would get up and clap and clap.”

Ramos’ formation during childhood remains stalwart. “I come from a very small country where people believe they can fight a revolution. And that’s stamped in my heart,” she said.

For Ramos, the intentionality behind a Spanish-language ministry comes directly from her own personal experience as a Catholic. “My spiritual life growing up was en español. I needed the spirituality that was home for me.” ML exists, says Ramos, to “provide support to the pilgrims of our faith,” many of whom have roots in the Catholic church.

Most of the folks who participate in ML identify as queer. All of them speak Spanish; in fact, for most, it is their first language. Aldo Gallardo, a trans, non-binary Bay-Area resource organizer and a program associate for the Fund for Trans Generations at Borealis Philanthropy, has become one of the core leaders of the ministry. She convened its most recent service in Ramos’ stead. In fact, Ramos calls Gallardo her mano derecha mujer—her “right-hand woman.”

Gallardo immigrated as a child from Peru with her parents when she was five and has since become a naturalized citizen. She explained that although she comes from a deeply religious family—one side devout Catholic and the other Evangelical—she eventually became agnostic because the church provoked shame within her due to her sexual orientation and her growing awareness about her gender identity and expression.

In 2014, Gallardo ended up in the Bay Area engaging in immigration-related activism and working with queer Latinx youth. Unemployed and unable to visit her family at Christmas, Gallardo found herself alone. One Friday night, she remembered having met Ramos at an organizing event weeks earlier and being invited to visit group for queer Latinx people—“at a church of all places.” Gallardo decided to take a chance and check out the church. With tears in her eyes, she reflected, “I was struggling here. If it were not for that gathering, where I met other folks who just wanted to be in community during the holidays, to honor the season together, sing Christmas songs en español, and share a meal. Well, that was so healing for me.”

And there Gallardo has remained. “Ministerio Latino is my church, safe space, sanctuary, community.” Today, she considers herself a Christian (“with an asterisk,” she adds) and has become one of the ministry’s core leaders.

Ramos proudly reflects: “When I began Ministerio Latino, I didn’t know how it was going to be shaped or who it was going to attract. I intended it to be an inclusive, open and embracing space, and in Spanish. When young people like Aldo began coming, I was surprised because sometimes young people—especially LGBTQ Latinx—have been wounded by church settings, and they don’t want to know anything about Christians and their dogma. Thus, when Aldo and young people like her started attending, I knew the Spirit was leading.”

“To me,” Ramos adds, “seeing Aldo leading this sacred space and understanding its importance is rewarding beyond measure. It completes the dream for what
Ministerio Latino is supposed to do for all of us—broken humans, children of God, in need of God’s grace and love.”

It is clear that ML is a space for the Latinx community to cultivate resilience and their capacity for resisting the systems that oppress them. The cultivation of resilience is a core part of Ramos’ work. It is this resistance, she says, that communities of faith must be called into. Gallardo emphasizes the importance of Ramos’ pastoral presence in cultivating just that kind of resilience, especially among queer people of color who come to ML weary from their justice work in the community.

“They talk about the heaviness of the work they are engaged in. Rhina supports them in their work, in moments of crisis, like the Pulse Massacre, or the heartache we experienced after the suicide of a local young trans-femme youth activist,” Gallardo says. “And she walks with them—with us—in moments of joy.”

Ramos’ own joy in her work is evident. “I am almost 50 years old. Why would young cool people would want to hang out on a Friday night to listen to Jesus’ stories with an oldie like me?” she heartily laughs. And the fullness of her identity is appreciated by the community she is present to as well. “Because she is an old-school Latin American, queer woman, she’s taught us the history of Latin American protest music through church!” Gallardo laughs. “Where else can we get Solo le pido a Dios by Mercedes Sosa—over a meal of authentic tamales?”

It is early Wednesday evening on the San Francisco Peninsula. Folks just getting off work are making their way to the sprawling, mission-style building that is home to Iglesia San Mateo Unidos en Cristo and its English-language counterpart. The spacious kitchen buzzes with activity as people bring in various side-dishes and start preparing a meal soon to come. In another room, a lesson and crafts are being prepared for children and youth. By 7:15, the meeting space has filled with the laughter and warmness of a vibrant, multi-generational gathering of Latino/as. Most of them are immigrants; several are seeking asylum from their home countries in Central America. A pianist cues “Renuévame” and the service gets underway. El reverendo welcomes everyone en español and a variety of members of differing ages and gender identities take turns participating in the liturgy throughout the evening.

On Wednesday night, over 40 people have gathered to participate in worship as a part of an intentional Spanish-language church formed within the mostly English-language Congregational Church of San Mateo (CCSM) where Rev. Jorge Bautista (MDiv 15) has served since graduating from PSR. Long a dream of the UCC-affiliated congregation to serve the spiritual needs of the predominately Latino/a neighborhood the church was a part of, this thriving community within it has become a reality in large part through the vision and diligence of Bautista and his deep commitment to community.

Four years later and following the congregation’s almost unanimous vote to become a Sanctuary church in 2016, the gathering of folks who meet each Wednesday night at Iglesia San Mateo Unidos en Cristo is approaching 70 members—the majority of whom are both Catholic and immigrants from Central America—working and raising families in the affluent San Mateo, California county area.

Bautista says he never intended to create a new service focused on the Latino/a context, perceiving his call to be in prison chaplaincy. But he discerned a different direction for his ministry as he became attuned to the dearth of options that reflect the spirituality of Latino/a  peoples. He explained that the few options available do not respect the dignity of immigrants and further exclude LGBTQ Latino/as. “So that inspired me to want to provide a new spiritual option for people that brings them more of an inclusive language into their faith, provides space for LGBTQ people, and exists as a church that also focuses on social justice,” he said.

In a move that borrows from both the early Christian church and Latino/a culture, Bautista designed services around the Eucharist—a sacrament sacred to those of the Catholic faith—and a shared meal reminiscent of the large family gatherings familiar to all the members. The difference being, Bautista insists: that the Eucharist is available to all—including LGBTQ people—without the restrictions most of the community had become accustomed to, and “a faith focused on speaking up and protesting and doing social justice work that we so greatly need.”

Word about the church spread quickly throughout the community. San Mateo-area activist Reyna González, who had worked with Bautista a decade ago through Faith in Action, was one of the church’s earliest members. In fact, says Bautista, “Reyna has worked harder than anyone else, as a leader, to make sure people are showing up and cared for.”

“I love this community,” González says, attributing her passion, in great part, to the alignment she finds at Iglesia San Mateo between her faith and her organizing work.

Unlike her experience with the Catholic Church, González says “the church is not separate from political work—because the reality is, people are seeking and asking for help.” She cites CCSM’s decision to become a sanctuary church as a significant reason its members feel more secure. “There is a lot of care from this church for the Latino community,” she says.

Manuel López started attending Iglesia San Mateo of curiosity. His mother had started attending and soon after brought her four granddaughters along. Manuel said he wanted to see what it was about the church that his children liked so much so eventually he attended one night. Five months later, he has not missed a gathering. “I would always ask myself why they like to come here and now I know why they love coming,” he said. In fact, most of Manuel’s family—some thirty members from age 1 to his father who is 58—attend. “Here you feel love,” he said. “You feel like you’re with family and especially that your children want to come too it feels that there is something nice is happening here. We are always excited for Wednesday to come.”

The offering of the Eucharist, inclusivity, social justice, and a shared meal has been deeply meaningful for Iglesia San Mateo’s members. “It feels like a family for many of us who don’t have that here because our families are outside of the country,” said Hector, one of the group’s core leaders. “Coming here knowing you’re going to see your friends and family is nice.” Elvia Delgado, another group leader who heard about the advent of the weekly gatherings at a rent control protest in San Mateo, said, “This church opens the door to everyone—it doesn’t matter if you’re rich, poor, you come well dressed, or if you come dirty like me because sometimes I come right after work. That makes you feel good because it doesn’t discriminate.”

It would not be long before the congregation’s commitment to welcoming LGBTQ people was put to the test. Two transgender women who were part of a caravan of trans women fleeing Central America had been provided sanctuary at CCSM. Bautista and the core leadership, including Hector who had discovered CCSM when he attended a memorial the week following the Pulse Nightclub massacre, decided they absolutely must invite the women to the service, even though they knew some members might be reluctant to welcome them. The two women accepted the invitation to attend the service and were invited to share their stories. “When they were done,” Bautista said, “everyone was in tears, gave them hugs, and welcomed them into the community.”

Today the two women, Natalia and Estefany, remain vital parts of the church, each taking on roles of service. Natalia, who speaks softly with a shy smile, offered, “No other churches compare to this one. The people here don’t look at me in a bad or weird way. There are other churches that just won’t accept you and will make you feel like you don’t fit in. But here is different.” Estefany quickly agreed: “They always welcome you with so much love. Sometimes we can come in sad and they always find a way to put a smile on our face. Here you come and you feel at peace.” She paused for a moment, then added, “I feel more love here than from my family.”

This type of openness and vulnerability has deeply impacted members of the church. Bautista observes with no shortage of gratitude that “people are being transformed,” including Estefany and Natalia who have since invited other trans women to attend. Bautista marveled that at a previous service, six transgender Latinas were present: “That’s a lot in a faith-space setting. They are out—and it’s beautiful! They are taking communion. And everyone’s living in community with one another and accepting each other!” When the women were asked what they would tell trans people not welcomed by other churches, Estefany said enthusiastically, “Come to the church in San Mateo. It is a place where you are welcomed with all doors open no matter what race, color, or gender you are.” Natalia smiled widely, nodding in agreement.

The connection between the two gatherings of people who share space at CCSM is evident as well. Bautista cites the stalwart support of the pastoral team and the church’s Latino/a ministry which, among others, includes new PSR trustee Veril Phillips and former trustee  Julien Phillips.

González explains that members of Iglesia San Mateo participate in the English-language services on Sundays. “They are welcoming—they receive us,” she says. “What we’re noticing is there is a sense of unity between us.”

Three different faith leaders—three among thousands of PSR graduates who have done and are doing work in the world—making the connection between cultivating resilience and abounding in hope, between faith and action. Though their ministries are unique and deeply contextual, their individual narratives share a common strategy of creating safe space, fostering leadership within the community, and moving a community into solidarity and action with other marginalized communities. Motivated by their great love for their people and their great hope for the church, the work of each pastor engenders resilience these communities exhibit today and demonstrates an abundance of hope for the world and the church.

Story and photographs by Todd Atkins-Whitley