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New Sanctuary Movement: An inter-cultural Washington congregation that celebrates diversity moves beyond charity into justice

November 17, 2011

By Dianne Aid, TSSF

Throughout the year at St. Matthew/San Mateo, a Jubilee Ministry in Auburn, Wash., we engage in diverse liturgical traditions drawn from the experiences of the members of this unique congregation. One of these is participating in First Nations four directions prayers.

Dianne Aid

Part of this ceremony is praying for the groups of people that live to the North, the South, the East and the West.  St. Matthew/San Mateo includes in its membership people that truly come from the four directions and whose relatives still live in all parts of the globe.  We are the most diverse congregation in the Diocese of Olympia. We are inter-cultural, meaning that we are more than separate cultural groups sharing the same space, we are truly one.  Our Bishop’s Committee includes four immigrants (three from Mexico and one from the Fiji Islands), First Nations people and people of European ancestry.

Sunday is the entry point for our ministry, which incorporates the following week of activities in our parish hall building and Jubilee Center.  The 9 a.m. service is simple, traditional and in English.  Our principal Sunday service is at 11 a.m., and is many-hued (as is the 9 a.m. service).

Beginning at 11 a.m. the Liturgy of the Word takes place in the parish hall building in four different rooms: one for adult English speakers, one for adult Spanish speakers, one for youth and one for children.  After the Creed, all four groups proceed across the walkway to the nave, where the Liturgy of the Table commences as a bilingual service.

Two choirs – one English, one Spanish – alternate. The congregation of about 80 is 50 percent Spanish-speaking and 50 percent English-speaking.  English speakers include South Pacific Islanders, First Nations peoples, peoples of Asian, African and European ancestry.  Among the Spanish speakers are First Nations peoples as well.

Multicultural liturgical expressions

Throughout the year different traditions are expressed liturgically.  Beginning in late October, an altar for Day of the Dead is constructed, changing into an altar for Our Lady of Guadalupe, and then the most eclectic Christmas altar one would ever witness, which remains through the Feast of the Presentation, very important in many Mexican indigenous communities.

We are proud hosts of  Celebrations of Emmegahbowh and David Pendleton Okerhater, as well as hosting an annual Pow Wow Etiquette workshop before attending a local Pow Wow. Our Fiji Islander crowd throws some wonderful meals and parties, and young people speaking in English, Spanish and Hindi dance all kinds of dances in cowboy hats and South Pacific attire.

Dancers perform at the Guadelupe ceremony.

This same crowd moves into the Monday-Friday work of the Jubilee Center, which includes legal services for immigrants; developing a micro business, “The Jubilee Kitchen and Market Place”; Zumba classes; traditional Mexican folk dancing classes; youth and children’s music lessons; and a computer café.  Other parishioners are heavily involved in Kairos prison ministry, quilting, and a variety of other works of service and compassion.

This new model of Sunday ministry, which has led to a very engaged Monday-Friday congregation, began three years ago. It was an experiment, and it seems to be working. We are a vital growing congregation!

Entry into the sanctuary movement

St. Matthew/San Mateo has been engaged in Latino ministry for 11 years. Starting separately, we have moved from isolation to coming together. We celebrate together and we share in the particular struggles facing immigrant members in the current pressures on immigrant communities.  Four years ago we declared ourselves a Sanctuary Congregation.

“Why a sanctuary congregation?” a reporter asked one of our members. “It is safe here,” the member replied. If we look at the history of this congregation, Japanese-American families who are our honored “elders” were incarcerated in the camps for Japanese-American citizens during World War ll. Their stories of these injustices touched the soul of St. Matthew/San Mateo and laid the groundwork for our deep commitment to advocating for comprehensive, humane immigration reform. On May 9, 2007, the day cities across the U.S. declared “The New Sanctuary Movement” to accompany immigrant families facing separation, we declared ourselves a Sanctuary Congregation.

There have been bumps and growing pains on the way, of course. But we have been committed to sticking with it. For people who have been in the congregation for a long time, they love their church, and seeing young families brings energy. For the newer members, many of whom are immigrant young families, they find a place where they have been accepted as full members. The distribution of keys to the buildings is a tell-tale sign of access that all groups have.  If someone leaves the lights on, windows open or a mess in the kitchen, they hear about it, regardless of who the culprit is!

Longtime members have accepted with grace and appreciation the “strange” altars of Day of the Dead, and the Christmas altar, which almost rubs up against Ash Wednesday.  These are the focus point in the parish hall.  The sacred practices of ECW bazaars and rummage sales are now laced with tamales in addition to traditional soups and pies, and the labor of set-up and clean-up belongs to all.

Moving beyond charity to justice

St. Matthew/San Mateo over the past several years has become an icon congregation for social justice in the greater Seattle area (served by the Church Council of Greater Seattle). The issue of justice beyond charity is something the longstanding members have embraced.  We have moved from the annual Christmas basket food- and toy-gathering to speaking out for those who are victims of our broken immigration system.  Immigrant families gain confidence weaving among English speakers and social events that are based in longstanding traditions of contemporary “American Culture.” It is a great joy to see both groups work together to put on a fund-raiser. All are participating in all aspects of the event from set-up to hospitality to clean-up.

St. Matthew/San Mateo is an Episcopal church and Jubilee Center in Auburn, Wash.

It is mid-November.  If you were to stop by St. Matthew/San Mateo on a week night, you would find about 60 Purepecha dancers (an indigenous Mexican group) practicing for the December-February celebrations, guitar lessons happening in another room, an EFM group, people seeking legal assistance and domestic violence victim support in the Jubilee Center, piñata making, AA groups. Bursting at the seams, this is home.

At our most recent Bishop’s Committee meeting, the vote was unanimous to move our church money from a bank which has known investments in detention centers and anti-immigrant legislation to a community bank or credit union.  That says it all. And as we say at St. Matthew/San Mateo, “Si se puede con el auxillio del Dios.” Yes we can with the help of God.

Dianne Aid is a member of the national Jubilee Executive Advisory Committee. She led a workshop on the New Sanctuary Movement at Everyone Everywhere. 

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