Recently I visited St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hollywood, a parish located just a stone’s throw from Sunset Boulevard that had once been the church of Cecil B. DeMille and other silver screen movers and shakers. In its heyday it was the place where people came to be seen. Since then and through much of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s the church along with that particular neighborhood in Hollywood had been in terminal decline. The numbers and the energy had dwindled to the point that when the current priest arrived right at the end of the last century, on his first Sunday only seven people showed up for worship, and that was a good day! The place was run down. It was dark and dangerous at night and all manner of illegal activities were happening on and next to church grounds.
17 years later, St. Stephen’s has housed multiple partnership ministries that has included a theater company, a fine arts preschool, an urban intern program, and a small urban farm project. In the sanctuary there is Jazz on Sundays for the morning worship and boxing classes on Tuesdays. It’s a story and a half of transformation to be sure, but all of this started with one particular ministry known as Hope in Hollywood which taught at risk youth to breakdance.
As hip and innovative as the new priest was when he first arrived 17 years back, he was still running a church, and for most youth in Los Angeles choosing between a night out with their gang friends and going to church, the church is going to lose, every time. Yet something changed when the rector of the parish learned of a non-profit based out of Texas who wanted a Los Angeles base to get kids out of street gangs and back on track with their lives through the medium of breakdancing. At first it was slow, but as the youth workers went out onto the streets letting the youth know that there was a place they could learn to breakdance, really well, plus spray their graffiti art on three specially erected walls week after week, youth who would otherwise have never set foot on the grounds of a church began to show up, in their three’s, and their four’s, until they came on Saturday nights in their hundreds. They came, I believe, for one particular reason: in Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Hollywood, they had found a place where the gift that they had to share – in this case breakdancing – was welcomed to be shared; a place where all of them could be met and accepted; a place where they could start to come home, to themselves.
My experience at St. Stephen’s, bearing witness to the extraordinary work of transformation that has happened there both to the community as a whole and to the individuals we met there gifted me inspiration to look at my own church community also as a space where people might come home. Just this week, a regular at our Thursday morning breakfasts for the hungry and homeless shared with me what it meant to have our church in his life. He said, ‘this is the place that I come to break me out of complete isolation. If I didn’t have here, I would be lost to myself’. Later that day it rained pretty hard, which in southern California practically solicits a general outbreak of panic and mayhem, unless of course you are three. I saw one such three year old, a preschooler here at St. Andrew’s, that rainy lunch time, come right up to the down spout that drops a good 60 feet to the ground creating a splash zone that Sea World would be proud of. She was wearing rain boots and a waterproof jacket and stamping in the water as it splashed up into her face. I thought to myself, this is the place where she comes to play – this preschool and this sanctuary, where children sing loud songs and together we share the wild and wonderful tales of our faith. This too is a place where she can come home.
These lessons of hope, from Hollywood to Pacific Beach are reminders for me that the business of the church, perhaps more than anything, is to be a witness to and a catalyst for transformation, the transformation that takes place when each of us recognizes how it is that our home is found in God’s grace. With so much talk these days about the decline of organized religion, it seems to me that there is still plenty of hope around, weaving in and out of our lives with the same tenacity and tenderness with which the Holy Spirit first breathed life back into the broken body of Jesus, our Lord. This is the season of new life. Let us trust in that. He is risen indeed. Alleluia!