A Tribute to St. Alban’s Yucaipa, and especially Father Dick
About three years ago I had approached a point of near-total cynicism regarding church. I thought that the church, in its quest to successfully peddle marketable religious goods and services, had allowed the Holy Spirit to quietly escape from North America. I tried being a part of a small group of Christian burnouts worshiping at a local kickboxing club, then tried worshiping at home as a family. I felt disconnected, but when my wife would suggest that we get out there and find a church to go to I would respond, “What’s the use? They all want to be like the ones we’ve left.”
At the time, my friend Graham Holmes recognized my frustration. He wrote me a note online saying, “I’m so sorry, Joey. Maybe sometime you can visit our humble little Episcopal church.” Typically, if someone calls something of theirs “humble,” they’re lying. But if you know Graham, he is totally a sincere guy. Plus, he is from England, and they talk funny there. I decided to visit St. Alban’s, even though it was a 35 minute drive from my home.
Going to St. Alban’s was like coming home. The things that I was longing for when I attended a church – participation, freedom, openness, connection, diversity, a sense of the “bigger picture” of church and history, humility – were there in abundance within the liturgy. I thought that my non-denominational, non-traditional church background was the entire church (seems so stupid now), so I can’t tell you how much it felt like someone opened a huge wooden door to let light in for me. Here was a church that spent moments in silence, that spent time confessing their brokenness, that spent quite a bit of time praying around the Lord’s table.
This was totally new to me. I had been splashing around in a pond my whole life and thinking it was the ocean. This was like accidentally discovering the ocean, being pushed into it. Wide, deep, clean, mysterious, kinda scary.
Apart from the liturgy, it was Father Dick who made me feel immediately comfortable in three moves.
The first was that when he gave the homily, he admitted that there was a disagreement in the way he understood the book of John and the way it was understood by Francoise, a seminarian studying for the priesthood (a woman studying for the priesthood!). Wait…you’re allowed to not only disagree about the scriptures, but to do so openly? For someone who had found that my aging faith resulted in more questions rather than less, this was a refreshing amount of humility and openness.
The second move was in Father Dick’s office. He was talking to me about the liturgy, about a prayer that we inherited from the earliest church, and what it meant to him. In the course of telling me this he became animated and used…how shall I say it…a word from his Navy days. I often ribbed him after that for his “Navy words,” but I don’t think I ever told him how much he put me at ease by being both totally himself and yet passionate about the kingdom of God. He made me feel that I could be safe at St. Alban’s, to explore the ways of Jesus without pretending to be somebody I’m not or being judged. In other words, he signaled that this was a place for Christianity with more Christ and less bullshit.
The third move was when he took me to lunch. I told him how I felt “ecclesially homeless,” and didn’t know where I belonged. He said to me, “Don’t worry about all of that. Be where God has you. You might be here for a couple months, or a few years. Just enjoy where God has you.”
And that is what I did for a few years.
Now I’ve been offered a job as a part-time worship leader at a church closer to my home. I’m eager to do this new thing, but I was never eager to leave St. Alban’s. Never has my family felt so supported, so accepted, so encouraged. The people and the worship at St. Alban’s were a huge part of my healing. They showed me that the Holy Spirit was still at work in her church, through humble people who approach God as they are with the hope that they will be changed in God’s good time. I’m going to miss hearing Father Dick preach, Francoise boss me around, Larry feeding me the Eucharist, Rob, Amy, Graham and Teddy reading the scriptures, Donna leading special prayers, Judy leading the choir, Antoinette anointing us with oil when we were sick, Diane giving us the kiss of peace…there’s no way to name every person, but every single one made the difference for us.
If you live in the Yucaipa, CA area and are looking for a good place to explore the things of God, go to St. Alban’s. Or if you are a church burnout who lives as much as 45 minutes away. You might be there for a couple months…or a few years…
Almighty and everliving God, ruler of all things in heaven and on earth, hear our prayers for this parish family. Strengthen the faithful, arouse the careless, and restore the penitent. Grant us all things necessary for our common life, and bring us all to be of one heart and mind within your holy Church; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. (BCP 817)