WITNESS FOR PEACE : A liberal Pasadena minister challenges his congregation to provide a sanctuary for refugees from strife-torn Central American countries.

Times Staff Writer

It’s not that the Rev. George Regas’ message was so different last Sunday.

Many times before, the fiery Episcopal minister had condemned nuclear weapons, U.S. policy in Nicaragua or increases in military spending. Even his declaration that All Saints Church in Pasadena would be the first Episcopal sanctuary for Central American refugees in Southern California was not news to most parishioners.

Regas just wanted to make sure that the message was understood, once and for all, unequivocally.

“I believe the quintessential task of a Christian church is to be a peacemaker,” he told the 200 people attending a forum discussion before Sunday’s Mass. “God will judge us on how well we deal with that charge.”

For One Woman, It Was Too Much

But if the church’s mission was only being more clearly defined, it was finally too much for one woman.

“I can’t take it anymore,” said the woman, a member of All Saints since 1970, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of offending the church hierarchy.

“This is the breaking point. I’m becoming the minority and I really feel I should stop coming here.”

For nearly 20 years, Regas has provoked and challenged his congregation with a blend of deep religious conviction and political activism. From opposing the Vietnam War to spearheading the movement to ordain women, Regas’ liberal and often controversial statements have won him a devoted following, as well as a few discontented critics.

The declaration of sanctuary--announced in services for the first time during a Hispanic Mass last Sunday--directs the church to provide assistance for Central American refugees but will not mean sheltering them within the church building. While most members of All Saints’ growing congregation seem to favor the political path Regas has adopted, the sanctuary issue has again focused debate within the parish on the proper role for the church to play.

Challenge to Think in New Ways

“That’s at the heart of what I’m supposed to be doing,” said the 55-year-old Regas in a recent interview. “I’m supposed to be challenging people to think in new ways and see if together we can find solutions to some of the desperate problems in this world. . . . And there are a lot more people who want that kind of church than many are willing to believe.”

In fact, with a 50% increase in membership over the last 15 years, All Saints’ 3,000 parishioners form the largest Episcopal congregation west of the Mississippi River. The church, which has seen its budget grow from $700,000 in 1980 to $1.4 million last year, recently added a second service on Sundays to handle the overflow.

Because of its size, wealth and fervent message, the word from the 102-year-old church frequently travels far beyond the boundaries of Pasadena.

“They are at the forefront,” said Suffragan Bishop Oliver Garver of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. “They have carved out for themselves a unique niche in the total ministry of Christian discipleship.”

At the National Episcopal Church headquarters in New York, which oversees 7,300 parishes across the country, the perspective is much the same.

“All Saints, Pasadena, is one of the premier parishes of the Episcopal Church,” said Charles Cesaretti, deputy for Anglican relations in the office of presiding bishops at Episcopal headquarters. “Although a number of parishes have (supported the sanctuary movement), no parish with the significance of All Saints has done so. . . . It is paving the way for a whole different level of involvement.”

In becoming a public sanctuary for Central American refugees, All Saints joins 35 other churches in Southern California and about 300 nationwide, according to Jo’Ann De Quattro, chairwoman of the sanctuary committee of the Southern California Interfaith Task Force on Central America.

Like other sanctuary proponents, Regas contends that people fleeing Guatemala and El Salvador are political refugees, and that All Saints is upholding U.S. law--as well as the law of God--by offering them food, clothing and shelter.

The 1980 Refugee Act, which provides asylum on grounds of “persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution,” should be applied to the thousands of Central Americans fleeing their violence-torn homelands, Regas said.

However, the federal government has sent many of those refugees back to Central America, saying that most of them have fled for economic reasons and do not qualify for special entry to this country.

“I think the so-called sanctuary movement is highly political, not humanitarian in the least,” said Joe Flanders, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Western Regional office on Terminal Island. “Their No. 1 objective is to change the Administration’s policy in Central America.”

Although the INS has stated that it will not raid churches assisting illegal aliens, the current trial of 16 church workers accused of transporting Central Americans across the border to Tucson, Ariz., stands as proof of the price some sanctuary advocates may have to pay.

As a result, the governing board of All Saints has voted to become a sanctuary only in principle, leaving to further debate the specifics of the church’s assistance. The vote of the church vestry, 24 to 2, might not have been so strong if more details had been addressed, some members speculated.

Help for Los Angeles Church

At least for now, Regas said, the church is looking to help Our Lady Queen of Angels Church in Los Angeles, known as La Placita, which already provides food, clothing, jobs and legal help for Central American immigrants. Neither church has said that it will actually house refugees within its buildings.

“The declaration of sanctuary is such a serious commitment,” said Father Luis Olivares, pastor of La Placita, which is the first Catholic church in Los Angeles to declare itself a sanctuary. “It requires a lot of groundwork and explanation. A lot of people, including some highly committed to social justice, seem to have trouble with (it).”

Even so, Bishop Garver insisted that the condition of war in Central America places sanctuary advocates on solid legal footing.

“This is not an example of intentionally violating the law in order to test the law,” he said. “All Saints, Pasadena . . . is standing tall in upholding the law of the land.”

sh Survey Shows That Most Agree

A survey conducted by the church last year shows that most parishioners seem to agree. Nearly two-thirds of the 763 members responding said they were either politically in tune with or more liberal politically than most of the parish.

“Churches have to get involved in what’s right,” said Jim McMurray, who has attended All Saints since 1982. “If you don’t want a church to be political, you don’t come to All Saints.”

Bill Stork, a member of the church for 28 years, said the sanctuary declaration is worth the risks.

“I think it’s a good message to send out,” he said. “It’s important for the church to take a position, even if it’s not part of the consensus.”

Brooks Barton, visiting Pasadena for the first time from New York, hoped that All Saints will serve as a model for others around the country. “I only wish my church would do the same,” she said.

While Regas’ message of spiritual strength and radical social change has won him an active and supportive following, a disaffected minority over the years has complained that the parish and politics do not mix.

“I don’t agree with their political outlook,” William Scharre, a member of All Saints for 22 years, said of the church leadership. “And their political outlook sometimes dominates the real reason for the church. . . . But it’s still my church as much as it is theirs.”

"(The declaration of sanctuary status) seems more an effort to embarrass the U.S. government or get publicity than actually provide a dwelling for someone in need,” said one former vestry member, who asked to remain anonymous. “I don’t think there’s much to be served by pitting ourselves against our own government.”

Meanwhile, Cynthia Adams, a member of All Saints for more than 30 years, said that she left the church in 1983 less for political reasons than for what she called a lack of spiritual guidance.

“Every Sunday, I would leave angry and upset,” she said. “It really wasn’t a specific issue or the liberalness. The warmth just wasn’t there for me anymore.”

For Regas, who received his doctorate from the Claremont School of Theology after writing a dissertation on “The Church and the Moral Issue of War,” such complaints are just part of the price of political leadership.

“A lot of people in Pasadena love All Saints and see it as a powerful force in the life of the city,” Regas said. “And a lot of people see it as very threatening. . . . They see it as challenging their life style and their values and calling into question their government and the way society is ordered.”

But in the diverse religious roots of the church, even those who disagree with Regas seem able to find comfort.

Diverse Backgrounds

The church’s 1985 survey reveals a large number of former Presbyterians, Methodists, Baptists, Roman Catholics and Congregationalists in the All Saints parish. Other members listed their backgrounds as Islamic, Quaker, Fundamentalist, Greek Orthodox and Buddhist.

The colorful services, widely praised by parishioners, frequently incorporate classical motets, jazz influences, black gospel songs and Hispanic masses.

Last Sunday’s Mass began as the All Saints choir filed into the church, swaying to a Brazilian samba beat.

“All Saints is different from most churches in its openness and acceptance of diverse points of view, not only politically, but theologically,” said Linda Lewis, senior warden of the vestry. “I think that sort of openness is refreshing to those who may be fleeing an extremely narrow structure.”

In that religious diversity, even those parishioners politically less liberal than Regas often find his opinions valuable.

“George has a unique genius,” Bishop Garver said. “Instead of driving people away who disagree, a lot of people find it intellectually stimulating.”

Colleague in Alhambra

Father Eugene Combs, Episcopal rector of Holy Trinity parish in Alhambra, agreed that Regas’ statements can be refreshing.

“I have a tendency to be a lot more conservative than I really am,” he said. “I need somebody like George around to rattle my cage every now and then.”

The Pasadena church, a large stone and cement structure located just across from City Hall, has a long tradition of provocativeness. Dr. John F. Scott, rector from 1935 to 1956, denounced the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. The Rev. John Harris Burt, who served as rector before leaving to become the Bishop of Ohio in 1967, was an advocate for the rights of farm workers.

But it was Regas, many longtime parishioners agree, who was most instrumental in leading the church to its present course.

An intense man, Regas incorporates a broad range of literary references in his sermons, quoting easily at times from Woody Allen or Henry David Thoreau. His eloquent delivery, enhanced by a loud booming voice and gestures that are often theatrical, keeps the congregation attentive.

“He is a ‘Type-A’ man,” said Joseph Hough, dean of faculty at the Claremont School of Theology. “A man who works indefatigably, who is deeply committed to his perception of the meaning of the Gospel, who passionately loves his people and the world, but who is especially devoted to those persons who he is responsible to as a minister.”

‘It Takes a Lot of Guts’

When one woman doubted the level of unanimity for Regas’ politics during last Sunday’s forum, Regas encouraged her dissent but added, “It takes a lot of guts and chutzpah in this place to say, ‘You’re nuts, Regas.’ ”

The son of a Greek immigrant, Regas grew up working in his father’s restaurant in Tennessee. “Anyone came in the restaurant who wanted a meal,” Regas recalled. “If they had no money, he’d just say, ‘It’s yours.’ I never questioned that.”

After attending the Tennessee Military Institute, Regas accepted a job as a church vicar in Pulaski, Tenn., known for being the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan.

When Regas later became rector at a New York church, he was disappointed to find that racism was equally prevalent in the North. “I realized then that the structures had to change, because many of the structures are evil,” he said.

Regas was a philosophy major at the University of Tennessee, and graduated from Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., in 1956 the same year he was ordained.

Invited to All Saints in 1967, Regas vigorously opposed the Vietnam War and criticized former President Richard M. Nixon in a sermon that became a nationally syndicated newspaper article entitled, “Mr. President, the Jury Is In.”

Chairman of Coalition

In 1976, Regas chaired the National Coalition for the Ordination of Women to the Priesthood, which successfully opened that part of the Episcopal ministry to women.

“Everything changed when George came,” said Scharre, a church member before Regas’ arrival. “A lot of people here left. I guess they were just of a more conservative bent of mind.”

Despite the defections, Regas continued to advocate a peacemaking role for the church.

In 1979, he joined with Leo Baeck Temple in Los Angeles to organize an interfaith conference, calling on Congress to end funding for nuclear weapons. The result was the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race, based at All Saints, which offers a variety of educational workshops opposing nuclear arms.

All Saints later withdrew from an agreement with the city to use church buildings as shelters from atomic bombs.

Help for the Homeless

Balancing its global perspective with local concerns, All Saints 12 years ago helped establish Union Station, which still provides meals and shelter for Pasadena’s homeless. The church’s Office for Creative Connections works as a network for solving community problems.

After traveling to Nicaragua and El Salvador in 1984, Regas saw the sanctuary movement as a logical extension of the church’s political and spiritual mission.

“It is congruent with what All Saints is really all about,” he said. “We offer compassion and hospitality to these people who are strangers here and in need.”

But at the heart of that humanitarian task is always a challenge to public policy.

“He sticks his neck out,” said Dr. Arthur F. Glasser, dean emeritus of the school of world mission at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. “George Regas does not let his people indulge in the luxury of being neutral in the face of the awful moral issues of the day.”