A long tradition of activism

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

All Saints Episcopal Church seems to embody staid, moneyed old Pasadena. Facing City Hall, the 80-year-old Gothic Revival church has glowing stained-glass windows by Tiffany and the local Judson Studios.

But though the medieval-looking church exudes serenity and other-worldliness, the 3,500-member congregation has been speaking out on controversial issues since an All Saints rector protested the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. That tradition continues, with the recent disclosure that the IRS is threatening the church’s tax-exempt status because of an antiwar sermon there last year.

The possible government action, announced from the pulpit last Sunday, has rallied new supporters who wonder if the activist church is being targeted because of its generally liberal politics -- which the IRS denies. And the investigation has focused new attention on a congregation that regards fighting for peace and justice as central to its mission, a stance that both attracts many to the church and repels some who wonder if conservatives are truly welcome there.

“This is an unusual place,” said Zelda Kennedy, a Bahamian-born Episcopal priest and graduate of Yale Divinity School. As head of pastoral care at All Saints, she takes the Eucharist to the bedridden, and she recently launched a knitting ministry whose knitters pray as they make shawls for the ill and the bereaved.

“A church like All Saints is called to be God’s presence in this world, to be God’s hands and feet and voice,” she said. “There are so many churches that are satisfied with the status quo. All Saints is not.”

The sermon that prompted the Internal Revenue Service investigation was delivered by former Rector George Regas two days before the 2004 presidential election.

An imaginary dialogue between Jesus and candidates Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush, the sermon had Jesus chiding both for supporting the war in Iraq and speaking so little about the poor.

“President Bush, you have not made dramatically clear what have been the human consequences of the war in Iraq,” Regas said.

The IRS has said the sermon may have crossed the line from protected free speech and religious expression to intervention in a political campaign, which the tax code prohibits for nonprofit organizations. The church says it did not break the tax rules and plans a vigorous defense.

All Saints Rector J. Edwin Bacon said he will preach about the IRS inquiry from the pulpit this morning.

Regas, who was rector for 28 years before he retired in 1995, was legendary for his opposition to war, his championing of female clergy and his commitment to integrating gays and lesbians into the fabric of the church. A church official estimated that 10% to 15% of the congregation is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Regas also brought leaders of other faiths into All Saints. In 1973, the rector named Reform Rabbi Leonard Beerman, when he was at Leo Baeck Temple on the Westside, as the church’s rabbi-in-residence.

Beerman first met Regas at an anti-Vietnam War rally that year. Beerman said they also fought together against nuclear proliferation and racism and for human rights and better wages for the working poor. The Bel-Air temple and the Pasadena church even arranged to buy and refurbish several skid row hotels to provide decent housing for the poor.

“We both saw this as a natural expression of our religious ideals,” said Beerman, whose daughters call the current rector “Rebbe Eddie.”

Selected to succeed Regas 10 years ago after a two-year search, Bacon, 57, is a former Southern Baptist who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. In an interview, he said he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. years ago in the South, reinforcing his belief that social action is a requirement of religious faith.

“It is our job to heal the world,” Bacon said. “I’m not one who says, ‘He’s got the whole world in his hands.’ He and we have the whole world in our hands.”

Beerman thinks the All Saints clergy have an especially profound appreciation of the problems of the poor, because of the church’s location in downtown Pasadena. Unlike congregations in Southern California’s many sumptuous suburbs, at All Saints, Berman said, “the poor were right in front of them. They didn’t have to go searching for them.”

The shift toward social action appears to have begun during the Great Depression. Until the 1930s, only men were allowed to serve as ushers at All Saints, and they did so in white gloves, according to senior warden Robert Long, who heads All Saints’ governing vestry. The church also catered to privilege by allowing wealthy families to rent the choicest pews.

But, in 1942, then-Rector Frank Scott, who had already abolished pew rentals, stood in protest in front of trains spiriting local Japanese Americans off to wartime internment camps.

“I think that’s when activism for peace and justice crept into the DNA of this place,” said Long, an attorney.

Scott’s successor was John Burt, a friend of King and labor leader Cesar Chavez.

As the next rector, Regas backed Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu in his fight against apartheid in South Africa.

Staff member Anne Breck Peterson remembers the excitement in the stately church during the Vietnam era when antiwar songs jumped from the radio to Sunday’s Rock Mass. Regas’ stand against the Vietnam War drove some congregants away, she said: “George almost lost his job.” But it also drew newcomers to the parish.

That pattern continues at All Saints today, with the church’s controversial stands driving out some and drawing in others.

The activism attracted 22-year-old Stephanie Armitage, a teacher from Upland. “That’s what I like about it,” she said. “I think it is doing what the church should be doing.”

But what Raymond Kreisel saw as “overt politicization and radicalization” in 2002 and 2003 led the Glendora resident and his wife, Amy, to leave All Saints.

Kreisel, 38, said he and his wife loved the church when they became active in 1995. They were married there in 1997, and the first of their two children, Liam, now 4, was baptized at All Saints.

Kreisel praised the church’s “wonderful sense of community” and its architecture. In that hushed, incense-scented church, with the light streaming through the windows, “you feel like you’re back in a mid-sized, 300-year-old church in England,” he said.

But when Bacon began preaching against the coming war in Iraq, Kreisel, who then believed the war was justified, began to feel hectored.

“We were made to feel that if we weren’t sharing his views, we weren’t participating fully in the church,” he said. “They weren’t saying, ‘Don’t come to church.’ But walls were being built, and we were in the out group.”

For Amy Kreisel, the final straw was an e-mail from another member of the church’s God, Mommy and Me group, asking if any of the other mothers wanted to start an “arrest co-op” to provide baby-sitting for children whose mothers might be arrested protesting the war.

The Kreisels felt that the church leadership was unresponsive to their letters and e-mails of concern. The couple stopped putting money in the collection plate, then found another Episcopal church to join.

But others say All Saints is tolerant of dissent, from whatever political or theological direction.

“You don’t have to sign on to one particular orthodoxy at All Saints,” said Senior Warden Long. “I don’t know anyone who agrees with everything that is said at All Saints. That’s what makes it such a great place to be. We agree to disagree.”

Eddie Gibbs, 67, an Anglican priest and professor at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, said that “All Saints has a reputation for pushing the boundaries and seeking to say what it means for a church to be faithful to the Gospel in our present cultural context. They don’t flinch at addressing pressing social issues.

“Other churches and Christian leaders may disagree with their positions and conclusions, but at least they are addressing the right questions,” said Gibbs, adding that he is probably more conservative than many at All Saints.

People of faith should be asking themselves whether the Iraq war is justified, he said. All Saints provided an open forum for that discussion, he added, and “they shouldn’t be penalized for that.”

The church has launched initiatives for peace and justice and against poverty, political oppression in Central America, and AIDS. In 1989, All Saints declared itself a “a prayerfully pro-choice church.”

All Saints has had female priests since 1978, and Lorentho Wooden became its first African American cleric in 1987.

Peterson said the staff talked about taking a stance on gays and lesbians “for about six years” before Regas announced in 1990 that he planned to start blessing “same-sex covenants” and preached a landmark sermon, “God, Sex, and Justice.”

The first such blessing at All Saints in 1991 drew angry crowds to the doors of the church. It was an early example of the divisions over homosexuality that have riven both the Episcopal Church in the United States and the worldwide Anglican Communion to which it belongs.

Peterson remembers that the louder the anti-gay forces became, the more other people -- gay and straight -- approached the church, saying they sought an inclusive house of worship. And some congregants probably quietly moved elsewhere as well, church officials say.

Long said All Saints has allowed him to meet people who are intellectually curious, compassionate and deeply spiritual. And, he said, “it’s just plain fun to be around the people in this parish.”

He said he feels that All Saints has changed him for the better. He thinks he is less snobbish than he once was, less cliquish. Like many others at the church, the 60-year-old attorney speaks of his “faith journey.”

“For the first time in my life,” Long said, " I feel very comfortable with how I put my faith into action, and speak my faith to others, and live it and walk it.”