St. John’s in La Verne Celebrates 50th Anniversary — What’s Next for the Church?

May 22, 2011
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The Rev. Grace stands next to St. John's new Peace Pole. The cement was still wet. The inscription is in English, Japanese, Spanish and Aramaic.

The Rev. Grace stands next to St. John's new Peace Pole. The cement was still wet. The inscription is in English, Japanese, Spanish and Aramaic.

Whoever believes history is bunk or lacks relevance should take pause. Without the long arm and meaningful march of history, St. John’s Episcopal Church would not be conducting its ongoing good works today and celebrating its 50th anniversary in La Verne this Sunday.

Had Henry VIII in the 16th Century not inherited a bankrupt kingdom and married a wife who couldn’t produce an heir to his crown, he may never have sought a divorce and broken away from Catholicism to create the Anglican Church of England.

And had the colonists not been successful in their war against England during the American Revolution, American Anglicans would have likely felt no need to start a new church — an Episcopalian one – whose sovereign was no longer the monarch, King George III.

Indeed, the Episcopalian Church has a rich history and tradition, a part of whose mantle now falls to the Rev. Canon Kelli Grace Kurtz in La Verne, where she has been the vicar for the last four years. A vicar is one who serves “vicariously” at the behest of the bishop. The Rev. Grace, who received her bachelor’s from Cal State Fullerton and her master’s in Theology from Claremont, came to St. John’s in La Verne after stops at Grace Episcopal Church in Glendora, St. Mary’s in Laguna Beach and finally All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Riverside, where she served for eight years. When the bishop handed her the reins of St. John’s in La Verne four years ago, it was a homecoming of sorts for the Glendora resident.

“Coming to La Verne was coming home,” said the Rev. Grace, who was named not for a religious figure but for actress Grace Kelly (Kelli Grace). “I already knew the community.”

How much the community knew about her, however, and her infectious energy and vitality, in particular, would be an awakening.

Modeling the spirit of the church and her faith, she is at once inviting and inclusive. “What I tell people is no matter where you are on your walk, and no matter who you are, you are welcome at the Lord’s Table,” she said from inside her monkish office, which is ringed with books five shelves high.

She is also patient with her explanations, sharing the Anglican (Episcopalian) faith’s similarities and differences with Catholicism with which Anglicanism broke about a half a millennium ago.

“Robin Williams (the comedian) once said, ‘We’re Catholic light. We have all the liturgy, but half the guilt,’” she said, throwing back an easy laugh.

St. John’s is hardly light on activity, however. About a year ago, it began reexamining its vision for the next 50 years. “It’s been an opportunity to examine why we’re here and what we want to do,” she said. “We’ve been very prayerful; we’ve been listening to one another and to God and examining why we’re here and what we want to be about.”

A typical week at the church, if there is such a thing, includes adult study classes, quilting bees, food drives, services, and a variety of ministries, including a “crossroads workshop” for unemployed or underemployed people in the community.

“It’s a response to the times we’re living in, isn’t it,” the Rev. Grace remarked. “We’ve always been responsive to the times we’re living in.”

This summer, members of the church’s youth ministry will embark on an “urban spiritual safari” to the mean streets of Los Angeles. “Part of the Jesus mandate,” the Rev. Grace said, “is to be in solidarity with those who have less, who are in need of food and clothing and shelter and community.

“That’s exactly what Jesus called us to do.”

In the past, members of St. John’s youth ministry have traveled to New York City and New Orleans’ ninth ward to find God and help those less fortunate. Another year, their spiritual pilgrimage took them to the wilderness where they went whitewater rafting.

“That’s its own kind of spiritual journey,” the Rev. Grace said. “If you don’t believe in God before you start your rafting trip, you will by the time you’re done with it.”

Besides its popular and powerful youth ministry, St. John’s is well known for its eclectic music programs and vacation Bible school for adults. St. John’s also hosts the Blessing of the Animals every October. The greater Episcopalian church’s blessings are many. Just this week, the Rev. Grace noted that the Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, an Episcoplian-faith based hospital, “blessed the bicycles.”

“It was to promote green energy and to bless couriers and police officers and kids who ride their bikes to school,” the Rev. Grace said. “I know it sounds a little hokey, but I think it’s another example of our faith reaching out and working compassionately in the community.”

St. John’s new vision states that the “Church is a congregation inviting everyone at any time to feel and know the love of God…” Even for nonbelievers? Or for those who haven’t started their journey or perhaps who have ended it, wondering where God was during the recent Japanese tsunami or the 9/11 bombing or during World War II when an estimated 60 million people were killed, including an 6 million in concentration camps? In the wake of these human disasters, a number of polls, for example, repeatedly show religion to be in decline in both Europe and the United States.

“I can only tell you what is true for me,” the Rev. Grace said. “When there are times in my life when things are difficult, I need to know there is a greater good. When there are times in my life that are so precious and tender, I need to know there is protection and care. And I find it most in a faith community and in a group of people who have come together to know the will of God and the love of God, to pray for forgiveness and to pray for strength, to pray for renewal … to hear their brothers and sisters in similar situations. That’s vitally important in my life.

“So, when I meet somebody who is going through a divorce and is bitter and angry and hurt and remorseful, I know there’s a place where she can come and be renewed and restored and told that she is a beloved child of God — that her story matters.

“So, are religious institutions out of date? Hell no! They are needed more now than ever. I know that personally, and I know that by looking at the people who come here. I see it every day.”

Then she shared a personal example of how faith works. Last week, her oldest son Matthew, an infantryman who is preparing for his third tour of duty in Afghanistan, posted on St. John’s Facebook page asking followers to pray for one of his “battle buddies” who was recently wounded. Responses started pouring in.

The Rev. Grace’s eyes misted up, her example of how faith communities spring to action in times of need very clear indeed.

In addition to keeping the church on mission, the Rev. Grace has to watch over another flock. She and her husband Mark, an information technology engineer, have four children, Matthew, who serves in the military, Benjamin and Elizabeth who are off away at college, and the “baby,” Rebecca (“she’ll kill me for saying that), who is 16 and attends Charter Oak High School.

“My husband and I are equal partners,” the Rev. Grace said. “He taught summer school and worked in the nursery. He is a gift for me and my children.”

Like a doctor, the Rev. Grace is on call 24/7, whether at home or at church. Her longest days are Sunday, of course. Her quietest days are Mondays, which, with no office hours scheduled, she tries to reserve for study and reflection. Two books she is reading are “Under the Lemon Tree,” an open dialog between Muslims, Christians and Jews, and “The 12 Steps of Compassion.”

“I think people do think that ‘she’ works on Sundays and that’s it,” the Rev. Grace said. “That’s so far from the truth.”

Keeping the faith is a full-time commandment for a growing church and its spiritual leader. At St. John’s, worshipers celebrate the seven sacraments, none more important than the baptism and the Eucharist. “The sacraments are central to the expression of our faith,” the Rev. Grace explained. “They are an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace by Christ as a sure and certain sign of God’s grace.

“God does things outwardly and visibly that point to an inward and spiritual grace.”

St. John’s doesn’t have a formal recruitment plan to build the church. Rather it relies on good old fashioned storytelling – one member of the congregation sharing a story with another person – heart to heart, soul to soul. “If something is important to me, it might be important to you,” the Rev. Grace shared. “People are yearning for a place that allows them to sort things out, that allows them a sense of grace, a sense of peace, a sense of healing and a sense of reconciling, so that’s what we do.”

St. John’s, on its 50th anniversary to be celebrated this Sunday, indeed seems to be in a good place from which it is ready to embrace the next 50 years. It is steeped in history and tradition and at the same time, the Rev. Grace reiterated, “We are open and responsive to the needs and concerns of the world we’re living in.”

St. John’s is at a good and Godly place in its history, owing no doubt a tip of the hat to Henry for having all those wives(which ultimately gave birth to Anglicanism and its American cousin, the Episcopalian faith).

“I’m glad he did,” the Rev Grace said.


By the way, there are six different St. John’s Episcopalian churchs in the diocese of Los Angeles. The St. John’s is La Verne is named after St. John, the evangelist, in the New Testament. St. John’s is located at 4745 Wheeler Ave. in La Verne.

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