Welcome, and thank you for visiting St. George's Episcopal Church!
Nestled near the base of Box Springs Mountain, St. George's Episcopal Church is located at 950 Spruce Street,
behind the beautiful campus of the University of California, Riverside.
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Holy Eucharist Rite II Service
SECOND WEDNESDAY OF THE MONTH
Healing Eucharist Service
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What's Happening at St. George's...
Life at St. George's - Come join us!
A Ministry of being Present
By: Diane L. David
In our New Testament lesson today, John writes, “Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God.” John reminds us that God sent his Son to show us that love, and, he continues, “IF we love one another, God lives in us and his love is perfected.” That’s a pretty powerful admonition of being a display of love in world.
But it is becoming harder to show that kind of universal love these days. I grew up in Montgomery Alabama in the early 50’s, so I witnessed firsthand, the division and hatred that existed. And in time we worked at swinging the pendulum away from that divisiveness. And now, I’m afraid we are starting to see the pendulum swing back the other way again. Voices of hatred and division have been given permission to be louder these days, the media gives them access to our homes. Social media provides outlets for opinions without accountability, and so it becomes harder so be a presence of God’s love in the world today.
I don’t know how many of you know that there is an Islamic Study Center a mile from here, on Linden Street, adjacent to campus.
A year ago…Jeano shared during our announcements time that since the travel ban was signed in January 2017, the community there was being harassed as they gathered for prayers on Friday. She said that there was a small group of people who were there each week showing signs of support, and invited us to join them. She would even provide the sign!
I wrote to a friend in Philadelphia that week that I was thinking of joining this group. He is about my age, with a history of social, if not religious, involvement, and he wrote back, “It may not seem like much to you but, I know from past experience that every little bit helps. Good for you!”
If you’ve been to the Islamic Study Center, over on Linden, it is a gated set of buildings, with some parking around the mosque, but the majority of the people park across the street from where we stand. Many students and families walk from the local apartments around the campus area. We’ve been given permission to stand on the lawn, so we’re not impeding sidewalk traffic. And every week, Achmud, the security person, checks on us, often bringing us bottles of water. Lots of water!
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I arrived that first Friday, but there was Jeano, with a sign for me that read, “I stand with my Muslim neighbors.” That day there was one other lady named Sue. I met Caroline the next week. For most of the year there are the three of us, Sue, Caroline and I, who make sure there is someone there each week.
My first day, a grad-student-aged young woman, in very traditional garb approached us and asked, “May I take your picture? I want to send it to my mother so she knows I’m ok.” That was when I knew that my presence would matter.
It’s been interesting to watch the demographics as we gained acceptance. Students think we’re rock stars, probably because they couldn’t imagine their grandmothers doing this! The 30-50 year olds are the ones who profoundly grateful, aware of what this means in our world, and tell us so each week. The older generation has a harder time. Very old men do not look at us at all, older women acknowledge, but don’t show approval. We are obviously doing something they would not be allowed to do. But the longer we are there, the more interaction we have. And we’ve been there EVERY week.
During the summer, it was HOT! There were weeks when it was 105 and 109. As people were leaving, one man, surrounded by other older men, came up and with great authority said, “You’re going to heaven!” “Thank you” “NO. You’re really going to heaven.” “Thank you, that means a great deal.” “Anyone who will stand in this heat to support their neighbors is going to heaven!” “Well, it is really a very small thing. I’m just standing here.” And with great sincerity, and very carefully chosen words, he said, “To you it is a little thing. To us it is a very big thing. “ (I smiled, recalling my friend, Bill’s words when I was first deciding whether to do this!)
I had a grad student tell me, “This is the best thing that has happened to me since I have been in America.” Imagine coming to a country, which purports to be open and loving, and having this simple act be the best thing that has happened to him.
Some people ask me why I do this, and my reply was, “ there are so many negative voices in our world today, there need to be some positive ones voices that are just as present.”
In time…the community wanted to find ways to say thank you. They’d bring us water. LOTS of water! And we learned that every few weeks they sell lunches as a fund raiser for their programs, and often someone will come out with Styrofoam to-go containers with a delicious lunch of grilled chicken, basmati rice, a little salad and some fruit.
In the fall, we were handed a card from a student organization: on behalf of the Muslim Student association of UC Riverside: I would like to express my deepest appreciation for what you do. They say that time is priceless and you are using yours to express your solidarity. We acknowledge and are grateful for your support during these trying times. The weather here in Riverside is not too kind either, yet you still stand proudly holding those signs. You have no idea how many days you’re brightening me very much with your presence. If you are ever in a time of need, we will be by your side, just as you are here for us. Thank you and best wishes.”
One day, two men approached us. They had obviously been told that a traditional way to express thanks was to give a thank you card. So they each brought a card, and approached us. They handed us the cards, no envelopes, and we were asked to pick the one we wanted! We each opened our cards, which were unsigned. We explained that traditionally they would sign the cards so that we would have a remembrance of them and their appreciation, so Walid, from Egypt and Mohammed, from Jordan, signed our cards, offered their thanks!
As the community grew to know us, people would stop and enter into discussions…most revolving around how similar we are, and the fact that there is one God, but many different ways to worship that one god. When we expressed our thanks one day for the good weather we had, after a rather stormy week, one man said, “Well, clearly, Allah wants you to be here.” So it has been our slogan for good weather days. “Allah wants us to be here.”
Yes, we do get antagonists (and most often when we are alone!)… a man from Egypt confronted me one day about the bad things Muslims were doing in his country. I explained that there are extremists with every religion, there were Christian extremists who were doing things that seem counter to my beliefs. But I explained that I knew this mosque in particular worked with the young people to prevent radicalization. And while I couldn’t change things in his country, or even throughout my nation, I could make a difference in my neighborhood.
Not too long ago, there was a man who was arguing with me about extreme Muslims: taking Koran literally. And I explained that one could interpret any doctrine to substantiate one’s mission. “Not the Bible!” he countered. And I responded, “I’m pretty sure we aren’t supposed to stone adulterers anymore. Even though in Deuteronomy, we are encouraged to stone adulterers. And I have come to know this group of people as a very loving community, who do not believe in the beliefs of the extremists.”
Over time my answer for why I do this has changed, and recently I found myself saying, “ I live a few miles from here, and my own church is a mile from here, where I have the right to worship without being harassed. I want this community to have that some right.”
Support comes not just the Muslims, but from the entire neighborhood. Most people who drive by, support us. Riverside Police and Campus police wave as they make their rounds. RTD drivers. Students walking by, non Muslims who live in the university apartments, walk by and give us a thumbs up or a high five! One man recently walked by, and without ever looking at me said, “I continue to support what you’re doing here!”
But it is not always warm and fuzzy. I find that the heated discussions don’t bother me. I am strong in knowing why I do this and knowing that I’m not changing the world. I’m just changing my neighborhood. But the community continues to be harassed. Sometimes we get people still driving by, shouting “Go home” or “Build a wall!” and even now the occasional, “Yeah Trump.” Sometimes the assaults are not to the Muslims, but to me personally. One person said, as she walked by, “I don’t understand how you can support them.” At the beginning of February I was there alone, standing on the grass, with the 3 feet of sidewalk between me and the street. A man on a bicycle rode by, and with a hatred that I have never experienced before in any form, snarled at me, “Shame on you!” And he spit at me. [Silence] It was in that instant that I was reminded that he was the very reason I was there.
I have been asked if I am scared going there, and I usually cavalierly answer, “No.” But I found an email from mid-February that I wrote to Bill in Philly. “For the first time, I am scared. Earlier in the week I was just uneasy. The warm fuzzies of doing something good in the world for a community that has shown such gratitude was jostled a bit by the drive-by spitting last Friday. There was a loss of innocence and a reminder of the reality of why I’m really doing this. But the shooting in Florida this week was a harsher reminder of how people choose to express their anger and dissent, and today, I am scared.”
He answered,” It would seem that being scared is the order of the day. You know I’m proud of you for what you do, but no one, myself included, would fault you for taking some time off from this until a calmer time. I don’t want you to get hurt. But I suspect that you’ll be out there, scared or not. So be careful, ok? Keep aware. You’re doing a very good thing.”
Breaks in the school term brought family visiting while students had time off. Knowing very little English, and with their sons and daughters translating our signs and explaining our presence, they would try, often with tears, to find the words to thank us for our support of their children.
Three weeks ago man from Afghanistan, said his sister in Afghanistan had said that a picture of us and article had appeared in an online newsletter, and she contacted him and asked if this was his mosque in Riverside? She said the comments about our support were very positive. The ripples of our simple gesture are far-reaching.
We were out there on Good Friday. One man, whom we had seen every week, stopped that day and said, “This is your Easter this weekend, isn’t it? And yet you are here.” We tried to explain that “love one another” was an important principal for all of us, and this was the perfect time to be here. He then looked puzzled, struggling with formulating an obviously deep philosophical question (and I began to prep myself to explain the Resurrection) and he took a deep breath, “So….tell me…. what is this about Easter Bunnies???” Sue and I launched into all our secular family traditions for the holiday (and tied it to Santa being the secular side of Christmas )
My favorites involve the children in the congregation, young people who, because of our presence, are now growing up in an environment of acceptance in their community. There is a car that comes along Linden and it pulls into the drive to park near the buildings, so I never see the occupants, but as they approach the driver honks and waves, and three little heads pop to wave frantically. There is a father that walks by every week with his 5-6 year daughter and her slightly older brother. Every week, in her full long robe and hijab, she smiles and says, “Thank you for being here!” and as she leaves, she always wishes us a good week. There was mother with two young teen daughters, who stopped and talked to us about why we do this, “because it is important for my daughters to know that there is good in the world and that it can be put into action” and she asked for a picture with us. I have a copy. I keep it on the visor in my car.
We are told continually to love one another. It is the great commandment. And we have been given the greatest teacher and examples for how to do that. But just saying, “I love my neighbor” is no longer enough in our world. The voices of negativity are getting louder, they are being given media access in an unprecedented way. And our voices of love and acceptance have to be equally present.
In the last year I have experienced first hand the power of being present and the impact that being present can have on a community. It is so simple. LOVE is simple. I stand at a place of worship, with a sign of acceptance. That’s all I do, and yet I have seen how it impacts the members of the congregation, and through them their families who know there is love and acceptance in their space. It has impacted the neighborhood around the mosque, the non-Muslims who come and go along Linden Street and see these crazy old ladies in the neighborhood. And further reaching, it has rippled to the countries of the families.
So I encourage you to find ways to put your love into action. We gather in this space each week because we are like-minded in our belief in God’s love, but the world out there needs evidence of that love these days, and so I encourage each of you to find a way to be present with that love, and create something good in your own world. Amen