Since he began serving as executive presbyter of the Presbytery of San Diego in 2007, the Rev. Clark Cowden said the presbytery has focused on being a missional church.
“We serve a sending God,” he said, speaking to the Advisory Committee on Social Witness Policy, which met here Feb. 17-19. “We are a sent people.”
Throughout history, much of the focus was on bringing people to church, but now there is a need for the church to go to the people, Cowden said. Cultural shifts mean that people don’t automatically search for a church home and might not even understand the basics of Christianity, making ministry challenging.
And with governments cutting budgets and social services, the church is further impacted. Such cuts are sad, but they’re also an open door, Cowden said.
“God provides us opportunities to step into some of these gaps,” he said, adding that the church can help serve peoples’ physical, social and psychological needs.
ACSWP met at First Presbyterian Church in downtown San Diego to hear from various ministries in the presbytery that are working to meet those needs.
“We try to move from place to place to listen and learn,” said Gloria Albrecht, co-chair of the committee.
ACSWP has also met in places like Detroit, New Orleans and Phoenix to learn from Presbyterians about the situations there.
In San Diego, ACSWP heard from groups within the presbytery that work with youth and local schools, homeless people and immigrant and Hispanic congregations.
The Rev. Nate Landis, a former youth pastor at First Presbyterian, founded the Urban Youth Collaborative, which connects students in San Diego’s middle and high schools to local churches. Founded in 2007, the UYC is a validated ministry of the presbytery.
According to the UYC, 90 percent of San Diego’s middle and high school students are lacking a meaningful connection to a church, and only 56 percent of the county’s students graduate on time. These facts are concerning on an ethical and faith level, Landis said.
“I believe the church is the one institution that exists mainly for the benefit of our non-members,” he said.
Through the UYC, churches adopt schools, committing to hosting a weekly Bible study and serving at-risk students’ needs in a holistic way. More than 30 churches have now adopted schools, serving more than 1,300 students at 39 schools. UYC’s goal is to have all 280 middle and high schools in San Diego County adopted by a church by 2020.
ACSWP also heard from the Rev. Jake Medcalf, director of UrbanLife. An outreach of La Jolla Presbyterian Church, UrbanLife aims to provide a space for middle and high school and college students to develop leadership skills, learn about God and reach their potential.
UrbanLife hosts weekly programs and seasonal trips and provides a space for students to address issues like education, immigration and financial aid. The program also hosts leadership meetings so students can be empowered to serve their peers. Medcalf believes that churches need to increase their expectations of young adults by allowing them to serve as elders and educators.
Medcalf lives in the diverse inner city and teaches at a school where students speak more than 50 languages. These experiences have taught him the value of listening, reconciliation and friendship. It’s important to learn about the needs of a community and help to meet them first, then let a church develop from that community, he said.
Deb Mitchell, who will graduate from seminary in June, is director of Presbyterian Urban Ministries. PUM is a Christ-centered inner-city outreach that aims to provide a hand up, not a handout. Started in 1968 as an outreach of the presbytery, PUM addresses the physical, social and spiritual needs of San Diegans without the means to do so themselves.
PUM’s office is in a residential neighborhood down the street from an overpass where homeless people often sleep. That neighborhood connection is vital, Mitchell said.
“When you talk about loving your neighbor, we’re there and we’re loving our neighbors,” she said.
About 40 percent of the people PUM serves are under 10 years old, nearly 25 percent are veterans, and about 50 percent have an addiction. PUM supports its clients in many ways, such as providing transportation to services or helping ex-prisoners get state ID cards. But all the work PUM does comes from a place of respect, Mitchell said.
“We connect with people,” she said. “That connection is what’s important.”
Pedro J’ernantes, a physician who also serves pastoral leader of Iglesia Presbiteriana Hispana, spoke to ACSWP about the life of that church.
J’ernantes began there in May of 2010, but the church was originally founded as part of First Presbyterian many years ago. More than 50 percent of the members are undocumented, and members come from a variety of religious backgrounds. Leaders are trying to show respect for individual beliefs and to see that other traditions are as real as Presbyterian ones, while figuring out how to worship together.
J’ernantes said another big challenge for the congregation now is to become empowered and take themselves seriously. They need to accept responsibility for their ministry instead of waiting on others to come along first.
The final ministry presentation came from the Ladle Fellowship, a ministry of First Church that provides food, discipleship and other support to the homeless people of downtown San Diego.
“We aim to proclaim the good news of salvation through Christ; to help homeless believers and others in seeking a biblically ordered life, and to become more deeply committed disciples ourselves,” reads the Ladle’s website.