Christ Church Cathedral Indianapolis
As politicians and private citizens exchange heated words over immigration, many churches keep a cautious silence. Not Christ Church Cathedral in Indianapolis But how could they keep silent?
A strong voice of advocacy, the congregation chooses to engage around issues of immigration because they are a congregation that worships in more than one language, across cultures. For the past several years, part of their mission has been to break down the internal barriers that might cause them to be two separate congregations, one speaking Spanish and one speaking English. They seek instead to be one together rooted in a renewed sense of mission to “widen the circle of God’s embrace with heart and voice,” explains Dean Stephen Carlsen.
The internal work that allowed them to blur boundaries between English speakers and Spanish speakers within their congregation provided a prescient roadmap for how to respond to broader conversations about immigration in our culture today. Advocacy came easily, because issues were not merely abstract ideas. Immigration policies touched on congregational relationships; they impacted family, friends, and neighbors, known and unknown. These connections demanded that the congregation take to the public square. Or, in their case, the public circle.
Christ Church is located right in Monument Circle, the civic heart of Indiana. Dean Carlsen believes that being who God has called the Cathedral congregation to be puts them solidly in a public place and forum. They live that in a public way, for their neighbors in their city and in their state.
One of the most visible examples of Christ Church Cathedral’s advocacy has been their #EveryFamilyIsHoly #CadaFamiliaEsSagrada campaign which they initiated with a thought-provoking art installation in the churchyard. Earlier this year, The Rev. Canon Lee Curtis, recognizing the crisis of family separation on the southern border, wanted to contextualize the stories of those being detained and separated with Jesus’ family who themselves were refugees and asylum seekers. Christ Church Cathedral installed life-sized creche figures of the Holy Family, encircled by a chain link fence.
The image and connected campaign went viral very quickly, garnering media coverage locally and nationally. Church staff members found that their voice mailboxes were full and remained so for weeks; it was impossible for them to respond to all of the social media, email, and written responses. There were trolls, but there was also a lot of support.
Although the congregation was not entirely uniform in their opinions, they had already done much discernment around issues of what our faith says about immigrants. Using scripture as a foundation, they had compiled a list of everyone in scripture who needed asylum or took refuge or immigrated. They discovered it was everybody. They realized that God’s people are always those who are on the move – people seeking safety for their families. Therefore, although it sometimes felt uncomfortable, the congregants of Christ Church Cathedral felt that as Christians they were compelled to act.
Dean Carlsen explains, “It shouldn’t surprise us, but it always does, that inclusion is always edgy… For some reason our culture is really scared and nervous right now, and when that happens, we tend to entrench and go to what we know and like, but I don’t think that’s an option for people following Jesus. I think we have to reach out to those who differ from us, to the stranger or the immigrant or those who come to us in Christ but in the form of people who need the Gospel. And I include us in those who need the Gospel.”
With the Gospel as their foundation, Christ Church Cathedral continues their work of witness and advocacy. The installation was modified – the Holy Family was removed and a mirror installed in the chain-link enclosure so that all might see their own reflections in those who have been detained. Dean Carlsen participated in a 48 vigil at the U.S./Mexico border with other clergy from across the Episcopal Church as part of #AdventAtTheBorder, where they met and prayed with those fleeing violence and poverty in Central America, as well as three Anglican Bishops of Mexico, and the leaders of Borderland Ministries, an agency of the Episcopal Diocese of the Rio Grande.
As other congregations consider their role and voice in advocacy, Dean Carlsen believes that if a church has a fairly homogenous cultural expression and lacks the ability to see other cultural expressions, ultimately, they will miss out on equally wonderful expressions of the Gospel.
The Dean suggests that to fully embrace our Episcopal values of inclusion, we must acknowledge the current divisions in our culture. It can be difficult because we Episcopalians sometimes don’t realize our own narrow cultural perspectives. While “traditional Anglican culture” has many wonderful traditions rooted in the English and in England, it’s not the only Anglican ethnic and cultural category. By exploring a broad range of what brings Anglicans together, the cathedral congregation has been inspired and energized. For example, many parishioners from the Latinx part of the congregation had rarely participated in Maundy Thursday before joining Christ Church Cathedral. As one of the first liturgies that fully integrated Spanish and English components, it was striking because in that liturgy Jesus prays that we might all be one. The Dean believes it would have been a terrible loss to have done that liturgy separately. In addition to inviting Spanish-speaking congregants more fully into certain traditions, the English-speaking congregants are learning to love Our Lady of Guadalupe. They now see that the Lady of the Americas is their Lady too; and they recognize that if they want to welcome those from the all the Americas, they should learn how to value the tradition of Guadalupe.
As a poignant example of how the congregation is working at transformation, Dean Carlsen relates a story about a vestry retreat. There, he realized that about 1/3 of the vestry represented the Spanish-speaking part of the congregation but over 2/3 of the vestry spoke Spanish. This realization led them all to recognize that to be a part of Christ’s church is to be a little uncomfortable at any given time. To reach out to those who seem different, to trust enough to reach out and to develop friendships, and to work across differences isn’t always easy – people may have to struggle in a different language, may have to learn to appreciate new ways, new foods, and new music. But when they do, it is incredibly enriching to take that journey together, into becoming one body in Christ.