December 11, 2014

Mary Louise Patterson

In my first year as rector at St. Mary’s in Los Angeles I made several small pilgrimages.

I spent two cold, windy days walking around Manzanar, the best preserved of the camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned during World War II.

I walked the streets around the church, block-by-block, alone, and with the vestry.

And I went to visit the grave of Mary Louise Paterson. Ms Paterson was a Canadian-born missionary who had lived in Japan and adopted a daughter there. She and her son-in-law, Dr John Yamazaki, founded St. Mary’s as a mission to Japanese immigrants. John Yamazaki served as St. Mary’s first priest and vicar.

As tends to happen when we converse with the dead, I did most of the talking on my visit with Ms Paterson. I asked for her advice and blessing, and asked her to watch over my ministry. I filled her in on developments in the world and the church since her death in the late 1930s.

While she didn’t talk much that day, occasionally I sense some of the wisdom that Mary Louise Paterson brought to her role at St. Mary’s. One thing that stands out is that she immediately turned her attention to raising up and supporting leaders from within the Japanese immigrant community she had been called to serve. St. Mary’s developed in ways that made sense to the growing Japanese community, and in ways that ensured a Japanese-American vision and local leadership for the mission. The leadership dynasty that St. Mary’s is known for is the Yamazaki family, not Mary Louise Paterson, and rightly so.

As St. Mary’s moves into a future more closely linked with a new generation of immigrant neighbors, we will do well to heed this part of our history. Inviting new people to share a stake in the future of the parish includes making room for their leadership.

This is already happening, on our vestry and in other ways. I don’t want to reshape St. Mary’s in my own image, and the vestry has been very intentional about seeking to represent all the voices at St. Mary’s. In our church, we currently have Japanese-Americans with roots in both Los Angeles and Hawaii, an Issei Japanese immigrant, an African-American with long family roots at St. Mary’s, an Anglo who married into a Japanese-American family, and immigrants from Belize, Guatemala, and Oaxaca, Mexico. In that way, at least, I believe we are doing pretty well at heeding Mary Louise Paterson’s advice from beyond the grave.

How does your congregation make room for leadership to emerge from your newest members? Are you willing to plant seeds that others will tend? Are you willing to see new members and new communities reshape your vision into something that is life giving in a context you only partly understand?

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