St. Matthew's Seeks to be a Center for All People

St. Matthew's Seeks to be a Center for All People

By Paula Schaap, Communications Director  

As a park ranger for Sacramento County for 15 years, Cynthia “CeeCee” Coleman often interacts with homeless people who travel through and camp out in the area’s extensive park system.

Coleman’s work with the homeless in her official capacity also fuels her passion for St. Matthew’s, Sacramento, where she serves as the senior warden, and its plans to transform itself into an outreach center for its community.

As Coleman puts it: “Service is in our DNA.” 

That is something the church is determined to keep as its watchword, even as the community it serves changes. The vestry and parishioners have made the decision to move their worship space back to the mission hall so they can partner with a large nonprofit to be an anchor agency for what has been named “The Center at St. Matthews.”

With the support of Bishop Barry Beisner and the Diocesan Board of Trustees, St. Matthew’s vestry has petitioned to go from parish to organized mission status in order to create a more flexible partnership to administer the planned service and resource center. The board also voted to give St. Matthew’s a $250,000 matching grant to continue its redevelopment as a community service center.

Other ministries supporting the move include Episcopal Community Services and the Congregational Development Group, as well as many congregations in the diocese.

St. Matthew’s – a 10-acre property a few blocks from Interstate 80 in the Arden-Arcade neighborhood – has seen a lot of changes since the land was donated to the Episcopal Church in 1906 to establish a community church.

It’s now mostly surrounded by rental apartment complexes, home to lower-income families. After McClellan Air Force base closed, many of the newly arrived families were from Central and South America said the Rev. Cindy Long, who is a deacon at St. Michael’s church. The church expanded its ministry to institute a food and clothes closet for the new Americans.

And the latest arrival of immigrants – thousands of families from the Mideast, especially from Afghanistan, are testing the resilience of the neighborhood’s social services agencies, which is why St. Matthew’s is a natural to be there for them, as it has for others in the past.

Afghan immigrants turned out in numbers when St. Matthew’s held their most recent monthly community dinner. Children ran and played among stacks of clean, donated clothes in the mission house – which was the original sanctuary – while their mothers in brightly colored headscarves and embroidered dresses, tried to get them to stand still long enough to see if clothing fit.

A young Afghan father introduced his wife and children and praised the mild California weather. The family had arrived only two months ago; already, they could speak enough English to make themselves understood, though sometimes, the father used his phone to translate from Persian to English.

The congregation, which includes the only Latino congregation in the Sacramento area that has been worshipping in the Anglican tradition for over 20 years, recently decided that its membership rolls weren’t large enough to deal with the ongoing community demands, as well as running a physical plant that was too large and needed extensive repair.

In 2013, St. Matthew’s was chosen by the Episcopal Church to be a “Mission Enterprise Zone,” and received a substantial grant for much-needed repairs and security.

The church is planning to move out of their current sanctuary and return to worshipping in the mission house – the site of the original church – so that the bigger space could be dedicated to providing more and better services to the community.

Giving up the larger facility means more service can be provided. The potential is there, not only for a large food bank – the neighborhood has been designated as a food desert area – but also for healthcare services and more educational opportunities for the community.

St. Matthew’s has already had experience in all these areas.

Besides the clothes and food closet, Deacon Long, who was a nurse at the University of California, Davis, ran a clinic with nursing students from Sacramento State that took blood pressure readings, made referrals and gave medication counseling.

The local school district already uses some of the classroom buildings at St. Matthew’s for ESL classes with about 30 students from Afghanistan and has requested even more space, Coleman said.

Beyond what the outreach center could do, there’s another role for St. Matthew’s in the diocese, said the Rev. Mary Hudak, the rector of St. Michael’s, Carmichael – a church that was established by parishioners from St. Matthew’s.

Rev. Hudak said she viewed St. Matthew’s as a place where the way outreach is done in the diocese could be changed.

“Can you imagine what it would mean for a parish to send their young people here to do mission work?” she said.

“This is a place that has the potential to change a neighborhood,” Rev. Hudak said. “And a place that can transform hearts.”

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