Today, we celebrate John and Charles Wesley as Episcopal Saints, which is a little weird, because the Wesleys are generally known as the founders of Methodism. I don’t know a ton about John and Charles Wesley, but I do know that Methodists and Episcopalians don’t tend to worship in the same buildings… And yet, for all our differences in polity, style, culture, and history, today we reflect on the same figure who we say “burned with zeal” for holiness–for a church that did new things.
Our modern divisions are just how things panned out, as they tend to do in the midst of all political turmoil. John and Charles Wesley never wanted to leave the Anglican Church. In fact, in John’s journal, we read that “the original design” of his activism was “not to be a distinct party, but to stir up all parties…to worship God in spirit and in truth.” John wanted to serve his home church but, unfortunately, he was kinda pushed out…
John was marginalized, but he was also quite literally pushed outdoors. Over the span of his career, John Wesley traveled more than a quarter of a million miles, most of it horseback. He preached literally tens of thousands of sermons, averaging around two sermons a day! And most of these sermons, he did outside–out in the open air to large crowds.
And so I wonder what John would be doing were he alive in this pandemic-tide today? Would he be posting videos every day on YouTube? Would he be jumping from Zoom church to Zoom church? And what would he be preaching? Would he tell us to forget about our church buildings? To “remember also to use all means”–our buildings, our vestments, our music, our liturgy–”to use all means as means–as ordained, [and] not for their own sake”?
My own home church is St. Peter’s, a small parish in Seattle founded by Japanese Episcopalians back in 1908. This beautiful space in the International District has been an incredibly special space for me as someone with Japanese heritage, who grew up always feeling a little bit disconnected from my culture. Being around Japanese elders every Sunday, having a deacon who hugged me like I was her own granddaughter after I told her I was Japanese-American, commemorating the signing of Executive Order 9066 every year, being taken to my first Obon Festival since my grandmother passed away when I was 6– these are all been experiences that have made me feel more connected to myself and my history than I have ever been.
So it’s been particularly hard switching to doing church virtually– what I’m used to every Sunday is what visitors have called “the longest passing of the peace I’ve ever seen.” Going from exchanging hugs and handshakes with every (and I do mean every) member of our parish to seeing each other only on Zoom calls and Facebook livestreams has been a drastic change. It really hasn’t been easy–
But this isn’t the first time Saint Peter’s has experienced being in community even when our parish doors are forced shut. The Executive Order I mentioned earlier, 9066, scattered the founding families of my parish and locked them up in internment camps during the Second World War.
On December 7, 1941, Saint Peter’s held its closing service. This is how Father Kitagawa, the Vicar at the time, marked that day in the church register:
“In view of the probability that this may well be the last Sunday service to be held here for the duration of the war, it was most fortunate and providential that the Bishop of the Diocese was able to be with us to celebrate a Holy Communion, and moreover Bishop Reifsnider, who has been appointed by the House of Bishops to be fully in charge of Japanese interest in this country for the duration, was with us and preached. His sermon was just the kind of message we need under the circumstances. He certainly touched our hearts when he, modestly and briefly as it was, spoke of his own experiences in Japan and how he was forced to leave the country for which he had given his life […] At least a part of the congregation is leaving for the Puyallup Reception Center this week and so I hereby close this record and turn it over to the Bishop’s custodianship.”
It’s hard for me to imagine how it must have felt to go through something like that; how calmly the parish handed over the keys and let themselves be rounded up and so cruelly confined by the country they loved. And four years later, they were finally able to return! They actually reopened the church and lived among the same neighbors who didn’t or couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything to stop them from being interned in the first place.
It’s so hard to imagine, but it’s not impossible to comprehend–this story of perseverance–this story of what the Japanese call gaman–is deep in my cultural background. And though John Wesley and Japan certainly have their differences, our shared spiritual connection as heirs to Anglicanism makes more sense to me through this lens.
Don’t get me wrong–the founders loved this building. And I love this building even more because of their sacrifice. But the founders of this parish shared a zeal for the Lord that could not be extinguished, no matter how badly their friends and neighbors and communities they loved had behaved towards them.
They knew that losing this space for what they called “the duration” only meant that they would have to find new ways to worship God. Because, as John and Charles Wesley believed, our relationship with God and the state of our hearts mattered more than keeping the same old rituals of the Anglican tradition. Because “the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”
Today, we find ourselves learning these lessons again as we are pushed outside the boundaries of the parish and the written liturgy just as John and his followers were–preaching out in fields and meadows–being forced to remain in full connection through whatever technology we can gather. And this openness to doing church differently has allowed us to make new relationships that really would not have been possible before. I’ve experienced this in worship, but it’s also been true for me in other spaces.
As a student, I’ve seen everyone around me struggle to adapt to the digitization of almost all of our activities. My entire senior year of college has been completely virtual, which not only makes all of my classes feel just a little fake, but also keeps me from spending my last year at Seattle University with the people in my community that I’ve really grown to love. And as I’ve been preparing myself for a potential career in academia, those big, national conferences I’ve been looking forward to as I’ve gained more experience, which are usually packed with professors and grad students and even the occasional undergrad like myself, have been reduced to 13-inch screens. But as much as everyone in my field misses the feeling of being in the same room as hundreds of people with whom we share interests and a commitment to spreading knowledge and ideas, this shift has actually given us the opportunity to spread those same ideas to a larger number of people.
Since digital conferences simply cost less to run, registration fees, which can cost hundreds of dollars and have been a barrier for many who couldn’t afford them before, have been drastically reduced over the last year, allowing for broader participation. Not meeting in a single, designated location also means that no one has to worry about travel costs/planning; and although we do often have to contend with time zones, this has meant that people from all over not just the country, but the entire world, have been able to connect and present their work to each other.
Although I’m admittedly new to all of this, this spread of information, the types and numbers of insights we have been able to gather due to the removal of (some) traditional barriers, and the breadth of people that we have been able to converse with seems to be, for lack of a less cliché word, unprecedented.
I don’t know what John Wesley would have thought of Zoom or even my own staunchly anticolonial field of study, but I see a connection between us; he wanted to unlock the doors of faith and understanding–and though he found himself pushed out of the institutions he loved, he knew that God was always on the move, and that God is personal. Doors, walls, borders–they cannot contain the Holy Spirit.
Not only was a changed heart important to the Wesleys’ theology, but actually living out a life of the renewed spirit, in repentance, showed a dedication to God. This past year, it felt like we were pushed out of our parish doors for a reason–to march and preach and live out our Christian life in a new way. As we all saw one way or another this summer, many people my age were in the streets protesting in defense of Black lives every day for months, and although it always feels like we fall short of our most radical goals, what we did do is bring this conversation about liberation, the prison-industrial complex, and combating systemic racism and police violence to the forefront of the world’s attention. Digital connections helped us here too. It helped us coordinate protests, seek medical help, as well as share anti-racist ideas that were often inaccessible in academic journals and books.
We were able to bear witness to and document what was happening on the ground instead of letting news stations control what did and did not reach the wider public–and these protest videos often showed people exactly why we were in the streets in the first place. It is one thing to hear reports about police violence, and another, more impactful thing to see it happening– and an entirely different thing altogether to experience it.
While I definitely have a lot of privilege from how white I look and can’t pretend that I know anything about what it’s like to be persecuted by the police because of my race, dealing with predatory cops as a woman (or for a more accurate timeframe, a girl) gave me a healthy awareness of these problems at a pretty young age. And being teargassed three times in one week only cemented this lesson in my head.
I don’t know if John and Charles Wesley would have marched in the streets with us, but I believe they were onto something. Their method, their model, their “stirring of all parties” is a lesson for us today.
We may not be able to travel thousands of miles during this pandemic on horseback or otherwise, but we have the technology and the awareness to, in John’s words:
“Do all the good we can,
By all the means we can,
In all the ways we can,
In all the places we can,
At all the times we can,
To all the people we can,
As long as ever we can.”
These technologies keep us in relationship, help us connect to new communities, become more inclusive, and organize for justice and collective liberation. When we trust in God to be with us in all places and all times, with or without the comforts of home and routine, the results can be revolutionary.
Text by Hana Cooper & Jad Baaklini
Watch the full episode below: