May the Work I’ve Done Speak for Me

Who would guess that a small Episcopal church tucked into an unremarkable residential neighborhood could become such a hopeful example of community building here in Los Angeles? Kelly and I attended a tearful sendoff yesterday for Father Peter Rood whose leadership at Holy Nativity Episcopal Church is an example we should all consider emulating. Fr. Peter is taking a job in Oak Harbor, Washington and LA’s loss is Washington’s gain.

Holy Nativity is in Westchester, a 1950s era suburb of Los Angeles bumped up against LAX, the second busiest airport in the U.S. I grew up in adjacent Culver City, where we used to refer to Westchester as “Deadchester” for it’s unremarkableness, though it’s hard to see how one could consider Culver City to be any more exciting. Like many LA suburbs, Westchester lacks non-commercial gathering spaces. Fr. Peter saw this as an opportunity. He always referred to Holy Nativity as a “community center that just happened to have a church attached to it.”

Over the years he collaborated with Joanne Poyourow of Environmental Changemakers to transform a large unused area of lawn into a community garden. Part of the parking lot became a community bread oven. When the city couldn’t find a location for a child’s playground he offered another large part of the church’s property for that project. He taught regular yoga classes, hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, provided space for music and dance groups and home schoolers, and built a meditation space open to anyone who wanted to use it. Along with Joanne, he generously hosted several book promotion events for us, including lectures, a beer making party and pickling and bread classes. He nurtured deep relationships with other faith traditions and hosted ecumenical lectures and events.

Peter is of the “ask forgiveness not permission” style of leadership. In keeping with this he says “yes” where others might hem and haw and wait to check with the higher ups or fret about insurance. He speaks often of addressing the “low hanging fruit” in our communities, things like planting a garden, mulch and compost. Many years ago he banished paper and plastic plates from the church’s kitchen, installing a commercial dishwasher and accumulating a supply of ceramic and metal utensils. Along with Kelly, he’s also the survivor of a harrowing aortic dissection.

There are a number of lessons to take from Fr. Peter’s example. Faith communities should consider opening their doors to the community and find ways to collaborate especially since many sit empty during the week. It should also be noted that Joanne was never a member of the church and that didn’t matter. Another lesson is for community members: don’t be afraid to approach faith communities with an idea as Joanne did. Some might say no, but many will be happy to help. I’m willing to bet that most won’t proselytize or ask for anything in return. Schools, of course, are another place where this sort of collaboration can happen but faith communities can be more nimble and often have a leadership continuity that stretches back hundreds or even thousands of years. In our time of ecological crisis we might just need to lean on institutions that have this sort of long range perspective.

Rumor has it that the folks in St. Stephens in Oak Harbor are already talking about a community bread oven. If you’re reading this and live in Washington please give Fr. Peter a hug for us. We sure will miss him down here.

For more detail, I recommend listening to this lecture by Fr. Peter explaining the history and approach he took to Holy Nativity’s community collaborations.

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  1. I agree that faith communities should be more involved in the community than just running their brand of religious services.
    I participate in a fruit and vege and garden goodies swap held at a semi local church that also has an on site produce garden open to the public. Nice.
    And another semi local church provides the premises and some willing parishioners to allow a ‘repair ‘ cafe to take place, no rental cost charged.
    And a friends church group came and planted around 40 fruit trees of mine in my front yard as part of their giving to the community.
    All this is almost (but not quite) enough to inspire me to take a fresh look at faith
    Claire in Melbourne, Australia

  2. Oh wow, I get up to Whidbey a handful of times per year. This is exactly the type of spirit that fills that island! This is also the type of church I grew up in but have never found since. It is a surprisingly rare thing. While I no longer go to church, I have never regretted those childhood years in church. It was an open, loving community filled with people who just got stuff done. Any child should be so lucky to be surrounded by adults like that.

  3. Such fantastic and inspiring collaborations. I am sure sorry you’re losing this rockstar, but hopefully his mark has been made and the LA community good vibes stay strong. It is always a bummer when someone with a vision like this moves elsewhere though, but that must be part of the vision, I guess. Planting seeds and letting them grow.

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