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WITNESS FOR PEACE : A liberal Pasadena minister challenges his congregation to provide a sanctuary for refugees from strife-torn Central American countries.

April 24, 1986|JESSE KATZ | Times Staff Writer

It's not that the Rev. George Regas' message was so different last Sunday.

Many times before, the fiery Episcopal minister had condemned nuclear weapons, U.S. policy in Nicaragua or increases in military spending. Even his declaration that All Saints Church in Pasadena would be the first Episcopal sanctuary for Central American refugees in Southern California was not news to most parishioners.

Regas just wanted to make sure that the message was understood, once and for all, unequivocally.

"I believe the quintessential task of a Christian church is to be a peacemaker," he told the 200 people attending a forum discussion before Sunday's Mass. "God will judge us on how well we deal with that charge."

For One Woman, It Was Too Much

But if the church's mission was only being more clearly defined, it was finally too much for one woman.

"I can't take it anymore," said the woman, a member of All Saints since 1970, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of offending the church hierarchy.

"This is the breaking point. I'm becoming the minority and I really feel I should stop coming here."

For nearly 20 years, Regas has provoked and challenged his congregation with a blend of deep religious conviction and political activism. From opposing the Vietnam War to spearheading the movement to ordain women, Regas' liberal and often controversial statements have won him a devoted following, as well as a few discontented critics.

The declaration of sanctuary--announced in services for the first time during a Hispanic Mass last Sunday--directs the church to provide assistance for Central American refugees but will not mean sheltering them within the church building. While most members of All Saints' growing congregation seem to favor the political path Regas has adopted, the sanctuary issue has again focused debate within the parish on the proper role for the church to play.

Challenge to Think in New Ways

"That's at the heart of what I'm supposed to be doing," said the 55-year-old Regas in a recent interview. "I'm supposed to be challenging people to think in new ways and see if together we can find solutions to some of the desperate problems in this world. . . . And there are a lot more people who want that kind of church than many are willing to believe."

In fact, with a 50% increase in membership over the last 15 years, All Saints' 3,000 parishioners form the largest Episcopal congregation west of the Mississippi River. The church, which has seen its budget grow from $700,000 in 1980 to $1.4 million last year, recently added a second service on Sundays to handle the overflow.

Because of its size, wealth and fervent message, the word from the 102-year-old church frequently travels far beyond the boundaries of Pasadena.

"They are at the forefront," said Suffragan Bishop Oliver Garver of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles. "They have carved out for themselves a unique niche in the total ministry of Christian discipleship."

At the National Episcopal Church headquarters in New York, which oversees 7,300 parishes across the country, the perspective is much the same.

"All Saints, Pasadena, is one of the premier parishes of the Episcopal Church," said Charles Cesaretti, deputy for Anglican relations in the office of presiding bishops at Episcopal headquarters. "Although a number of parishes have (supported the sanctuary movement), no parish with the significance of All Saints has done so. . . . It is paving the way for a whole different level of involvement."

In becoming a public sanctuary for Central American refugees, All Saints joins 35 other churches in Southern California and about 300 nationwide, according to Jo'Ann De Quattro, chairwoman of the sanctuary committee of the Southern California Interfaith Task Force on Central America.

Like other sanctuary proponents, Regas contends that people fleeing Guatemala and El Salvador are political refugees, and that All Saints is upholding U.S. law--as well as the law of God--by offering them food, clothing and shelter.

The 1980 Refugee Act, which provides asylum on grounds of "persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution," should be applied to the thousands of Central Americans fleeing their violence-torn homelands, Regas said.

However, the federal government has sent many of those refugees back to Central America, saying that most of them have fled for economic reasons and do not qualify for special entry to this country.

"I think the so-called sanctuary movement is highly political, not humanitarian in the least," said Joe Flanders, spokesman for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service Western Regional office on Terminal Island. "Their No. 1 objective is to change the Administration's policy in Central America."

Although the INS has stated that it will not raid churches assisting illegal aliens, the current trial of 16 church workers accused of transporting Central Americans across the border to Tucson, Ariz., stands as proof of the price some sanctuary advocates may have to pay.

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