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The Backyard Missionary

COVER STORY

Forget What You've Heard About The Stuffy Old Episopal Church. For L.A. Bishop Fred Borsch, God Isn't Confined To The Cloister -- And Neither Is His Ministry.

April 11, 1999|LARRY B. STAMMER | Larry B. Stammer is a religion writer for The Times

If he had been standing on the same sidewalk the night before, the Rt. Rev. Frederick Houk Borsch would have been asking for trouble. The gritty MacArthur Park district where one of his priests has opened a small storefront mission is one of the most crime-ridden areas in Los Angeles. By day, the neighborhood bustles with hard-working immigrants from Mexico and Central America eking out a living in this faded precinct of the City of Angels. But as the sun sets, shadowy tendrils curl across storefronts and down alleys, entangling the light until it pales and finally suffocates. In the dark hours before light's resurrection, when footsteps tread on broken glass and a palpable dread charges the air, families retreat behind bolted doors. Store windows are shuttered behind galvanized steel. Gone are the bright eyes of immigrant children. Gone are the tired eyes of street vendors. This is a time of illicit eyes, of eyes glazed by alcohol and dope, of desperate women turning tricks.

Yes, the Episcopal bishop of Los Angeles thought, this was just the place to bring his guest for lunch. Borsch wanted to show him that here, in the midst of urban wretchedness, could be found holy ground--a small storefront chapel called Pueblo Nuevo de Jesucristo, (New People of Jesus Christ). Just then, the limousine cruised to the curb, the door opened and out stepped the Most Reverend and Right Honorable George L. Carey, the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury.

For the next hour, over homemade enchiladas, rice and beans, the primate of all England and spiritual leader of the worldwide Anglican Communion (which includes the Episcopal Church) listened to immigrants tell stories of lives redeemed and hopes rekindled. The mission provided jobs for more than 40 neighborhood residents by opening a thrift store and starting a for-profit janitorial service. Sixteen workers invested $500 each in the business and became cooperative owners with a voice in its operation.

Carey was deeply moved, as Borsch had hoped that he would be, especially by the work of the Rev. Philip Lance, the Episcopal priest who started it all. Carey, an evangelical Anglican at heart, was still singing Lance's praises as he and Borsch climbed into the limousine to motor to their next stop. Borsch was satisfied, but only to a point. Inside, he was struggling with a tough question: Should he disclose the rest of the story? Then, in an act that characterizes his 10-year episcopacy, the fifth bishop of Los Angeles turned to the 103rd archbishop of Canterbury and uttered a single declarative sentence that turned the experience topsy: "You know," Borsch told Carey, "Philip is a gay man."

That's Fred Borsch, L.A.'s "other" bishop. No fire and brimstone from heaven. No shouts from the mountaintop. Just conviction forged in the fires of faith and reason, vented not as Lazarus back to tell them all, but as a scholar-bishop's invitation to dialogue. He's not a household word like his friend, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles. He's far less known than Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong of Newark, N.J., whose writings challenging the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus are concepts his critics say border on heresy. Yet Borsch, 63, is indisputably one of the leaders of the Anglican Communion worldwide and is its point man on an issue that will determine the future of the institution for generations: He is spearheading the efforts of a church long known as a bastion of the white elite, of

English Christianity, to reach out to people of all colors and cultures. It's a mission he was chosen for in no small part because of his leadership in the six-county Los Angeles Diocese.

But along the way, this deeply thoughtful man, known for his willingness to listen to others and his dislike of confrontation, has also earned a reputation for controversy by welcoming gay men and lesbians into the church. Traditionalist Episcopalians are profoundly disturbed by his interpretation of church canons and Scripture to allow the ordination not only of celibate gay men and lesbians, but also those, like Lance, who are in committed, monogamous relationships. It's a stance that has put Borsch at odds with the vast majority of Anglican bishops around the world, and angered many congregants at home. Yet he soldiers on, in his own way. One day it may be a quiet aside to the archbishop of Canterbury. Or a stroll with Mayor Richard Riordan to discuss a living wage for low-paid workers. Or it may be a three-day, 50-mile walk along the Southern California coast with young people of the diocese just so they can hang out with their bishop and "look for God together."

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