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A long tradition of activism

Pasadena's All Saints, now an IRS target, has spoken out on contentious issues since World War II. The stances have drawn some in and driven some out.

November 13, 2005|By Patricia Ward Biederman | Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

All Saints Episcopal Church seems to embody staid, moneyed old Pasadena. Facing City Hall, the 80-year-old Gothic Revival church has glowing stained-glass windows by Tiffany and the local Judson Studios.

But though the medieval-looking church exudes serenity and other-worldliness, the 3,500-member congregation has been speaking out on controversial issues since an All Saints rector protested the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. That tradition continues, with the recent disclosure that the IRS is threatening the church's tax-exempt status because of an antiwar sermon there last year.

The possible government action, announced from the pulpit last Sunday, has rallied new supporters who wonder if the activist church is being targeted because of its generally liberal politics -- which the IRS denies. And the investigation has focused new attention on a congregation that regards fighting for peace and justice as central to its mission, a stance that both attracts many to the church and repels some who wonder if conservatives are truly welcome there.

"This is an unusual place," said Zelda Kennedy, a Bahamian-born Episcopal priest and graduate of Yale Divinity School. As head of pastoral care at All Saints, she takes the Eucharist to the bedridden, and she recently launched a knitting ministry whose knitters pray as they make shawls for the ill and the bereaved.

"A church like All Saints is called to be God's presence in this world, to be God's hands and feet and voice," she said. "There are so many churches that are satisfied with the status quo. All Saints is not."

The sermon that prompted the Internal Revenue Service investigation was delivered by former Rector George Regas two days before the 2004 presidential election.

An imaginary dialogue between Jesus and candidates Sen. John F. Kerry and President Bush, the sermon had Jesus chiding both for supporting the war in Iraq and speaking so little about the poor.

"President Bush, you have not made dramatically clear what have been the human consequences of the war in Iraq," Regas said.

The IRS has said the sermon may have crossed the line from protected free speech and religious expression to intervention in a political campaign, which the tax code prohibits for nonprofit organizations. The church says it did not break the tax rules and plans a vigorous defense.

All Saints Rector J. Edwin Bacon said he will preach about the IRS inquiry from the pulpit this morning.

Regas, who was rector for 28 years before he retired in 1995, was legendary for his opposition to war, his championing of female clergy and his commitment to integrating gays and lesbians into the fabric of the church. A church official estimated that 10% to 15% of the congregation is gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.

Regas also brought leaders of other faiths into All Saints. In 1973, the rector named Reform Rabbi Leonard Beerman, when he was at Leo Baeck Temple on the Westside, as the church's rabbi-in-residence.

Beerman first met Regas at an anti-Vietnam War rally that year. Beerman said they also fought together against nuclear proliferation and racism and for human rights and better wages for the working poor. The Bel-Air temple and the Pasadena church even arranged to buy and refurbish several skid row hotels to provide decent housing for the poor.

"We both saw this as a natural expression of our religious ideals," said Beerman, whose daughters call the current rector "Rebbe Eddie."

Selected to succeed Regas 10 years ago after a two-year search, Bacon, 57, is a former Southern Baptist who was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. In an interview, he said he met the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. years ago in the South, reinforcing his belief that social action is a requirement of religious faith.

"It is our job to heal the world," Bacon said. "I'm not one who says, 'He's got the whole world in his hands.' He and we have the whole world in our hands."

Beerman thinks the All Saints clergy have an especially profound appreciation of the problems of the poor, because of the church's location in downtown Pasadena. Unlike congregations in Southern California's many sumptuous suburbs, at All Saints, Berman said, "the poor were right in front of them. They didn't have to go searching for them."

The shift toward social action appears to have begun during the Great Depression. Until the 1930s, only men were allowed to serve as ushers at All Saints, and they did so in white gloves, according to senior warden Robert Long, who heads All Saints' governing vestry. The church also catered to privilege by allowing wealthy families to rent the choicest pews.

But, in 1942, then-Rector Frank Scott, who had already abolished pew rentals, stood in protest in front of trains spiriting local Japanese Americans off to wartime internment camps.

"I think that's when activism for peace and justice crept into the DNA of this place," said Long, an attorney.

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