Prophetic Voices: Living on the Border

By Jeannie Babb

On the Sunday before Valentine’s Day, Laurel Mathewson, T’13, opened her sermon at St. Paul’s Cathedral in San Diego, Calif., with the harrowing biography of “Anna,” a woman rescued from decades of enslavement and sex trafficking. Anna’s story, she explained, was horrible but not unusual.

“Maybe you didn’t know that the average age of entry into prostitution and pornography for U.S. citizens and permanent residents, is between 12 and 14 years old. Or that some sources say recently sex trafficking has overtaken drugs as San Diego county gangs’ top money making source.” Exhorting the congregation to do “salty, gritty work” and be the light that brightens the darkness, she invited everyone to join the fight against sex trafficking and the restoration of victims in San Diego.

Such preaching is not unusual for married priests Laurel and Colin Mathewson, T’13, who view social justice as inseparable from the salt and light in Matthew 5:13-20. Excellent scholars in every subject during their seminary years at The School of Theology, Sewanee, Tenn., and now curates at St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Mathewsons depend on their deep faith and careful exegesis of the Bible as they lead others to engage the world. “We don’t want to distinguish social justice from Christian formation,” Laurel explains. “It’s simply part of our transformation as Christians.”

Living near the border of Mexico offers myriad opportunities for the people of St. Paul’s to be salt and light. Colin says, “In San Diego, we have been receiving flights from Texas of mothers with their children for ‘processing’ at border patrol facilities in our region. Our parishioners contribute basic toiletries and clothes as part of a larger interfaith humanitarian effort.  Of course, this is a long-term problem, so we’re still discerning how else we can help.”

On Palm Sunday, Colin put on his collar and joined a pilgrimage to the border fence. Together the Diocese of Los Angeles and the Diocese of San Diego held a joint Eucharist with worshipers on the other side of the wall. Interviewed at the border by Univision, Colin said, "Durante la Semana Santa queremos contemplar como Jesus era un inmigrante, como Jesus viajaba a la frontera para estar con los pobres." (During Holy Week we're contemplating how Jesus was an immigrant, how Jesus traveled to the border to be with the poor.)

Thirteen years ago when Colin and Laurel met in the fall of 2001 at Stanford University, they had no idea either of them would become an Episcopal priest. They were not even Episcopalians. Laurel had been baptized into the Episcopal Church as a child, and Colin into the Roman Catholic Church, but both were raised as Presbyterians.

After graduating from Stanford, Colin worked in a rural Jesuit parish in El Salvador, and began to consider joining the order. Laurel notes his bad timing: He told her on Valentine’s Day. “It was a crisis. It was terrible. I thought I was losing my boyfriend and I didn’t feel I could even complain about it.”

Colin decided perhaps his calling was to social justice and community organizing rather than the priesthood. In July 2006, the two were married. By this time, they had gravitated to the Methodist Church, but Laurel says they had already begun to suspect that The Episcopal Church (“that beautiful crossroads of liturgy and Gospel truths”) would become their ultimate home. When the couple moved to Washington, D.C., so they could begin internships at Sojourner’s, they visited St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church, and their suspicions were confirmed. Laurel not only discovered a spiritual home; she opened her heart to a spiritual calling.

“I was never interested until then,” she says. “I was always involved in church and ministry in some way. I was a sexton at Stanford Memorial Church, but we didn’t know we’d be going into ministry together.”

They moved back to San Diego to pursue her discernment at St. Paul’s Cathedral with the Very Rev. Scott Richardson. In one of those early meetings, the dean turned to Colin and asked, “What about you? Have you ever thought about becoming a priest?”

From that meeting forward, Colin and Laurel walked every step of discernment and seminary together. Halfway through her junior year at The School of Theology, she gave birth to their daughter, Robin, turning in her assignments before labor began. The new parents worked together, taking turns caring for Robin, and both graduated with honors in 2013.

Today both Laurel and Colin are curates at St. Paul’s Cathedral, a politically progressive church with around a 500 average attendance. In October 2013, they were ordained to the priesthood together. “Ministry together has been wonderful,” he says. “We give each other feedback on sermons. We’re working in the same context. We have this learning community within the relationship.”

In addition to taking their turns at the regular cathedral services, Laurel and Colin are in charge of an informal family service each month, with one preaching and the other presiding. They plan the liturgy together, and watch little Robin there in the service. Colin says, “This is where we are really co-pastoring and experiencing what it will be like to be co-rectors in charge of a parish.” That, he says, is their vision of the future.

Laurel says their shared experience at The School of Theology continues to bear fruit. “It’s a regular part of our lives, talking together about what we learned in class. Our seminary education was not only formative but practical. I’m thinking about things I learned in seminary almost every day.”

As an example, she recalls what the Rev. Dr. Julia Gatta taught about pastoral care. “Mother Julia used to say preaching is pastoral care. I imagined she was talking about small churches, where you know the context of people’s lives. Now I think it’s true, even in a larger church. You’re feeding and pastoring people even when you do not know everyone by name, or do not know their particular situation.”

Advice from the Rev. Dr. William F. Brosend, professor of holimetics, informs the content of her sermons. “Brosend taught us that people are hungry for a word that speaks meaning into their lives—so don’t waste their time. I’m mindful that people are often living busy, difficult, or painful lives. They make a choice to spend one hour at the church.”

Colin feels The School of Theology also prepared him well for ministry at the cathedral. Spanish Instructor John Solomon encouraged Colin to hone his language skills and to attend the National Latino Ministry Conference. “John was so kind, patient, thoughtful, and had such a welcoming approach. He really supported my passion to minister to the Latino community.”

San Diego affords him many opportunities to exercise his Spanish language skills. He celebrates and preaches in Spanish at the cathedral every week as priest-in-charge of St. Paul’s Latino congregation. “The Spanish service is really fun. All the kids come around the altar with instruments—maracas and tambourines. During the Sanctus, they parade down the aisle full of energy.”

The Mathewsons have been ordained for less than a year, but their prophetic calling to social justice is already changing the way the cathedral interacts with the world. Asked to lead a five-week Christian formation summer course, they took parishioners outside the walls of the church and even across the border. Parishioners served breakfast to the needy, helped with a service offering homeless veterans free showers and medical care, and spent time at Dorcas House, a foster home in Tijuana, Mexico.

Forty children live at Dorcas House, just outside La Mesa Prison where at least one of their parents are incarcerated. Before Dorcas House was founded, Tijuana had no provision for the children of inmates; many children went to prison with their parents. Colin built a new website for Dorcas House, which is sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, and manages their blog and communications.

Colin says, “I’m hoping the cathedral eventually signs on to a local community organizing network, such as the San Diego Organizing Project. That would get us more deeply involved in economic justice and immigration reform work while developing leadership capacity within our own congregation.”

Ministry at the cathedral is full of surprises. “I was surprised to find I can preach without notes,” Colin says. “Someone said to me, ‘If you believe this stuff, why are you standing in a pulpit reading notes?’ So I put my notes away, made eye contact, and found that I became more attentive to the Holy Spirit.”

Laurel says, “I’ve been surprised by the extent to which people will give us glimpses how the Spirit works through our preaching. In the cathedral, we preach to over four hundred people. That may seem like the context in which you’d be least likely to know how your preaching affects their lives, but people will often follow up in some way, whether it’s a word in the receiving line or an email to say ‘This was really relevant in my life.’ That’s been a surprise, and a gift.”

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