From disabilities to dealing with suicide: Long Beach churches are focusing on the value of inclusion

Like many of his fellow ministers, the Rev. Jonas Hayes was raised the son of a pastor. And like many of those kids, he became frustrated with the church, feeling surrounded what by what he deemed to be trivial conversations: “The color of the drapes always seemed to be of discussion,” he lamented.

But within this frustration came a focal point of his future ministry: The idea of how much better a church can be if it focused less on the trivial and more on forgiveness and grace.

“My whole life, I’ve wanted to see the church lead the way in areas it hasn’t,” Hayes said. “I’d like to see more congregations step out on social issues. I see some churches in Long Beach doing that—and it makes me immensely proud. I want to continue doing that; I want to foster that and increase its impact.”

Hayes plans on doing that by hosting a summit with Long Beach’s church leaders as well as secular leaders, all focused on asking and answering best as possible one question: How can the church move beyond its walls to include the marginalized?

This is the Interfaith Summit on Diversity & Inclusion, set to take place place at Hayes’ church, Grace Presbyterian, on Saturday, Sep. 21.

“This is not going to be a big talk fest,” Hayes said. “I don’t want just talking heads—it’s about increasing a sense of awareness. If this summit can get a church or an organization to find a tangible way to increase inclusion, then good work has been done.”

What Hayes has ultimately learned about the concept of inclusion is two-fold. For one, different churches, be they liberal or conservative, focus on different needs within their communities: the Rev. Elena Larssen of Downtown’s First Congregational Church focuses heavily on homelessness and LGBTQ+ issues, while the Rev. Gregory Sanders of the Rock Christian Fellowship has focused on community violence and the inclusion of first responders, police officers included, in the healing process of that violence.

Hayes’ own congregation has a strong multicultural and interfaith ministry—the 400-member congregation includes people with Korean heritage, English-as-a-second-language households, LGBTQ+ members, African-American members—as well as homelessness. The church partners with Christian Outreach in Action, leading to the creation of the nearby Clark & Atherton Mercantile, a thrift shop where all its proceeds goes toward homeless ministry outreach.

“If we can get churches to discern what their community needs in tangent with their church’s bandwidth—their ability to tackle and take on these issues—then we have a win-win situation,” Hayes said. “And this includes inviting secular organizations like CSULB into the conversation. It is not something the church has always admitted but we can learn more about our mission and faith from these ‘invisible churches.'”

Echoing one of the influential patriarchs in Christianity, St. Augustine—who implored churches to look outside themselves—Hayes understands the pitfalls of worshipping in a silo. And in order to understand the needs of a community, collaboration is key, which is precisely the mission of organizations like South Coast Interfaith Council and the Harbor Regional Center.

Those needs, however, are not always so clear and provides yet another reason for the summit: Deep dialogues from everything like unspoken conversations—how to mend both one’s broken spirit and family when a suicide occurs, for example, will be one of the modules—to including the disabled and those suffering from diseases like Alzheimer’s will be on the docket.

And these topics are important for Hayes because of two very intertwining, Christian cogs: that “we are all broken in some way,” as Hayes put it, and the evolution of language and how the latter helps alleviate the pain of the former.

“Learning needs to be expanded—and language is at the epicenter of that learning,” Hayes said. “I never initially thought that, when I tell my congregation to rise for praise, how detrimental that can be for someone in a wheelchair—that is, until I had the conversation about it. And that’s why I am opening up the conversation to others.”

In a time when church attendance is waning—in a 2019 Gallup survey, just half of Americans said they belong to a congregation, a sharp decline from two decades ago—there is, obviously, a possibility to increase those numbers, even in a well-attended church like Grace. But an increase in membership is not the number one goal, according to Hayes.

“Listen: if we’re removing barriers that have kept people from participating in a church, then of course there will be an impact on our membership numbers—but that’s not really the goal of this summit,” Hayes said. “It’s truly about enhancing the inclusionary practices of both churches and organizations around the city; to encourage people to be contributing members of their community. We need to be as welcoming as possible—that’s the ultimate goal.”

An Interfaith Summit on Diversity & Inclusion,” will take place place on Saturday, Sep. 21 from 1 to 4 p.m. in the Saul Ministry Center at Grace First Presbyterian Church, located at 3955 N. Studebaker Road. For RSVP information, click here.

Brian Addison is a columnist for the Long Beach Post. Reach him at [email protected] or on social media at FacebookTwitterInstagram, and LinkedIn.

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Brian Addison has been a writer, editor, and photographer for more than a decade, covering everything from food and culture to transportation and housing. In 2015, he was named Journalist of the Year by the Los Angeles Press Club and has since garnered 16 nominations and two additional wins for Best Political Commentary for his work at KCET and Best Blog for Longbeachize, a section of the Long Beach Post. Brian currently serves as a columnist and editor for the Long Beach Post.
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