Sonoma County’s Christian churches maintain wide presence through social work

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José Soto had to stand along a side aisle of the sanctuary, one of roughly 200 parishioners who couldn’t find a seat at the packed Spanish service inside Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Windsor.

As a light rain fell outside, the Mass on Palm Sunday began with a processional featuring the church’s India-born, Spanish-speaking priest and numerous costumed parishioners passing beneath great arches of palm branches in the center of the sanctuary. Later Soto, 23, sang along as a casually dressed choir backed by guitars, piano and electric drums proclaimed “Santo, Santo es el Señor” — “Holy, Holy is the Lord.” It is a chorus the young man used to sing at Mass as a boy in Tapalpa, a small town in the Mexican state of Jalisco.

Soto, a junior college student and talented violinist nicknamed Curly, stands at the crossroads of two key demographic groups in American Christianity: Latinos, who make up an increasing share of churchgoers, and millennials, who are staying away in droves from organized religion. He acknowledges having plenty of questions about his faith, but that doesn’t keep him from performing worship songs once a month along with his mariachi band at Our Lady’s 12:30 p.m. Sunday Mass.

Even as he ponders his beliefs, he said, “I still feel the need to play for my church.”

Christianity in Sonoma County is increasingly made up of voices outside the mainstream, its adherents at times distinctly different than the population at large.

For Catholics, that difference often crops up in an individual or family’s status as immigrants — similar to past eras, but today the immigrants aren’t Irish or Italian. In California, two of every three Catholics are now Latino, according to the Pew Research Center.

For evangelicals and conservative Catholics, the difference comes in the widening gap with the larger culture on social issues, perhaps best seen in the divide over same-sex marriage.

And for mainline Protestants, the difference often comes from congregations getting older and smaller as younger people see less need for church.

Despite their differences, the county’s churches this Easter remain a force, especially when it comes to feeding the hungry, housing the homeless and meeting other basic human needs.

“Removing that faith-based community from our city would leave a big gap when it comes to an intense effort to help people in need,” Santa Rosa Mayor John Sawyer said. The impact of local churches is “almost immeasurable.”

Even while living in an increasingly irreligious age, leaders of various Christian traditions insist that their churches still have a role to play and a message of faith to proclaim.

“We can help people find purpose and meaning in their lives,” said the Rev. Cindy Alloway, pastor in Santa Rosa of the Presbyterian Church of the Roses, a congregation that for 16 years has operated a daily free breakfast program for students of nearby Montgomery High School.

Even for the “unchurched,” the leaders offer a simple message: All people matter, because they matter to God.

In this divisive, tumultuous era, that message remains attractive “because it resonates in the heart” and “has concrete ramifications for how we treat one another,” said Santa Rosa Bishop Robert Vasa, who oversees the Catholic diocese that stretches from Sonoma County to the Oregon border. The diocese has an estimated 165,000 registered members, with about 45,000 regular church attendees.

Nearly two-thirds of Sonoma County residents, however, aren’t affiliated with any organized religion. Understanding Christianity in Sonoma County begins with the recognition of that fact, said Tim Stafford, a senior writer for Christianity Today magazine and a Santa Rosa resident.

“Sonoma County, in the middle of Wine Country, has low church attendance and highly liberal politics, but its religious profile is less secular than alternative. Many are attracted to eclectic spirituality, what used to be called New Age spirituality, ” Stafford wrote in a 2009 article for Christianity Today.

Local religious leaders gave credence to Stafford’s view.

“The mantra of Sonoma County is ‘I’m spiritual but not religious, so I sure don’t need church on Sunday morning,’ ” said the Rev. Gene Nelson, pastor at the Community Church in Sebastopol for almost 38 years.

In the county, Catholics constitute the largest religious body. In 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, they numbered nearly 108,000 parishioners, or 22 percent of the population, according to the Association of Religion Data Archives, which compiles a church census each decade.

Next are the evangelicals, marked by conservative theology and emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. They constituted almost 28,000 members, about 5 percent of the population.

Behind them are mainline Protestants, including those from such historic denominations as Presbyterian, Methodist and United Church of Christ, a denomination that takes in Nelson’s church. In 2010 they totaled almost 12,000 members, or 2 percent of the population.

The county’s religious makeup also includes about 1,400 members of Orthodox Christian churches and 24,000 members of what the religious archives group labeled as “other” religions. In 2010, this included nearly 9,100 members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons, 9,100 adherents to various groups within Buddhism, 2,200 Muslims and nearly 1,500 members of various Jewish synagogues.

After adding up all the various groups, about 65 percent of the county’s population remained “unclaimed” by any religious institution. That is higher than both the state rate of 55 percent and the national rate of 51 percent. The main reason for the difference is that the proportion of evangelicals and mainline Christians in the county is about a third the rate for the entire nation.

Christianity in Sonoma County dates back nearly two centuries to 1823, when Catholic missionaries founded a mission in Sonoma, San Francisco Solano. The first church in Santa Rosa, a Baptist congregation, was founded in 1852, according to “Santa Rosa, A Nineteenth Century Town,” a historical chronicle by Press Democrat columnist Gaye LeBaron and other writers.

The county’s Christian institutions include its largest hospital, Santa Rosa Memorial, a Catholic facility, more than 20 primary and secondary schools and a smattering of social service institutions.

Over the past half century, church members, especially Catholics, have played prominent roles in the community, serving as judges, district attorneys, university presidents, elected officials and leading business people.

The most pronounced, public impact of churches today may be in the distribution of food to needy families. Last year, 85 faith-based groups gave out 2.3 million pounds of food from the Redwood Empire Food Bank. That amounted to 45 percent of the food that is distributed by all county groups working with the food bank.

Catholic Charities, St. Vincent de Paul, Salvation Army and Redwood Gospel Mission are among the Christian groups offering services to the homeless, drug addicts and immigrants. Evangelical leaders especially point to the Gospel Mission as a catalyst that brings their members together to serve dinners to the needy at Thanksgiving and Christmas, to hand out free student backpacks at a back-to-school event each summer in Juilliard Park, and since 2014, to host dinners and provide sleeping space on a rotating basis at churches under a “nomadic shelter” homeless program.

These and other efforts amount to good news “from the trenches,” said Jeff Johnson, pastor in Larkfield at The Cove, a Presbyterian congregation that began in 2003. And while he prefers to focus on this close-up perspective, Johnson acknowledged there is a bigger picture that is more troubling for Christian churches.

“From 30,000 feet it doesn’t look so good,” said Johnson, who has been in the county a quarter century. “Christianity in Sonoma County and America in general is in a time of waning. … We haven’t had a big revival in a long time, since the Jesus Movement (of the 1970s).”

Others referred to last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage as a sign of how the divide has grown between theologically conservative churches and the larger society.

After the decision, Bishop Vasa wrote that the court had made “an egregious error in moral judgment,” a sentiment echoed by numerous national evangelical leaders. The Catholic Church and evangelical denominations generally oppose allowing same-sex couples to wed.

The majority of county voters apparently hold a different view after having twice rejected same-sex marriage bans that were approved statewide in 2000 and 2008.

Some local evangelical leaders see the sundering of church and culture as a positive development. They maintain it will force believers to clarify what really matters about their faith.

“I feel like that’s going to have a purifying effect on the church,” said Zach Vestnys, pastor of Calvary Chapel Petaluma. Whenever the church is seen as tightly linked to the dominant culture, he said, “a lot of the essential things of what it means to be a Christian can get lost.”

Vestnys, who is 35, already sees how changing traditions have diminished young people’s interaction with religious institutions. When he was in high school, many friends didn’t attend church but at least they had gone to weddings or funerals in them. But today he encounters teens who have “never stepped foot in a church in their life for any reason.”

Looking ahead, a challenge for nearly all Christian traditions regards holding onto and gaining younger people. U.S. millennials, those born between 1981 and 1996, “are far less religious than their elders,” the Pew center reported last year. For example, only 27 percent of them attend weekly religious services, compared to 51 percent of the Silent Generation, those born between 1928 and 1945.

What this means is churches that don’t have many young people now find it difficult to add such members. “The groups that are shrinking tend to be relatively older,” said Jessica Martinez, a Pew senior researcher.

Mainline Protestants appear to be the denominations most affected by the transformation. At Windsor Community United Methodist Church, the Rev. Laurie McHugh, age 50, is among the youngest of the roughly 50 congregants present each Sunday.

“I’ve watched this slow erosion or decline of mainline churches throughout my whole life,” said McHugh, the church pastor for four years.

A variety of Christian leaders insisted that whatever their religious inclinations, younger people today still have the same longings for spiritual meaning and fulfillment as past generations.

Without compromising essentials, churches must continue to seek new ways to reach those younger people, said Kevin Finkbiner, pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship in Petaluma.

The universal church, known in scripture as “the body of Christ,” is an apt metaphor when considering how churches need to adapt to survive, said Finkbiner, 35.

“What do you call a body that’s never moving?” he asked. “It’s a corpse.”

A similar challenge for churches regards reaching Latino residents, who now make up slightly more than a quarter of the county’s population. They are credited as the main reason the number of Catholic parishioners in the county grew an estimated 70 percent between 1990 and 2010.

Martinez, the Pew researcher, highlighted what first may seem like a paradox: a growing share of American Catholics are Latino, even as a declining share of Latinos identify as Catholic. The reason is the overall growth of the Latino population is great enough for both these changes to happen simultaneously.

For Bishop Vasa, caring for Latino families means providing spiritual education for their children. Many of those young ones today may be the children of immigrants, but in 20 years they will be fully assimilated into the county and “most of them by cultural heritage will be Christian Catholic.”

An increasing number of Latinos also identify as Protestant, Martinez said. In the county, they usually attend Spanish-speaking churches.

Carlos Zapata began the second Protestant church for Latinos in the county in 1991 at Santa Rosa Alliance Church. He now leads a ministry for Spanish-speaking members of Santa Rosa Bible Church.

While there are now numerous Protestant churches, Zapata suggested their efforts among Latinos remain at least as limited as efforts of other churches among the overall population. “The Spanish community has been a very, very hard field for the gospel,” he said.

Zapata sees great possibility for more whites and Latinos to one day worship together in county churches, but so doing will require members of both communities reaching out to one another. “An effort must be done from both sides,” he said.

For local Catholics, at least, the era of waning religious involvement comes in the wake of a period rocked by three scandals: cases of priest sexual abuse of children; the 1999 resignation of a Santa Rosa bishop in disgrace after admitting a sexual relationship with another priest; and the same bishop leaving the diocese $16 million in debt.

From those scandals, “the Santa Rosa diocese really suffered a blow to the solar plexus,” said Yvette Fallandy, a lifelong Catholic and retired professor and vice president of academic affairs at Sonoma State University. “We’ve never completely recovered from that.”

But today many parishioners also take heart from the life of Pope Francis, who 7 in 10 Catholics say represents a “major change in direction” for the church, according to a 2014 Pew survey. Most who hold that view said the pope represents a change for the better.

“What’s really renewed my faith in the Catholic religion is Pope Francis,” said Mike Keefer, president of the fraternal group, Young Men’s Institute, whose twice-yearly polenta feeds raise funds for both religious and secular social service agencies and also provide tuition assistance to Catholic school students. He called the pope “a breath of fresh air.”

Various leaders suggested that the county’s bent toward being spiritual without belonging to a formal faith group has its limits. The individual need not worry about ever being offended or challenged, but the approach also lacks the support and encouragement that comes from being part of a fellowship.

In such a culture, local churches “have a great opportunity to model what it means to be a community,” said Char Brodersen, one of three elders, or leaders, at Refuge Christian Fellowship in Santa Rosa.

Among new faith-based efforts in the county is Crossing the Jordan, which the American Red Cross will honor next month in Rohnert Park with a humanitarian award at its Real Heroes Breakfast. The 5-year-old organization not only offers long-term residential programs for women who’ve suffered abuse or drug addiction but is also launching an online recycled clothing business that is “turning these women into entrepreneurs,” Executive Director Dana Bryant said.

Bryant, who runs the ministry with her husband, Michael, wants to see churches engage in more collaboration. “I feel like we have potential for making a greater impact,” she said.

Dan Melligan, pastor at Oakmont Community Church, acknowledged the challenges that come with leading an aging congregation in an era when younger people typically eschew church. But he expressed confidence that the global story of Christianity continues to move forward.

“My concern is to minister to the people God sends to me, and he’ll take care of the big picture,” Melligan said. “And there are hands that need to be held when they’re sick, and they need to be encouraged when they’re lonely.”

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or On Twitter @rdigit.

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