The Joy Task Force

St. Alban’s, El Cajon partners with RefugeeNet providing a twice-a-month food pantry, serving mostly refugee neighbors. With food provided by the San Diego Food Bank, and volunteers from First Presbyterian of El Cajon, RefugeeNet and St. Alban’s, we unload, sort and distribute these gifts. We are motivated by love to serve our newcomer friends, most of whom are from Iraq, and who line up hours before the food distribution begins.

It’s a sweet system—with challenges. It used to be that guests grew impatient after hours of waiting, even a bit short-tempered with our wonderful volunteers. One hot day in 2015, the Rev. David Madsen, at that time the new rector of St. Alban’s, invited those waiting to come inside the cool, dark church. They agreed. He led the procession (Episcopalians love a procession!) across the courtyard into the sanctuary. Hushed oohs and ahhs emerged from the crowd of refugees. They hadn’t realized the building across the courtyard was a church! Mostly Chaldean Catholics from Iraq, they love the altar, icons, candles, chapels—they love it all. And, it’s all a bit of a surprise.

When the time comes to open the parish hall and begin distributing food, everyone files into the courtyard. Father Madsen welcomes us, reminds us to be considerate and offers this prayer: “This is God’s holy ground and you, my brothers and sisters, are God’s holy people. In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Everybody (seriously everybody) makes the sign of the cross. “Amen.”

As soon as we started opening the pantry with a prayer, and opening the church as a waiting area, volunteers immediately reported a changed atmosphere. Previously, our guests did not understand that the pantry was a ministry of the church and that the workers were all volunteers. They thought it was another government-run food program. Even those who knew the building was a church did not understand the link between the church and the pantry.

The gathering in the church has grown into a full Eucharistic service on the first and third Tuesday of the month, with an English-Arabic bilingual bulletin. Sermons are simultaneously interpreted by a volunteer. During communion, Chaldean women chant hymns that accompanied their Eucharist in Iraq.

After the service, all who desire healing prayer and anointing are invited to come forward. Without fail, nearly everyone comes. Nearly all have been, or have friends and relatives who are still impacted by the terror in northern Iraq. These intercessions aren’t simply what you do in church. They’re deep and profound.

Thanks to a Fearless Love grant from the diocese, our twice-per-week English conversation coffee hour started with a few native English speakers and English learners from St. Alban’s and the surrounding neighborhood. We provide a casual, comfortable space where we share friendly conversation and encourage newcomers to practice their English. We have about 16 regular learners and are always seeking native speakers to join us. We meet every Wednesday and Fridays 10 – 11:30 a.m. at St. Alban’s, 490 Farragut Circle, El Cajon. We are told over and over how important these coffee hours to our refugee friends. Anyone is welcome!

Contributed by Naomi Madsen, representing the Joy Task Force (Joy Knight Memorial Refugee Task Force) of St. Alban’s. Contact Naomi Madsen to learn more.