Retired Episcopal priest serves diverse church, promotes racial equity
After retiring in 2015 from 35 years in ministry, the Rev. Rick Matters and his wife settled back in Spokane where he was born and had studied.
His ministry now is serving part time as vicar at the diverse parish of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Kennewick and walking alongside people to build racial equity.
Framing both ministries is Rick's background of not really "settling down" in his life, moving every few years until he was 40—not just cross-town moves but to diverse places and cultures within and outside of the United States.
As a child, Rick lived at different times in Nigeria and Ghana, where his father worked six years with the Ford Foundation. He attended boarding schools part of those years in Switzerland. Between semesters, he spent time with his family in Africa, both experiencing privileges colonialism confers on Europeans and being immersed in West African cultures.
"I respected Nigerians and Ghanaians, but as I matured I came to appreciate them," he reflected.
Rick came back to Spokane to study at Whitworth, where he met and married Andrea.
During his freshman year, he felt like a world citizen, not a part of any country. He had missed much from 1962 to 1969, and had learned about President Kennedy's assassination from a tearful Nigerian who told him how sorry he was.
Rick found it difficult to identify as an American during the division over the Vietnam War and civil rights, but because many young people also disagreed with government policies, his attitude changed.
In recent years, his appreciation for the U.S. has deepened because of his racial equity work, especially with people of color.
After graduating, he helped found and worked at the Whitworth Early Learning Center. Next he and Andrea moved to Seattle. He worked at the Martin Luther King Jr. Day Home Center and taught kindergarten, and Andrea was a nurse at a hospital.
While attending St. Mark's, the Episcopal Cathedral there, he received his call to the Episcopal priesthood and they went to New York City for him to attend General Theological Seminary. His pilgrimage in ministry led them to Asheville, N.C., Everett, Wash., and Lodi and Carmel, Calif.
"I had entered seminary as 'a pleaser,' someone not great at conflict, but ironically I often faced conflicts in my ministry," he said. "Now conflict is a given part of working for racial equity.'
Rick took 18 months after retiring to fix their home, attend St. John's Episcopal Cathedral, and spend two to six hours a day in study and prayer. Then he began supply preaching on Sundays.
Rick said the "interior work" of study and prayer was "processing battle scars I experienced." It prepared him for his racial equality work.
Aware of his position of privilege as a white male and of the oppression of people of color, he has lived into his call to advance racial equity by just "showing up" where people struggle with racial equity: NAACP Spokane meetings, Unity in the Community, the Poor People's Campaign, Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience meetings, marches and demonstrations.
Rather than showing up to inject a white dominant voice, he comes to support leaders of color.
"One day I showed up to protest the not-guilty verdict of a white man who claimed self-defense when he shot an African American in the back as he walked away," Rick said. "This led to helping found SCAR (Spokane Community Against Racism). I am on the steering committee, made up predominantly of people of color."
"Showing up" also led him to start a Tri-Cities group of the Poor People's Campaign (PPC): A National Call for Moral Revival after he began at St. Paul's last March.
In June, he drove to Olympia to demonstrate for racial equity at the state capital. With a dozen other white citizens, he undertook civil disobedience to stand in solidarity with people of color as they face oppression.
The Tri-Cities PPC group joined other groups to register voters before the 2018 elections. Now their focus is to raise awareness of the implicit bias and systemic racism that disadvantages many citizens.
"Showing up" led to his involvement with the Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience, who have developed statements, demonstrated against white supremacy in Spokane Valley and plan an Earth Day event on the ecological disaster from Silver Valley mining.
His steps to show up and learn about the experiences of undervalued people also include reading books, watching videos, attending lectures, enjoying cultural events and learning history.
"Most important is listening to and learning from impacted people," Rick said.
For many people that step means making friends with people they may see as "other." For him, the journey involves taking risks to follow Jesus' footsteps into unchartered waters.
"It requires looking at assumptions and values with new eyes," he said.
"The deeper I am involved, the closer I feel to Christ and the deeper my sense of fulfilling God's calling is," he said. "The deeper my awareness of the inhumanity my white culture inflicts on people of color, the stronger my compassion and my anger become."
For Rick, oppression diminishes not only the humanity of the oppressed but also the humanity of those who oppress or permit it.
"Working to liberate the oppressed deepens my humanity. I see Jesus' face in faces of the poor and outcasts more clearly now than earlier in my life," he said.
A metaphor that describes his understanding is: We swim in the same water," he said. "As a white person of privilege that water gives me nutrition and freedom. This same water is toxic to people of color, and they have to spend a lot of energy just to survive.
"Have you ever heard of Spokane niceness?" Rick asked. "It means not saying anything that might make someone upset. Jesus spoke the truth boldly and clearly at the cost of making people angry. Doing so expressed agape love."
As vicar of St. Paul's, he appreciates serving in a diverse parish with long-time Anglo members, Sudanese refugees and Mexican farm workers. He sees God bringing parishioners together.
"We lean into our diversity, learning to love as Jesus loves, respecting and delighting in our diversity," he said.
Instead of just one church choir, St. Paul's also has the Mexican Singers, African Singers and Contemporary Singers.
During the Eucharistic Prayer before Holy Communion, a Spanish-speaking or African-speaking person stands beside Rick at the altar. When he says the words of institution over the bread and cup, he speaks in English, then stops. While he holds the bread and cup, another person tells the next part of the story in another language. People receive the Body of Christ with words in their own language.
"I give the concluding blessing in English, and a member repeats short sections in Spanish, while I sign the words in American Sign Language," he said.
St. Paul's has completed a four-month process to develop a vision statement for its future.
The vision of St. Paul's for 2050 is: "The center of our lives is Jesus Christ, who illumines St. Paul's as a bright Rainbow of Hope. Each color glows with respect for the unique culture, heritage and beauty of each. The Holy Spirit dances joyfully through St. Paul's and out into the world, empowering us to embody Jesus Christ across continents and near to home. We offer creative and compelling Anglican liturgy while blending traditional, ethnic and contemporary singing. Music and prayers are projected onto screens in our traditional church. Serving as an epicenter of mercy, compassion and equity, we communicate the living hope of the Gospel to people of all ages through worship, learning and service."
Already the statement guides parishioners' actions.
They collect clothing for their own members as well as for children at local schools.
When a beloved Mexican immigrant died recently, the parish raised money to pay for funeral expenses and to transport her body to Mexico to be buried by her son. They participated in Mexican traditions of viewing the body at the funeral home and held a requiem celebrating her life at the church.
St. Paul's annual liturgical calendar incorporates traditions from the three ethnic groups.
The baptistery contains a shrine for Our Lady of Guadalupe.
St. Paul's is paying for a Latino and a Sudanese teen to do a mission trip.
They are also becoming aware of what members of color experience in contrast to Anglo members. For instance, an African immigrant was attacked last year—an example of the difference in safety between ethnic groups.
In March, Rick begins a seven-week study for his congregation and surrounding communities, using the book, Beyond Inclusion, Beyond Empowerment: A Developmental Strategy to Liberate Everyone, to share practical steps to share privilege equally.
The book presents five skill sets for people "overvalued" for their wealth, ability, education, birth in the U.S., being male and being white. It also describes five skill sets for those undervalued based on those criteria. Participants will learn and practice skills to respond more fairly to each other.
"As I gain confidence, I realize a next step is not simply to stand beside impacted people and support their justice work, but also to raise my voice," he said. "Because whites imposing supremacy on non-whites casts the shadow we live under, whites must undo the oppression."
Rick believes that since the Declaration of Independence said that "all men are created equal," the nation has made progress in expanding the word "all." At the time, it meant only white men who owned property.
"My life goal is to continue to stretch that word until we truly provide justice and liberty to all," he said. "As we stretch our collective arms to include others, we emulate Jesus who stretched his arms on the cross."
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, March, 2019