by Susan Young-Thornton
The first image that comes to mind when hearing “the Pacific Coast” is one of Beach-Boy-sunny-shores, surfers, bikini-clad sunbathers, and children building sand castles. But there is so much more.
The U. S. Pacific Coast stretches from sun-drenched San Diego to Alaska’s frigid Aleutian Islands. The territory in between is as varied as these two extremes suggest: America’s hot spot, Death Valley; the deep blue waters of Lake Tahoe; the snow-capped volcanic mountains of Oregon and Washington; the mighty, electricity-producing waters of the Columbia River; the life-sustaining, food-producing soil of California’s Central Valley; Redwood forests and gigantic Sequoias. Pull out your atlas and explore God’s infinitely creative imagination.
The communities that have arisen in this landscape are equally diverse: crowded, traffic-jammed cities; planned suburbs; small towns; one stop-sign rural villages; family farms; and large scale agri-business enterprises. Imagine the multiple interests, needs, and conflicting opinions of the inhabitants of glamorous Hollywood; innovative Silicon Valley; artsy, foodie Portland; fire-ravaged Paradise; tech giant Seattle; bucolic college towns; the threatened Arctic tundra; sprawling national parks and forests; and the manicured lawns of master-planned Irvine.
The Chumash, Washoe, Umpqua, Chelan, Skokomish, Aleut, Haida, and their hundreds of indigenous people cousins were joined in this land by successive waves of immigrants from around the globe. Some came as explorers and conquerors, some as settlers, some to satisfy the endless need for cheap labor. Others migrated to settle farms, rush for gold, escape persecution, find adventure, study the natural wonders, flee the dust bowl, seek employment when rust belt factories closed, bask in the warmth of sunnier skies, and to seek asylum from the horrors of war, violence, natural disasters, famine, and disease.
The people differ across this vast expanse. Their needs are unique to their context and also universal. Great diversity can be found within small communities. A case in point is Orange County, California. This 948 square mile county, located on the coast between Los Angeles and San Diego, ranges from sea level to 5,690 feet in elevation and is inhabited by 3.19 million people. Its namesake orange groves are all but extinct, replaced by Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, luxurious resorts, single-family homes, condo complexes, apartment buildings, huge shopping centers, strip malls, and freeways. The county is a mix of older cities with quaint downtowns, newer cities with gleaming high-rises, street corners populated with sign-holding homeless, now-banned riverbed tent cities, McMansions, and sprawling suburbs.
The population hails from every corner of the earth and is now 44% non-Hispanic white. The non-white majority includes Hispanic and Latinx from Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. One in five people are of Asian origin, hailing from Korea, Japan, China, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and Laos, plus the largest concentration of people of Vietnamese heritage outside Vietnam. Persons of African heritage are approximately 2% of the population. Orange County, the birthplace of the John Birch Society, has just elected Democrats to all 8 of its U.S. House seats.
The presbytery of Los Ranchos, which encompasses all of Orange County and a pie-shaped slice of an equally diverse Los Angeles County, ministers in this complex, confusing, multi-lingual, culture-rich environment. Its churches and their members are neighbors to Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Baha’is, Wiccans, the spiritual but not religious, agnostics, and atheists. Worship services are conducted in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Swahili, Khmer, and English.
What is true for Orange County and Los Ranchos is also true for the entire Pacific Coast region. It is diverse, rapidly changing, and dizzyingly complex. The work of the church is the same as it has always been – to speak a word of hope, to work for justice, to embody the love of God to all people. This holy work takes many forms inside church buildings and on the streets. The struggle and the blessing of living into God’s Kin-dom in this region is an ongoing story to be shared with you by those in the trenches in this month’s blog series. Join us.
Susan Young-Thornton serves as the Spiritual Formation Consultant to the Presbytery of Los Ranchos.