By Joyce Coronel
In an era characterized by both the contradictory elements of mega-churches and the waning influence of Christianity, South Tempe is home to a longstanding Episcopal congregation led Pastor Susan Wilmot, a native of Britain, who arrived in Tempe four years ago.
Home to some 150-200 souls, St. James Episcopal Church, founded in 1985 and nestled at the corner of Rural and Warner Roads, is a familiar sight to many in the area.
“We’re all about outreach,” Wilmot told Wrangler News. As an example, she cited the preschool that sits adjacent to the church property.
It was once run by St. James but now is being utilized by Southwest Autism Resource and Research Center, or SARRC, offering programs for children 18 months to 3 years, about half of whom fall somewhere on the autism spectrum.
Wilmot says the school is charged nominal rent for its usage since the church views welcoming these children as part of its community outreach effort.
Members of St. James are active in regularly volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, Feed My Starving Children, Angel Tree, feeding the hungry at the UMOM homeless shelter in Phoenix, and other outreach efforts as well, Wilmot said.
For years, the empty property that sits kitty-corner from St. James has been the object of speculation. At one point, there was a proposal to establish a care center on the premises. Wilmot says her church supported such a development. “We would have been able to visit the people easily,” she said. The surrounding neighbors, however, worried about potential disturbances such as middle-of-the-night ambulances.
According to Wilmot, the eye-catching red doors that adorn the west entrance to the church are more than just an artistic touch. Three years ago, the doors were a dull desert brown, but members of the congregation worked together to transform them by applying the crimson hue that now draws the eye of passersby.
The color red also holds a spiritual significance in that it symbolizes the Holy Spirit, the blood of Christ and the blood of the martyrs, but the Episcopal tradition of red church doors traces its roots to the Middle Ages in England, Wilmot said. In those days, red church doors were readily identifiable to those seeking refuge within.
On a warm February afternoon, several women were seeking a different sort of refuge: an hour of Bible study with Wilmot.
The group of 11 women—sometimes attendance is higher, sometimes lower—were diving into the Gospel of Matthew’s parable of the sower and the seed.
Carole Justice was one of them. She’s belonged to St. James for five years and said she and her husband knew Wilmot when she was pastor of a church near Show Low.
“Sometimes things just work out wonderfully,” Justice said of Wilmot’s relocation to St. James.
“We are a loving and welcoming congregation. We do a lot of outreach, helping neighbors and serving meals at UMOM.”
South Tempe residents may recall the split that occurred at St. James Church back in 2005. At that time, the pastor, Keith Andrews, announced that he and a faction of other members were leaving the congregation because of their disagreement over the ordination of a gay bishop in New Hampshire.
At that point, the St. James congregation numbered about 370 adult members.
Andrews went on to establish Living Faith Anglican Church and declare his fidelity to a more conservative Anglican bishop in Rwanda.
In 2015, Andrews was ordained a bishop and now resides in California. Cindy Frost, who belonged to St. James prior to the split, is one of the congregants who followed Andrews.
She called the 2015 division “gut wrenching,’ but said that “in the end, everybody followed their conscience and did as God called them to do.”
Wilmot, for her part, says that St. James Episcopal Church welcomes all its members, gay or not.
“How can we tell gay people they are not welcome?” Wilmot said.
A note in the church bulletin encourages visitors to sign the guest book and stay for refreshments following services.
It also states that the pastor’s door is always open and that she is ready to listen, even going so far as to list her cell phone number.
St. James Church offers both men’s and women’s Bible studies, a weekly Wednesday evening healing service, a book club and Christian formation. Sunday worship services are held at 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.