Grace Beyond Suburbia: Grace Episcopal Church

A Southern California Church Reaches Into Neighboring Communities to Make a Difference

Hungry people are being fed and the homeless have a place to rest. Families with no money are giving gifts to their children, and addicts are celebrating milestones of recovery. And it’s all the result of a tiny but growing church in San Marcos, Calif.

Five years ago, following a church split, Grace Episcopal Church was a congregation of 25 people who pushed forward, continuing to dedicate themselves to regular acts of sacrifice and service. Today the church runs just under 100 in Sunday morning attendance and is making a noticeable difference in the surrounding area.

“Our diocese and our literature say, ‘A serving church is a growing church,’” says priest-in-charge Rev. ClayOla Gitane. “It’s going into the community, seeing needs and sharing without expectation that lets people know the love of Christ.”

Situated in a middle-income suburban area, Grace Episcopal is intentional about looking outside its immediate community into the neighboring lower-income areas of Vista and Escondido. They are currently conducting needs assessment studies in their surrounding ZIP codes.

“You can’t be isolated,” church member Janet Marshall said, talking about suburban ministry. “You have to search out needs in neighboring communities and support them.”

A Benedictine-style liturgical church that follows an annual round of seasons, the humanitarian service works of Grace Episcopal have a similar year-round schedule. In the summer the church runs vacation Bible school filled with mostly non-church members, and every fall the church works with the local school district to provide school supplies for children who can’t afford them. During winter, they coordinate with Interfaith Community Services to provide rotational shelters for the homeless; the Christmas season sees them working with MAAC Head Start to provide Christmas gifts for low-income families.

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In the spring, in lieu of donating toward Easter lilies for the sanctuary, members purchase shopping gift cards that are donated to Vista Community Services and assist teenage children who are growing out of foster care. On Easter Sunday the church walkway is decorated with colorings of lilies done by church members.

Gertrud Hughes, a member for the last five years, says it was acts of service that attracted her to GEC and kept her there. Growing up in war-torn Germany, Hughes remembers receiving care packages from the Catholic Church that helped her navigate tough times.

“I’ve never forgotten that,” Hughes says. “If everybody does a little bit we can all get together and maybe we’ll have a better world.”

This constant search for needs has led the church to give in many other ways. Partnering with Episcopal Community Services, members prepare and distribute “blessing bags” filled with items for the homeless. They participate in a luncheon for those celebrating personal milestones like one year of sobriety, and their “Knit Wits” group makes hats and scarves for NICU children. The church has also provided baby showers for low-income expectant mothers.

A New England-style church in a California setting, the 127-year old Grace Episcopal building stands out. In 1902 the building was cut into four sections and delivered more than 13 miles by horse-drawn wagons. Later another church was cut in half and turned into the wings of the current building. The church hosts four Alcoholics Anonymous meetings weekly and any time staff is present, the church is open to the public as a place of prayer and contemplation, symbolizing one of the values of the church—maintaining a “presence” in the surrounding area.

“It isn’t a case of taking our plenty and sharing it,” Gitane says. “It’s a case of being present with people who need God’s love. As opposed to writing a check to a good organization, our view is, ‘go and spend the night with a homeless person.'”

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A layperson from the church who helps coordinate community service, Janet Marseilles believes that kind of service is the purpose of every church, no matter the size.

“This is what God has called us to do, and passion is contagious,” Marseilles says. “People want to give. You don’t have to be big to make a difference.”

San Marcos, Calif.
Senior Pastor: ClayOla Gitane
Founded: 1980
Affiliation: Episcopal
Locations: 1
Attendance: 100