A Q&A with Veteran Deputy Sarah Lawton

Sarah Lawton has been serving the Episcopal Church coming to General Convention from the Diocese of California since the year 2000. Now she serves as the Chair of committee 07 - Social Justice & International Policy. When she should have been taking a well-deserved rest over lunch, she instead agreed to chat with us at ISSUES.

Q: What are some of your fondest memories of General Convention?

A: There are so many. Growing up with certain people as adults in the General Convention of the church. People like Winnie (Varghese) and Altagracia (PĂ©rez-Bullard) and other people who were young clergy and I was a young deputy, serving on commissions together and now we’re, sort of, on committees, running things. That’s kind of cool.

Watching, being a part of, extending the sacraments and supporting civil rights for LGBT people including, in 2009, being a point person as a deputy for TransEpiscopal as they moved on civil and ecclesial sides of things, with ups and downs along the way. But we continued to move forward.

Serving on various justice commissions, and this is where my heart really is, to see the church undertake to support immigrants... we passed resolutions along the way supporting immigrants but, as the country has changed and grown and there is a growing immigrant community, the church has responded both by service and also a growing immigrant membership with the sense that it is at the heart of what we do. I remember in Indianapolis in 2012 Ariana Gonzales-Bonillas, now a deputy from Arizona, just graduated from Wellesley. At the time, she was part of the official youth presence and could not sponsor legislation, so she came to me and another deputy to sponsor legislation on the Dream Act. And we went ahead and did that, and so now we have a dreamer priest here. In 2015, we had many resolutions on sanctuary, temporary protected status, and I submitted one to try to understand root causes of what was driving country’s minor children to come to the United States. And supporting rights for those children. The need has grown in recent years during the Trump administration but it’s been a problem for many years. But seeing the church respond to that has been wonderful.

Q: It takes a particular brand of crazy to want to come back to General Convention. For some it’s the issues. Some the political wrangling. Some the adrenaline. What keeps you coming back?

A: You either love or hate the resolutions process, right? Someone said to me who wasn’t Christian but who had visited various church conventions said she didn’t know that “Resolutionary Christianity” was a thing. I really appreciate what Bishop Curry said today to meditate on the life and words of Jesus. That is the heart of it for me. It’s odd to say: how does that hook up with writing resolutions at this crazy convention. And using my time, basically all my vacation time because I am a layperson, why would I do that? Vocation is where the need of the world meets your gifts and passions and, turns out, I’m good at writing resolutions, and speaking to them, and I have a deep heart for social justice, and for the church as an institution and vehicle in this post-Constantian world for love and the love of Jesus. And the love of God as best that we can know God and, weirdly enough, I seem to have this vocation to encourage the church to engage with the world with issues of social justice, international and US. And I appreciate this resolutions process as a way to come together, bishops and deputies, as a way we can all talk about that. And then we can find something we can all get behind and work concertedly to carry out. Such as through EPPN or California’s EPPN and my church which helps immigrants in the courtroom. We go to detention centers. We go to ICE. And we’re always citing the resolutions… so (with the resolutions behind us) we are accountable to each other and it’s stronger than just me saying something. We can lift our voices together as the Episcopal branch of the Jesus movement… And I also bring, as well, the local experience into the resolutions. When I write a resolution on immigration and women, I’m thinking about Florencia who is separated from her children in an immigration jail. I have her face in mind. So, it goes both directions.

Q: What in the church are you most excited about and what most concerns you?

A: I’ve been coming for a long time and we’ve come through a lot of hard issues. We still have hard issues but I think there is a new energy and heart that I perceive for being the church in the world. Both in a telling the Good News kind of way and a seek and serve our neighbor kind of way. Again, in this post-Constantinian world, we can no longer say people join us because we are the powerful place. People that come to my church in San Francisco want to be there and, we may be small, but I feel there is a deepening of commitment. And this is a hard time in the world with a rising tide of xenophobia, white supremacy in this country and other governments. People are being harmed in real time and some of those ideologies have been there before but now there is a deepening of them. Which impacts these policies like sending children thousands of miles away with no plan to re-unite them. Clearly, it’s shameful and debased. What that means for us as the church is it calls us into deeper engagement, and we have an absolute obligation to stand in the breach. And though the reasons are terrible, it’s exciting to see the church begin to rise to that challenge.

Q: Especially now that you are a committee chair, how do you pace yourself and keep your energy up?

A: I have my daughter here with me, a third generation convention attendee. My mother had been a five time deputy. She is young and someone who eats healthy so she’s keeping me good. We went out shopping and we’re eating healthy. Fruits and nuts, not so much the sugar. And all these years I’ve learned to go easy on the alcohol. I do drink socially on occasion but I tend to go easy especially the first week. And my committee has a long next few days so I’m telling my members to take the evening off. And I said, “Get a good night’s sleep” and I intend to follow my own advice. We’re an embodied people: sleep, eat well, and be gracious. And trust the process.

Q: I like to think that the common work we do at General Convention is a genuine form of spiritual practice in itself. I’m wondering what you think about that.

A. It is a spiritual practice, of grounding our work in prayer, listening to each other, worshiping together, which hopefully brings us together across difference. And where there is difference we can speak very clearly. Where we can agree to live together as Christian community even when we do have difference. And I have experienced that on a number of occasions. I do have very strong views. My little church is grounded in eucharist, scripture, and prayer. But we are a “social justice church” out in the community. That is my perspective. But I’ve learned that there are gifts in those with other experiences and I can trust that they are coming in good faith. On some issues, my mind has been opened. On others, I’ve held to my position. But hearing where others are coming from, that’s a spiritual practice, is it not?

Q: What is your greatest hope for the future of the Episcopal Church?

A. If we really do what our Presiding Bishop told us to do today to practice the way of love as a rule of life, as individuals, as congregations, as diocese, as a whole church, and that love leads us to witness in the world to the love of Jesus and to the way of justice and peace. And to witness to the fact that we are one human family and one creation. I really hope we do that.


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