Father Jay Matthews
The late Rector and Dean of the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, CA
James V. Matthews was the Rector and Dean of the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, CA. Ordained to the priesthood in 1974, Father Jay had the distinction of being the first African-American ordained in Northern California. Most unexpectedly, he passed away this year at the age of 70. In this episode of Sunday to Sunday, we pay tribute to his great witness as a preacher and his devotion to the Oakland community. My first encounter with Jay was hearing his heartfelt homily at the funeral Mass of a deceased faculty-colleague of mine at Saint Mary’s College. Jay’s consoling words at that time stuck with me – the resonance of a great preacher. With his broad smile, Jay welcomes us into this magnificent Cathedral of light and worship. For years, he brought understanding and healing to an Oakland community sometimes faced with troubling social problems.
Runtime: 26 mins, 09 secs
America Magazine Video
Runtime: 9 mins, 35 secs
Episode transcript and study guide.
Q: Pre-written question
R1: Father Mike Russo
FJ: Father Jay Matthews
FM: I am with Father Jay Matthews. Thank you for having us here at the cathedral.
FJ: Thank you for being here. It’s been a pleasure with you all weekend.
FM: I have one little adage for you to begin this.
FM: It’s this—if you see a turtle on a table, you know one thing. Someone put that turtle on the table. Well, who put you here at this great cathedral?
FJ: Well, it was something that was really needed here. The cathedral is only ten years old, and the new bishop, Bishop Barber, realized that there was something missing, and he really wanted me to come to see if I could at least enhance the hospitality and the welcome. He wanted someone here who wasn’t afraid of diversity and he also wanted someone here who was connected with Oakland. I couldn’t refuse after all of that.
FM: You certainly have that in great number.
FJ: Well, that’s what they tell me.
FM: But more than his decision, what was your decision? What went into that decision?
FJ: You know, I had just celebrated my 40th anniversary of ordination and my 25th anniversary as pastor of St. Benedicts in the inner city. I wanted at this point not to coast to retirement. I always felt that maybe there was one more parish in me. That was the incentive for saying yes, coming to the cathedral.
FM: Now, the St. Benedicts accommodates 400 people. This church, the Cathedral of Christ the Light, accommodates 1,400 people.
FJ: Before I retire, I hope to fill this place.
FM: Sunday to Sunday.
FJ: Sunday to Sunday.
FM: Well, there are some issues there, we will get to those, but tell me the difference between preaching in a small, coherent community, and this was highly diversified community that needs to bring people here each week?
FJ: And you have to be very, very sensitive to the diversity that’s here. So, in preaching, you are trying as best you possibly can to reach as many folks as you possibly can. We have four languages that are very prominent here in the cathedral. Tagalog, Spanish, Vietnamese, and English. So, I have to make sure that the message is going to be clear, the message is going to be spoken well, and pray that the message is impacting the life.
FM: But you are not unlike many pastors of cathedrals, because in fact this is a gathering space for an entire diocese.
FM: Tell me more about Oakland Diocese.
FJ: Well, the Oakland Diocese of course—I mean we are just a microcosm of the diocese in relationship to its diversity, and so economically, socially, ethnically, we have the diversity here as you would find within the diocese itself. What happened when the cathedral was built, there was a sense of alienation within the diocese. The parishes really didn’t feel connected with the cathedral once it had been built. That was a shame. So therefore, we needed to correct that. In correcting that, we are again, you know, really making this place as hospitable and as welcoming as we possibly can. Not just with the diocese of Oakland, but in the midst of the city where we live.
FM: Now, this city is a vibrant place.
FM: There is building going on everywhere. This is an example of the vibrancy in this cathedral, yet it’s a place where social justice issues are central to your concerns?
FJ: Exactly. Through the decades, we have had many, many focus and emphasis on many of the issues with public safety, with drugs, with homelessness, with immigration, with affordable housing. So, these are the issues that we have struggled with and continue to struggle with as a city. We have to be very much a part of that conversation. We have to be very much in the midst of that dynamic.
FM: Now, when you were at St. Benedict’s you had some very creative ways to get the community to kind of take a look at itself and point out issues that they might be able to address.
FM: Can you explain that?
FJ: Well, we connected with community organizations. With the PICO Network. Through those years that we connected with the organizing, we wanted very, very much to address the drugs and public safety issues. One of the creative ways that we were able to do, was to then bring part of the Oakland Police Department into what we call community policing, and make that real. You know, let’s not just say it, let’s do it. So, we had a sergeant who was in charge of community policing who really made that real for our community. Working together with Sergeant Crawford, we were able to close 90 crack houses within an 18-month period. Part of that creative way—we are not doing that now, so I can say that publicly, part of that creative way was that we wanted not to put people in harm’s way, but we wanted folks to really stand up about the safety of their neighborhood, of the community. So, through this community policing effort, we shared with folk that you know, if you walk into St. Benedict’s at any time of the day, there is a little box in the back of the church, and no one would know that unless you knew that, and you can put anonymously places where you think are troubled spots within your neighborhood and we promise that it will be dealt with.
FJ: Confidentially. So, we didn’t want to put people in harm’s way. So, that’s how we were able to close 90 crack houses.
FM: Remarkably one of your points in your biography—you are the first African American priest in Northern California. Tell me about that experience.
FJ: Well, there was a priest, Father Logan, from the archdiocese of Los Angeles, classmate of Cardinal Manning, ordained in 1936. He was the first African
American priest in California. So, I come along many years later, and as I come along, I am ordained as the second African American priest in California, and the first in Northern California. I was also connected with a national effort for black Catholics. We wanted very, very much to grow the black Catholic church in America. I was very much a part of that. So, when I was ordained, I was already connected through the clergy caucus and the seminarian’s association. So, it was very, very easy for me in that connection to bring the African American Catholic community at that time, over 25,000, and to bring them together into a caucus that we had going on for many, many, many years.
FM: How do you preach for social justice, and how can you be persuasive in that regard?
FJ: Well, first and foremost we always have to start with the word of God. You always start with the word of God and the tradition of our social justice activity and action is based on that word. And, what I try to see and try to share with any congregation that I am in, is the fact that okay, there’s a gospel imperative that we must have the option for the poor. Then, we begin with the beatitudes. With those beatitudes, we want very, very much to make those beatitudes real for us, so that we can make it real for others as we live and as we breathe in the communities we come out of, and the communities that we live in. So, that’s the starting point. Of course, that develops because for as much as you do that, the more that its developed and the more that you share the more that its permeating all over the place.
FM: Given the need for clergy and various people in ministries, my thinking is that we need to equip obviously priests, deacons, lay ministers, women, and men—youth ministers—in the idea of witnessing. What practical tips would you give, particularly in preaching to this array of witnesses who speak to the person of Christ in the gospel?
FJ: Well, I was very, very successful at St. Benedict’s for those 25 years, really empowering folk to share their faith, and share it very openly, to share it very honestly because I think one of the difficulties that we have in the church today is relevancy. You know, is the church really and truly relevant? We know that the word of God is, but is the church itself relevant? So, as people of the church, as you are the people of God, you have to be relevant yourselves. So, you have to be authentic with your faith, and you have got to be willing to share that in what you say and what you do each and every day. So, I was very blessed to have men and women within the congregation—John Dennis my friend and your friend—being one of them—who were able to share their faith stories in St.
Benedict’s on a regular basis. It really and truly encouraged others to go to their workplace, to go wherever they found themselves, and to share their faith stories and to share their faith as well.
FM: Who was your favorite saint?
FJ: My favorite saint would be Francis of Assisi.
FM: Who is your least favorite saint?
FJ: I have no least favorite. No, I really and truly believe that what I do in sharing the stories of the people of God, extraordinary, as well as ordinary. So, the least favorite saint would be so extraordinary, I would not put that saint in that category.
FM: When you walk into this church, what do you love?
FJ: I love the light. I love the wood. I love the serenity of this place, it’s a quiet serenity that is very awestruck.
FM: Today’s gospel comes from Chapter 6 of St. Mark, here Jesus sends out his disciples to prophecy to God’s people, Israel.
FJ: My friends, the Lord be with you. Today we have a reading from the Holy Gospel According to Mark. Jesus summoned the twelve, and began to send them out two by two and gave them authority over unclaimed spirits. He instructed them to take nothing for the journey but a walking stick. No food, no sack, no money in their belts. They were, however, to wear sandals, but not a second tunic. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave. Whatever place does not welcome you or listen to you, leave there and shake the dust off your feet in testimony against them.” So, they went off and preached repentance. The twelve drove out many demons, and they anointed with oil many who were sick, and cured them. My friends, the gospel of the Lord. Now, the sending out of the apostles two by two is recorded by both—all three—Mark, Matthew, and Luke. Its Luke’s account that I always use when I am invited to go and bless a house, because in that account, Jesus mentions twice, not once, but twice, when he said if a household welcomes you, stay in that household and eat and drink what they offer. He didn’t say that once, but he said that twice. So, I always have a joy going to one’s home to bless the house, because I know I am going to get some drink, I know I am going to get something to eat. But last Tuesday we heard some very, very sad news that suddenly and unexpectedly, Bishop Richard Garcia of the Diocese of Monterey, died suddenly and unexpectedly. It broke my
heart. Rich is only one year older than I am, became very ill, and died very, very quickly. Well, we met some 52 years ago, and he was the first seminarian that I met because he had been assigned to me. I entered the seminary on the college level, so I entered as a freshman in college and those who were sophomores were chosen to be the big brother to the seven of us, who were joining my class who began in high school. So, Rich as assigned to me, and we have been friends ever since. But, when in preparation for this Sunday, and reading the scriptures, it brought back wonderful memories of the cooperation and the companionship that Bishop Garcia and I had as seminarians. I went back all the way to that point when he was the president and I was the vice president of the Mission Society at St. Joseph’s College in Mountain View. We were charged with promoting an awareness among our classmates of the missionary activity of the church and then to come up with ways to resource the missionary activity through the propagation of the faith. So, Rich and I were able to do that because of the awareness that we had of the scriptures and of our church traditions at that time. So, it was easy to identify first and foremost, as a missionary disciple, with the Prophet Amos in our first reading today. For, as we shared with our fellow seminarians about our call to become priests, Amos did not study to be a priest or a prophet. You know, he was very true to God’s call. Went to Bethel to expose the corruption of the rulers and the unfaithfulness of the children of Israel. What an incentive it was for us, as seminarians, to be true to the call that God was sharing with us, and like Amos, to be faithful to that call and to go out and to spread the good news of Jesus in places that we would be assigned. Now, many centuries later, Jesus sent out the disciples two by two to do the work of the Lord. They were told not to bring much at all on their mission, but still they were able to attract followers, drive out demons, and cure many who were sick. God provided all that they needed as the great missionary apostle, St. Paul, shares about the richness of God’s grace in our lives in our second reading today to the Ephesians. St. Paul became our hero, our model, for what it meant to be a missionary, what it meant to be missionary disciples, what it really and truly meant to be evangelizers, because we wouldn’t be sitting in this cathedral this morning, if it had not been for the wonderful work of St. Paul and his companion Barnabus in preaching to the Gentiles. Now, it came to that part that we had to be creative in raising money for the missions. Richie and I would put our heads together and we raised more money during the two years we held those positions with the Mission Society, that went on before, and I understand that went on after, because we tried to do some creative ways in getting our classmates to dig deep in to their pockets, or at least their parents pockets, to help raise money for the missions that did not include adopting pagan babies, or buying enough holy childhood stamps in order to receive a prize, and losing sight of why we were raising money in the first place. Rich went on as a priest in the Archdiocese of
San Francisco, had many wonderful assignments, taught in the seminary, became the auxiliary bishop of Sacramento and then eventually the bishop of Monterey. As a missionary disciple of Jesus, becoming the shepherd that Amos was, but becoming a shepherd in the image and likeness of Christ, that Richie was able to fulfill, that missionary zeal, that we first discovered in the seminary over 50 years ago. With Richie, he was able to really promote this mission and continue to do so, until last week. I am encouraged by Bishop Garcia. Encouraged by his ministry, and especially his zeal to the people of God in the place where he served as shepherd, as well as being so concerned about the mission activity around the world. I really and truly believed that Richie in his life captured what St. Paul talks about in today’s second reading, and the invitation that Pope Francis gives, not just to bishops and priests, but gives to each and every single one of us. To become missionary disciples in the places we find ourselves around the world that we may be. What St. Paul today reminds us, is that God will truly take care of the work of evangelization that we engage in. For us, to always be aware that we are missionary people who know the richness of God’s grace in our lives and are willing to share that richness with those we come into contact with personally and those we come in contact with in prayer, who do the missionary work of the church around the world. May the soul of Bishop Garcia rise to the face of our Heavenly Father and as he rests in peace, he gives to me and gives to so many what it really and truly means to be a missionary disciple in our day and age.
FM: We are told that the homily is a mirror. It helps the community recognize the presence of Christ. Father Jay Matthews has witnessed to the Lord, and to the gospel today. We have heard his word. I want to thank Father Jay and his staff here at the cathedral. In Oakland, California and for Sunday to Sunday, I am Father Mike Russo.
FATHER JAY MATTHEWS
“If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten
that we belong to each other.”
Saint Theresa of Calcutta
- The Great Commission is a wonderful lens for appreciating the ministry of Father Jay.
In what ways do you see your current ministry as a contemporary continuation of the Great Commission?
When you imagine the challenges of the early apostles, disciples and followers of Christ preaching the Good News how might it inform the way you see your role as preacher in your community?
- After 25 years of serving a small community Father Jay felt called to bring the Gospel alive for a large, diverse community at the Cathedral of Christ the Light in Oakland, California. Put yourself in his shoes…
Think about a time when you had to use your platform as a preacher to build community.
What was the situation?
How did you use your homilies as a bridge to the challenges of building community?
Are there ways you might integrate these learnings into your current preaching?
- Father Jay observes, “We have four languages that are very prominent here in the cathedral. Tagalog, Spanish, Vietnamese, and English. So, I have to make sure that the message is going to be clear, the message is going to be spoken well, and pray that the message is impacting the life.”
What challenges did you face in effectively reaching a diverse community?
How did you navigate these challenges?
- Father Jay shared the critical role of working with community organizations to tackle issues of social justice. He emphasized the importance of discerning creative ways of collaborating with people and agencies. By partnering with his parish community, a police sergeant, and the Oakland Police they closed 90 crack houses in 18 months.
ACTION TO TAKE: Renew your commitment to build community partnerships.
What partnerships have you established? Take a moment and list these partnerships. On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is weak and 5 is very strong how would you rate the strength and effectiveness of these partnerships?
Identify at least one new partnership that your community discerns it needs to cultivate.
Select a collage of key scriptural stories and moments that illustrate the possibilities of how your community believes this partnership will contribute to bringing healing and hope to others.
Plan a homily to introduce this partnership. Be sure to anchor it in stories that will animate the partnership in real, tactical, relevant, and authentic ways. Be sure to include a call to action for your listeners.
- Father Mike inquiries how Father Jay encourages people in the idea of witnessing. Father Jay sums up his approach, “So, you have to be authentic with your faith, and you have got to be willing to share that in what you say and what you do each and every day.”
Father Jay went on to explain that asking people to share their faith stories with one another is a central way to make everyone part of the ongoing Great Commission.
How are you currently promoting people in your faith community as witnesses?
ACTIONS TO TAKE:
- 1. Identify two or more upcoming opportunities to ask someone in your faith community to share their faith stories. One venue where this is likely already happening is in RCIA meetings. How might you expand that into other times?
2. Develop simple guidelines for people sharing their faith stories.
3. Consider other ways you might share these stories. For example, could there be a section on your website with these stories?
4. Hold half day parish retreats to curate stories. Find ways to capture these stories at these events and then share them using a variety of communication vehicles.
- Father Jay in his homily beautifully illustrates the Great Commission with by sharing stories about his special friendship with deceased Bishop Richard Garcia of the Monterey, Diocese:
“We were charged with promoting an awareness among our classmates of the missionary activity of the church and then to come up with ways to resource the missionary activity through the propagation of the faith. So, Rich and I were able to do that because of the awareness that we had of the scriptures and of our church traditions at that time.”
This raises some good questions…
When and how do you incorporate your personal stories of formation into your homilies?
What might be some good rules of thumb?
Gracious Father, Precious Lord, and Tireless Spirit of God please show us how to be missionary people. Please heighten our awareness of the richness of your grace operating in our lives. Grant us constant opportunities to be participate in your Great Commission. Help us to be willing to share the richness of your Living Law of Love with everyone we come into contact with. And where we are unable to serve as a witness in person or in deed, cultivate our hearts as temples of your prayer. Be pleased to send us forth to build your kingdom through actions and prayers that give glory to your Name. AMEN