june 4, 2023

     When Sybella and I lived in Sparks prior to coming to Stockton and serving Holy Cross, we had the privilege and pleasure of singing with the Stockton Symphony Chorus for several years. The choir director who prepared us to perform with the symphony orchestra was one Jennifer Tibbin, whose “day job” was choral director at Damonte Ranch High School in Reno. Jennifer is an ebullient and exacting director who prepared us well, who maintained high standards and held us to those standards. Still and all, her motto was always: Flexible and easygoing. She tried to embody that ideal and hoped we would emulate her leading.

     As Holy Cross United Methodist Church navigates the next couple of months of transition from my pastoral service to the leading of the present—yet incoming—Pastor Tevita Vaikona, I am hoping that all of us will live up to the hope of being flexible and easygoing. There will surely be decisions made and directions taken which will alter the way things have always been done. May I just say, many if not most of those alterations will be for the better if we can trust that those making the decisions have the best interests of the whole congregation at heart.

     For that trust to be built will require that all those in leadership are abundantly clear about why certain decisions are being made. It will fall to those leading the differing committees to over communicate what is going on, and what is motivating certain responses to problems or crises. Please do not assume people know…they most likely do not, and ignorance breeds confusion and rumor and distrust. I have always been of the opinion that, even if I don’t like the decision that has been made, I certainly want to know what it was.

     When a new pastor begins her or his service, the tendency will be to look for faults, how she or he don’t match up to the pastor who just left. Please don’t do that: I have done the best I could among you, and I have messed up a lot; the pandemic certainly did not aid our efforts across the last three years. Pastor Tevita brings different skills and capacities to his role as your pastor: get to know what those are; generously imagine how they can be employed to grow Holy Cross in grace and service.

     I am hopeful that the next few months will increase drastically the interplay between Islanders and non-Islanders so that greater appreciation can be nurtured and grander dreams of shared ministry can blossom. From where I sit, I see great possibility, but it will require the good will and wholehearted investment on the part of everyone for those possibilities to become pursuits worthy of the love of Christ. I commend you to just such pursuits!

     Yours for Christ,

     Pastor Gary




April 13, 2023 | by JB Brayfindley

     Camping in tents on the church lawn is not typical at Holy Cross UMC in Stockton but it was expected of Tongan families over the Easter weekend as part of observing Holy Week. Nearly 200 campers including children, teens, parents, and grandparents flocked to the church building bringing camping equipment in tow to spend time on Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and/or Sunday teaching and learning about the meaning of Easter. It’s called “Easter Camp.”

     Eighteen tents were spread out around the church campus alongside various buildings on grassy patches and cement. Those not staying in tents outside, slept inside. During the long weekend, children could be seen playing games in the parking lot, along with a dog lying in the sun next to families sharing food and conversation inside the fenced, covered patio.

     “Camp is a particular time that we are teaching the children to learn what is important,” states Rev. Dr. Tevita Vaikona, associate pastor leading the Tongan Language ministry at Holy Cross. “Easter camp is like a school where the heart of the camp is the meaning of Easter.”

     “The original idea is to teach the meaning of Easter by telling the historical event, the story, and also the meaning, the application…” states Vaikona. During the weekend, there are bible study and discussion groups culminating in a presentation of skits revolving around the Easter theme. The use of words as well as imagery through dramatic arts are important aspects of teaching to Vaikona. “We teach from different perspectives—through the ministry of word and the ministry of image. Image, where the young people act, like, put on skits; and in the ministry of word, so we can explain it to them.”

     “The kids couldn’t wait to come,” states Vaikona noting that the event was highly anticipated by both youth and adults. “The pandemic is really helping us get out and meet with people, it’s been really long—two years… and the kids want to get out of the house and also the parents, too!”

     The event is also an opportunity to embody what it means to be community. “This is community, ‘what belongs to you belongs to me and what belongs to me belongs to you,’” explains Vaikona. “Sometimes we want to be in community but don’t understand it--we say, ‘what is mine is mine and what’s yours’ is yours’… but here, we make sure everybody has food, everybody is safe, everybody is involved.”

     “I love the fact that many of our Tongan families will quite literally spend the weekend at Holy Cross, camping out on the lawn from Thursday through Sunday,” states Holy Cross UMC senior pastor Rev. Gary Pope-Sears. “Such devotion exceeds even the original disciples who ran and hid from Friday afternoon until Sunday. Come for the Passion, stay for the Resurrection: that has been the mark of faithful followers of Jesus since the first Easter.”

     Thursday begins with setting up camp, attending church Maundy Thursday worship and gathering around a campfire before bedtime.

    On Friday, students are excused to go to school as adults continue preparing for upcoming activities with more people arriving and setting up more tents. After attending the church Good Friday Service, camp leaders are chosen and assigned roles. The night concludes with an informal greeting and play time.   

     Easter Camp activities begin in earnest on Saturday with a special morning devotional. Next, everyone chooses a Bible verse to memorize. After breakfast, the camp breaks up into small groups by age and are given different questions to discuss. Then, there is a Bible study. Everyone comes together to share the answers to the questions from their small groups. After lunch is free time. Small groups reconvene to create a skit to express their Easter idea. After dinner, each group performs their skit. Music rehearsal time is held to practice for Sunday. Then a devotional and early bedtime.

     Sunday begins with a sunrise service. With more people arriving and after more preparation and lunch, the 2:00 p.m. Tongan Language worship begins with music and dance featuring a youth confirmation service. “After a winter of study and preparation, a number of our youth, eight Tongan and one Pelangi, professed their faith and took their place among us as members of the congregation,” adds Pope-Sears.

     “More than anything, I think the most enjoyable part of Easter camp is just the togetherness,” states Kristine Tutana Latuhoi, one of the youth leaders at the event. “Our congregation members have strong bonds beyond the border of the church building and service schedules. We are all aunties and uncles, and we all share responsibility and love for each other’s children. Just to have some time to spend together outside of a structured service/church setting is so meaningful.”

     “And, from a mother’s point of view, it touches my heart to see my little family as a whole be so involved, happy and occupied in God’s setting instead of the regular temptations we face in our everyday life. Seeing my kids grow in God’s presence through biblical studies and Bible based activities, in a safe setting with other Christians brings me security and peace,” states Latuhoi adding that her third favorite part of the event was “food, food, food.”




A New Resource to Aid Your Spiritual Walk—Literally

     Holy Cross United Methodist Church consecrated its new labyrinth on Sunday, December 5, 2021.

     The project, which has been in the works for more than two years, is now open to all community members to experience.

     “I've walked these a number of times and you really can get outside of all your stress and strain," Gary Pope-Sears, pastor at Holy Cross United Methodist Church, said.

     Whether seen as something religious or not, labyrinths are well knows to relate to the exploration of meditation, and are often used for rituals or ceremonies, Pope-Sears refers to it as a “spiritual walk.”

     Once just an idea is now a reality come true for the community. The labyrinth is a place for creativity and new ideas to spring, he said.

     The space was blessed by Pope-Sears with anointing oil and with two prayers, one in English and one in Tongan.

     Even though the labyrinth holds similarities to a maze, it shouldn't be confused with one. The labyrinth is supposed to help individuals find peace or find answers for their unanswered questions.

     Click here to read the article in The Record: