LONG BEACH - When Rev. Gary Commins of St. Luke's Episcopal Church was asked to provide sanctuary in his church for an illegal immigrant in 2007, the priest knew his decision would spark controversy.
But for the 60-year-old Commins, who has headed St. Luke's at 525 E. Seventh St. since 2001, it was a matter of basic human rights.
"I thought about it for about 1.3 seconds and then said, `Yes, let's do this,"' he recalled. "It was an emergency, so you have to do what you have to do. It was a humanitarian act."
As a result of harboring Liliana, a young mother at risk of being deported to Mexico, the church received a barrage of hate mail, saw protests at Sunday services and even lost a few parishioners.
Commins said he never regretted the decision.
"I've been told I'm a little more outspoken than some clergy, but I'm not afraid of conflict," said Commins. "We aren't all gonna have the same ideas, but God loves all of us. Let's remember that we're held together by love, we're not held together by ideas."
For the past several years Commins and a group of dedicated staff and volunteers have worked to open St. Luke's doors to the surrounding inner-city community.
When Commins arrived more than a decade ago, St. Luke's had just one for-profit preschool on its grounds. Today, the church has transformed into a community center where several nonprofit groups offer a range of services. Among the programs, St. Luke's offers services in Spanish, exercise classes, English classes, after-school programs in partnership with the YMCA, a preschool program for homeless children, and outreach and support for the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community.
The church also offers free showers for the homeless three times a month and free hot meals for up to 200 people twice a month in partnership with Los Altos United Methodist Church.
For Commins, a church is more than a home for Sunday worship, it's a community hub and source for activism and change.
"I've always believed that if you open your doors to the community, the church can become really interesting," he said. "We've certainly worked to become a welcoming congregation, and that is part of our core value. We have so many more people in the neighborhood than we used to, and that's because we opened our doors."
The Rev. Ranjit Mathews, assistant rector at St. Luke's, said Commins works tirelessly to support the church's mission of love and acceptance.
"He's a visionary," Mathews said. "He has a profoundly deep understanding of the gospel and he's not afraid to stand up for what he believes in. He leads both by his preaching and by example."
A native of Los Angeles, Commins has long been an advocate for social change. He protested the Vietnam War and the war in Iraq, and once was arrested along with singer Jackson Browne and actor Martin Sheen while in downtown Los Angeles protesting U.S. policies in El Salvador.
Commins is a vocal advocate for immigrant rights and LGBT rights. In his time at St. Luke's, the church has grown its LGBT outreach programs and has a regular presence in the annual Long Beach Pride parade.
Commins, a divorced single father of a 19-year-old son, originally planned to become a college professor but changed his mind while in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin.
"It was a deep feeling that this was what I was supposed to do with my life," he said.
Commins worked at churches in Orange County, Santa Barbara and Inglewood before coming to Long Beach.
Over the past decade, St. Luke's has evolved to better reflect the community it serves, he said. The church has a growing diversity in its congregation of about 500, with significantly more children and young people.
"People are here for a variety of reasons," he said. "There's not necessarily a great sense of community in cities, and a church can in a way become a village within a city."