A (Boston) common place for worship
An outdoor church service for homeless people has evolved into a nationwide ministry.
Despite having a job in communications that she loved, Deborah Little kept feeling she wasn't doing what she was meant to do with her life. She also yearned to know what it really means to "love your neighbor" – especially when that neighbor is stretched out on the sidewalk, and makes you want to turn away.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet it was several years, she says, before she found the courage to quit her job, enter Episcopal seminary, and explore a new kind of ministry. Ms. Little became a street priest. She began walking Boston sidewalks, hanging out at park benches and subway stations, and sharing peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and conversation with the homeless.
Pondering the way that Jesus went to where the people were, she realized one day that church needed to come to those who felt they couldn't enter a church. So on a bitter cold Sunday in 1996, Reverend Little held her first service at the fountain on Boston Common, a favorite bench site for many homeless people. The celebration has continued there at 1 p.m. every Sunday since.
"Taking the gifts of church to people means being out there no matter what," she says. "It means worship, celebration, prayer, companionship, accompaniment, and continuity."
This work, known as Ecclesia Ministries, has become a spiritual community involving activities throughout the week. And it is spurring the birth of similar ministries in many other cities.
For Roger, who comes each week, the "genuine, nonjudgmental sense of community" has genuinely helped. "They look at everyone like Christ – how can you beat that?" he asks.
The Boston homeless congregation decided to name their worship space "common cathedral." During the week, they can also join a Gospel Reflection session, held indoors; a Eucharist & Healing service, followed by fellowship; a "common cinema"; and "common art."
A local sculptor helped start art classes after two homeless men expressed a desire to do art. The jewelry, paintings, and stained glass items produced by a growing group of participants are now sold regularly in the neighborhood.
Word of mouth about the ministry has made its way to more than 35 cities. A Ford Foundation grant made it possible for Little to spend the past three years traveling in the United States and as far away as London, Rio de Janeiro, and Vancouver, B.C., to advise people who are interested in initiating similar programs. About a dozen are already under way.
To carry on the Boston work, the Rev. Joan Murray – who also made a midcareer switch into ministry (in the United Church of Christ) – was hired as common cathedral pastor.
On a recent brisk Sunday afternoon, Ms. Murray led a circle of worshipers in prayer, the 23rd Psalm, and hymns whose words are printed on a flier of the day's order of service. After a gospel reading by a member of the congregation, she preached briefly on the subject, "Watch, pray, and trust, trust, trust."
In the spirit of the participatory worship, a few congregants then shared their thoughts and prayers. Joe thanked God for recently acquired housing and prayed for a regular paycheck "to put it all together." Another spoke of working hard on his faith. Even though faith is a gift of grace, he said, he's found that when you work on it, things really get better. Others asked for prayers for friends in need.
After celebrating the Eucharist with grape juice and bread, the congregation joined hands for a final song – a ringing rendition of "We Shall Overcome" – and the blessing.
The banjo player, Bill, who was once homeless but now has an apartment, brings special energy to the singing, leading such hymns as "Sweet Holy Spirit" and "Put Your Hand in the Hand of the Man From Galilee."