Birth of a Street Church

This is Rev. Deborah Little's narrative about how her ministry to the homeless in Boston began.

Birth of a Street Church

by Deborah W. Little

Right after my priestly ordination, I started going to Boston's main train station on Sundays, making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for people who spend their days there. On Christmas Eve, I found the courage to celebrate a communion service with folks I had gotten to know. It was an unlikely setting -- a round table in the main waiting room, our prayers punctuated by announcements of train departures. Eight people were in that first gathering, including Bobby, who talked about how he wished he could forgive his wife her infidelity as Joseph did Mary. Their reflections and prayers told me more about worship than my many years in seminary. I continued spending Sunday afternoons in South Station through the winter.

Then, on Maundy Thursday, I was walking back up to the Common after washing several homeless feet in a service that's traditional during Holy Week. I was thinking about Jesus, and how he was always going to people, being with them where they were, healing, washing, feeding. I realized this was the church, not where buildings are necessarily, but where people are. This isn't a new thought, but it's something I finally knew. Folks I was getting to know on the street, many of whom find it impossible or are not welcome to be inside, and others -- "us" -- who want to help and learn, needed to gather in the midst of the city, in an accessible place. We needed to pray, to celebrate, to talk, and to be a presence to people who sit around or pass by. We needed to pray for the city, raise up the concerns of the streets, bring alive a presence of hope and faith and hospitality. We needed to celebrate communion.

So that Easter Sunday 1996, I led worship on Boston Common for the first time. I was quite scared. I'm really not a brave person. I just knew what I was going to do. I asked my street friends what the best gathering place was for them, and they said it was the benches around a large fountain at one corner of Boston Common. Our altar was a cart used to stack folding chairs, with a piece of plywood on top, borrowed from a church across the street from the site I'd chosen. It was a bitter cold afternoon and I wore an alb and a stole over several layers of sweaters. We had sixteen communicants. More people gathered after the service to eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and talk.

You wouldn't believe the power of that worship on the Common, the looks on the faces of people who haven't received the sacraments for years, the witness of what felt like whole worlds coming together to pray for each other and to thank God.

That first Sunday seemed a small step, although it had been huge for me. I was a new priest and nothing was easy. Trusting in the declaration in the preface to the Book of Common Prayer that worship could be tailored to the gathered people, I had dropped all of the readings except the Gospel assigned for the day. We prayed the 23rd psalm because I knew many people had that in their minds from childhood. We used the serenity prayer for our corporate "confession". I was worried about what the Bishop might say about the service and being outdoors, whether I might be seen as in some serious error. I was also worried about the park and municipal authorities since I was sure there must be laws against such gatherings. As I drove home, I made notes about changes I might make if I were brave enough to do it the next year. As that week went along, folks on the street who hadn't even been there told me they'd see me on Sunday! I couldn't have imagined at the time that we would be there the next Sunday and every Sunday at 1 p.m. since. And the design of the service is pretty much the same as our first Sunday. Everyone offers prayers; and I speak for one or two minutes about the gospel lesson and then welcome anyone to speak. What we receive ranges from songs, to cries of pain and despair, to brilliant exegesis, and the most Christ-like parable stories I've ever heard.

Our third Sunday, people said we had to have a name. Someone said, "Well, this is our church." Looking across the street at the diocesan cathedral, he said, "This is common cathedral." And so we were. Our first Christmas, Bishop Tom Shaw came out and celebrated with us, confirming, baptizing, and receiving five new Christians.

Our community has grown to a Sunday average of 100 to 125-plus communicants. Many more join us during the gathering time that follows. One of our parishioners made us the most beautiful, carved, ten-foot-high cross and an altar. We have volunteer nurses and lawyers, Bible study in English and Spanish after the service. We celebrate birthdays, anniversaries of sobriety, and releases from jail. Homeless and housed volunteers help with setting up, serve as altar guild, bring food and clothing, and visit with regulars and newcomers. One will assist a disabled man with a housing search; another will drive a sick woman to the clinic. We visit our folks in hospitals, hospices, jails, and help them reunite with families, buy eyeglasses and winter boots. We load belongings into our cars to move them into housing. We baptize some and bury too many.

Every Sunday, we welcome people who live under bridges, people who live in suburban houses, and everyone in between. One common denominator of our church is that almost everyone would describe herself or himself in some way or another as "on the margin." This is true even of the most privileged, housed, traditionally employed persons, of whom we have a number who worship regularly. Some go to their church in the morning and then come to common cathedral. They describe themselves as searchers, renegades, crusaders, malcontents. So, we have our being "outside" as common ground. We also have natural elements, especially the weather, which is a great equalizer. We're all hot or we're all freezing cold. If it's noisy we are all straining to hear each other. If it rains, we are all wet.

Another common denominator is truth telling. Radical openness is the gift of homeless individuals who stand out there "in front of God and everybody," as my friend Ann would say, and tell the truth. "I can't stop drinking." "My boyfriend beat me up and threw me down the stairs yesterday and I lost my baby." When people who have nothing speak during our prayer and open gospel reflection, they set the example for everyone. In such an environment, a woman who has a job and lives in a fancy suburb will stand in the circle in tears, with several folks gently touching or holding her. She will tell 125 "strangers" about surviving child abuse. When she finishes, everyone will quietly clap and say "Amen," "Thank you," "Go girl."

We created a youth overnight program called "CityReach" so people outside our community could come and spend time with us, and so our own people could learn what they have to give. Young people and adults, from the suburbs and from surrounding states, from all denominations, join us for an overnight experience of street ministry. They sleep on the floor of St. Paul's Cathedral. Members of our community get a warm and quiet night on the floor of the Cathedral robing room. Our folks talk about their lives and lead us in a walk through their Boston. Participants tell us that the program changes how they think about homeless people and about their own lives and capacities.

"This is my church. Church under the tree," Adam says. I think this community existed before I arrived. Certainly people were outside and praying, and talking about God. They were isolated and weren't able to go indoors to church. The ground around that tree had seen despair, hope, death, the comings and goings of life. Someone needed to come and see, and invite strangers to a table. Most street people who've come have had some experience from their childhood of Christian worship. Many carry and read the Bible. They talk about how close common cathedral is to what the gospel is about. Homeless people tell me that when they walk down the street, or go into a meal, or into a shelter, they see people from common cathedral and they feel safer. "I'd never thought I'd have a church," Billy says, "and here it is."

All of us talk about how we are growing and changing because of the community. Most people initially could only stand way off, but have slowly moved into the circle and are now taking leadership positions. Someone who arrived without a voice now says, "Here, I'll help." Most talk about hope, and that they have something to look forward to if they're having a bad week. "I know Sunday is coming," we hear. People make contacts at common cathedral. They share information about shelters, showers, clothing. For people who are most of the time being threatened by weather, people, and each other, here's a place where they can support each other with no other agenda.

Homelessness is life threatening, and we are a community that stays pretty close to the bottom line. We require safe behavior at common cathedral. Lots happens, but if someone threatens someone else, we ask him to move outside the circle. I preach a lot about how we need to look out for each other. Particularly in cold weather, I say, "Don't get distracted by anger at some shelter worker. You need to use the meals and shelters." I ask people who live on the street to be aware when someone is drinking and might not want or be aware of needing to go inside at night. I ask people to bring each other to a shelter and not to be afraid to call 911 if someone's drunk and it's freezing.

Sometimes I think -- could this really be what the church is about? Loving this neighbor; loving this God? So wild and unpredictable and naked and hungry? A neighbor who needs everything; a God who demands everything. But then, I think about Jesus, still walking around in our hearts and minds, inviting us, showing us how to be in love with JUST THIS NEIGHBOR, JUST THIS GOD.