Journey to Street Priesthood

Rev. Deborah Little describes her journey to becoming a street priest.

Journey to Street Priesthood

by Deborah W. Little

I'm a street priest. And I'm going to tell you how it happened because it's part of the ministry's story. I grew up in the suburbs, had white middle class privilege and trials, had a liberal arts education, worked for 25 years at traditional jobs. Slowly and painfully, I got re-routed. I liked the work I was doing in communications and management, even felt it was a ministry. But I had a growing, nagging, scary feeling that I wasn't doing what I was meant to do, even though I felt I was already "making a difference" by being involved in lots of volunteer activity.

I had worked hard over many years to put words on my own story. I had my own versions of homelessness, mental illness and addiction. Now that I was standing in the clear, I wanted to offer what I'd learned to other people.

I had other motivations too. I came to feel I needed to be engaged in something whose point, not just the process, was ministry. I wanted my life to be simpler. I was drawn to the church as a place of safety and comfort existing in an environment that pointed beyond itself. I wanted to make that available to people who were outside.

I'd always been president or in charge of things, and I felt a tug to get off boards and into the work, to be quite literally on my feet. I wanted to get closer to people on the street, to help, to understand, to learn, and to see what it means to "love your neighbor" when the neighbor smells bad, talks in strange circles or not at all, or makes me want to walk away. What did the Hebrew prophets mean, what did Jesus mean, when they said if you really want to move closer to the heart of life, to the heart of God, get closer to the poor.

Although I'd never been what I thought of as a "churchy" person, I thought the real work of healing and liberation had to do with God and community and sacrament. I wanted to bring the sacraments of the church to people who may never be able to come into our buildings.

I have to say I was frightened about upsetting my life. The battle inside me lasted six or seven years. And then one day -- I think this was at a suggestion from a close friend -- I decided, "OK, for today, I will say 'yes' instead of 'no'. I will put myself in a posture of 'yes' and see what happens. I can always say 'no' again tomorrow."

Immediately, I got curious, even rather peaceful and occasionally excited about what was ahead even though I couldn't see it. I called Weston School of Theology across the street from my office, got a catalog, and took my first course. Soon I was studying liberation theology, Karl Rahner, and worshipping with Henri Nouwen in Taizé-style in a carriage house at Harvard Divinity School. I nearly completed my degree taking two courses a semester, working full time. Finally I wrote my bishop, and a few years later I was accepted as a postulant for ordination. I quit my job and went to General Seminary in New York to finish and prepare for ordination exams. You know the phrase from T.S. Eliot, "to go the way of dispossession"? That's what it was.

What I'm doing today is very much the next step of my own story. It wasn't that I wanted to be a priest and headed for it. It was more that I had an itch that wouldn't go away. I just felt compelled to be offering what I could and to be learning what I could, probably not in that order, from our poorest people. It became the desire of my own heart. Where it came from, I don't know, but I wonder if it isn't planted in us. I don't think it's so bad to be doing what we must do, as long as we know who we are as we do it.

Like many street folks, I've never liked going indoors. I have a hard time with boundaries of any kind. I am my best self when I'm creating something new, when I'm doing something other people haven't done, when I'm in an equal relationship with people and not in a hierarchy. I am best when I'm talking one-on-one with people and not in meetings. So, a major gift to me is that in what I'm doing now, I am offering the best person that I am. I find a lot of strength in that.

I loved my life and wasn't looking for a change. As a student activist in the sixties, I had a strong aversion to institutions -- and particularly an institution with as much hierarchy and patriarchy as the church. And, more important, I wasn't at all what I thought of as worthy or priest material.

As strange as it was for me to think about priesthood, it was equally difficult for the Diocese of Massachusetts. My profile was common (white, female, middle aged, middle class, single) and the diocese was swamped with applicants. Despite my A average in seminary I did miserably on the general ordination exams. And I was headed quite specifically not to a parish but to the street. I had no interest in traditional ministry, and the diocese was not sure my description of street ministry was priesthood. During my entire "process" for priestly ordination, I and the powers that be in the diocese were forced into a serious engagement with each other, and with God.

I was propelled by some energy that was way beyond the limits of my own slim courage. In my last year of seminary, I had been invited to write an honor's thesis, and I wrote it on urban street ministry and particularly on storytelling as a way of liberation. In those months of writing and reflection, I clarified my desire to invite and listen to stories, and to see if that was "church." Somehow I was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other even though ordination was not certain. A week after my graduation in May 1994, with not much, but enough trust in each other, the church and I made a commitment to each other. On June fourth, I was ordained a deacon.

Two days later, I put on a knapsack full of socks, string, a first aid kit, meal and shelter lists, a prayer book and healing oil, AA meeting lists, chapsticks, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I took to the streets, hanging out on park benches, subway stations and meal programs in Downtown Boston.

I remember the first day. I walked from Cambridge where I live, across the Charles River to Arlington Street in Boston. I stopped in at the Café de Paris and bought two cups of coffee, walked across the street into the Public Garden and looked around. No one noticed, of course, but I felt a hundred spotlights blinding me. All the challenges to my ordination and my own doubts and fears were in my face. What was I doing here, a woman in khaki pants and a blue oxford cloth shirt with a white clerical collar? I knew I had all the usual stereotypes about homeless people and charity. I bore this crazy desire to get closer to poor people. I looked around the park for some opening, a place to sink into, someone on a bench who "looked homeless." I, who was out to help and learn, needed rescuing. I spotted a man, and went over and sat down. I had no idea what to say. I handed him one of the cups of coffee. He took it and he looked at me and said, "So, how are you doing today?" WHAM. In my first five minutes of "street ministry," I'd learned who is ministering to whom.

A few weeks later, I asked Mary -- she was sitting at her usual spot by the fountain in front of Trinity Church in Copley Square -- how she was doing. She said, "I'm fine. God woke me up this morning." I'd never had that thought, and certainly not after a hurricane spent in a Back Bay alley.

Mary doesn't have an alarm clock, breakfast, a roof over her head, a job, a telephone call to make, or any of the protective layers that I was so anxious to offer her. But Mary has GOD. Mary's heart is open. She doesn't wonder who God is. Mary's terrors are not about her lack of understanding about God. Mary doesn't have anything, and she has God. Here is a woman in so much pain she hasn't gone inside anywhere for anything, in at least twenty years. I might have called her a bag lady not long before. She's one of the rejected ones we are told to seek in order to find Jesus.

Call this my second lesson. Jesus was right. Go to the poor to learn about God.

I often ask myself, what is the difference between my sister Mary sitting at the fountain, and me? When I suffered from personal losses and mental illness, I had therapists, friends, family, a savings account. I had this network, even when I wasn't aware of having anything. Mary didn't, and she landed on the street, and now she has a long, long journey back.

A few weeks after I learned that lesson from Mary, I was leaving a meeting downtown. There were some cookies and donuts left. I decided to go up to the Common to see if anyone was around. It was pouring rain, awful. I ran into Sam, on one of the benches. He asked if we could pray, said he had something he wanted to offer. "God, I know you are up there," he began. "But down here, things are real bad. I can't stop drinking. But tonight, I'm not praying for myself. A few days ago, my friend, Fred, died right over there." He pointed to the fountain beside the Park Street station. "When I found him, his shoes were missing. His hat was gone. He always wore his hat. These streets have turned to Hell. We need you, God. We need to take care of each other. I've lived on these streets for years. I don't have any money, but I'll beg money for my brother, if he needs it and I don't have it. I wish I'd known Fred was in trouble. We've got to watch out for each other. God, help us."

Sam didn't go to divinity school. He doesn't have a spiritual director or a theological chat group. But Sam loves his neighbor and he's on speaking terms with God. Even drunk, and soaked to the bone, Sam knows God, and he lives justice and righteousness. I was learning about God.

So my street ministry was launched, and I knew I was in the right place.

I spent a year or so as a Deacon just feeling my way, trying to get to know people on the street. I met clergy in the churches in downtown Boston. I met advocates for homeless people, police, and emergency service workers. I like introducing people to each other and networking. My thought at the time was to help people be more like neighbors with each other. One gift of that first year was that I met a lot of people. But most important, I fell in love. I learned that the street really is where I belong, at least for now.

As I came up to my ordination date, the approving committee was not able to agree that what I wanted to do was priesthood. I had a very long painful five months in which none of us knew whether I would be a priest. I think it really made me, in an odd way, even more sure this is where I need to be. I need to be somewhere the church isn't even sure it belongs.

I was ordained priest in October 1995, by the Episcopal church's first woman bishop.