Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for the kingdom of God is yours. Blessed are you who are now hungry, for you will be satisfied” (Luke 6:20-21). But what happens when the poor aren’t recognized as inheritors of the reign of God? Where do they go when they are excluded from the Christian assembly?
Yes, friends, it happens: more often than any of us would care to admit. Jesus had words about that, too: “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude and insult you. . .” (Luke 6:22). On account of their poverty or homelessness, often coupled with a physical or mental challenge, untold numbers of persons are shut out from the body of Christ: they are made to feel unwelcomed in churches, unloved at the communion rail, shunned during coffee hour — and sometimes plainly told, “Get out.”
Not by everyone. Not in every church.
But sometimes — which is to say too much.
The situation of urban poverty is extremely complex, and because it isn’t hidden it’s often overwhelming to encounter. Such was my experience upon arriving in New York for the first time in August of 2007. It seemed as if everywhere I looked, there was someone asking for food, for money, for help. Over two years, I learned that some of these poor were born into situations of disadvantage; others, suffered from combined mental-health and substance abuse issues that made them difficult to place in treatment facilities. Still others were among the “best and brightest”: born into privileged families, well-educated at top universities, for whatever reason they lost gainful employment and found themselves without sufficient food or appropriate shelter. Illness exhausts insurance benefits and evaporates savings, specialized businesses collapse. . . the causes are legion.
And where is the church in all of this?
Certainly, not all churches exclude the poor and homeless from their eucharistic assemblies, and many faith communities engage in direct mission to those in need. But outreach varies from place to place, from community to community, and from one church body to another. Frequently, though material aid is given, it comes without spiritual support or companionship. And all-too-often, when the gospel is shared with those in need, it’s a prosperity gospel that’s preached — one with a note of judgment: ”if only you had done this; you should have worshipped here; why haven’t you prayed thus. . . .”
During my second year in New York, I became involved with Ecclesia Ministries. Ecclesia engages in direct “street ministry” with homeless people. From its beginning in the diaconal ministry of Deborah W. Little on the streets of Boston fifteen years ago, Ecclesia has developed a variety of programs in a number of locations. But more than offering material aid and personal and spiritual encouragement, Ecclesia Ministries recognizes, gathers and celebrates the church as it already exists, on the streets. At the center of Ecclesia is the eucharist, celebrated outside — regardless of the weather — in public places that already serve as crossroads and gathering places for street people.
Boston’s “Common Cathedral” was the first Ecclesia congregation; five eucharistic communities are in varying stages of development in New York. (I don’t have accurate information on congregations in other urban centers.) Ecclesia Ministries is fully ecumenical, with open communion, no questions asked. (For those who might wonder, no, that’s not my preferred approach to the Lord’s Supper. But yes, I am fully convinced that, in this situation, it is the right thing to do.)
The Eucharistic Liturgy used is a very loose and user-friendly adaptation of materials from the Book of Common Prayer. Its straightforward and direct language is designed for maximum participation across a wide range of levels of literacy and intellectual capabilities. Celebrants are ordained clergy, representing a variety of Christian traditions; Holy Communion is distributed (at least in New York) on the tongue by intinction, with de-alcoholized wine having been offered for consecration as the Precious Blood.
Certainly, Ecclesia Ministries’ church-on-the-streets approach represents a liturgical “anomaly.” My own involvement with the Madison Square Park Church stretched my liturgical sensibilities, even as I was surprised and delighted with the care and reverence shown for both the people of God and the ornaments of the liturgy. To hear the stories of folks who were asked to leave established churches because they were poor, homeless, unkempt — markedly different from the majority — and then to celebrate with them as the People of God, and offer them the Gifts of God, made it seem more than worthwhile. If the gospel is to be proclaimed to all people and the end of the earth, then, yes — whatever it takes to gather and celebrate the church on the streets.
Photos by Ted Sikorski, © 2008, 2009. Used with permission.