Celebrating the Church on the Streets

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.)

Fr. Unterseher presides at eucharist in Madison Square Park, NYC, April, 2009.
Fr. Unterseher presides at eucharist in Madison Square Park, NYC, April, 2009.

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.

Fr. David Fleenor distributes Holy Communion in Madison Square Park, October, 2008.
Fr. David Fleenor distributes Holy Communion in Madison Square Park, October, 2008.

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.


    1. If by Catholic you mean “Roman Catholic,” then I’m unaware of any. Of course, my participation was very much on-the-ground-running: I didn’t always know who was scheduled as presider from week-to-week.

  1. Hi Cody,

    Having being involved from the beginning of Ecclesia Ministries of NY and operating as Program Manager, I am happy to say that we now have an Ecclesia Ministries of Philadelphia–known on the street as “the church without walls” Our thrid meeting will be tomorrow in Logan Square Park, and at our last meeting we served communion, worshipped, served coffee and pastries and talked with over 150 in attendance. It is an inter-faith fellowship. Most of the leaders are clergy and we are limited to time due to parish responsibilities, but we have a number of committed laity.

  2. Cody;

    Are there any Catholic clergy who are not Roman Catholic participating then? The Priest pictured above appears to be Episcopal.

    I’m certainly no expert on Canon Law, but it would seem that a Bishop would be hesitant to allow participation by Catholic clergy due to the “user-friendly” adapted Book of Common Prayer liturgy.

    Don’t get me wrong… this is an excellent work and of the highest form of service. My general feeling is that the church has largely gotten out of the “serving the poor” business where government has stepped in and taken over. Why deal with all the red-tape to open a shelter or a food kitchen? In the end the poor lose out.

    1. There are, to my knowledge (which may be quite wrong) no clergy in communion with the Holy See who participate.

      If I remember correctly, there have been Old Catholic (Union of Utrecht) clergy who have served as celebrants.

      A majority of Episcopal priests in the New York Diocese (and some area Lutherans, for that matter) consider themselves to be Catholic, though not in communion with Rome. From our perspective (I include myself in this group), catholicity has more to do with the substance and expression of the Deposit of Faith than it does with who’s in communion with whom. This isn’t a slight against our Roman Catholic friends; quite the opposite, it’s a foundation on which some of us are trying to build bridges toward visible…

  3. This is great, but here’s an uncomfortable question: Does this strategy take the heat off “indoor” communities to learn to be more accepting? We had a large outreach to the homeless at the Cathedral in Milwaukee, and they were included in parish activities (like the picnic) and were welcome at prayer and worship—but panhandling prohibited. The devastatingly poor are regularly visible in many Catholic churches in New York, where I grew up and now live. It’s kind of challenging because of overwhelming needs and especially mental illnesses that cause people to act out. But it’s accepted, at least in urban settings, and is actually evangelizing. I don’t know if we’d get there if we held separate Masses on the street with them.

  4. Cody;

    Thanks for your insight. Again, I think this is an excellent outreach, regardless of who is out there doing the work! I doubt seriously if any of those being served are concerned about the particular denomination of those ministering to them…

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