The Gifts of Church

Last night, I attended a lecture given by the Reverend Deborah Little, an Episcopal priest who created a street ministry in Boston to minister to the homeless. Rev. Little came to this work after a long career as a professional business woman, where she actively participated in many volunteer organizations. Along the way, however, she realized she needed to make significant changes in her life and establish a street ministry to work with 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.

To accomplish this goal, Rev. Little had to convince her church leaders that ministering outside church buildings and on the streets to the homeless was a “real” ministry. Rev. Little eventually persuaded them that it was, and began conducting a worship and sacrament service every Sunday afternoon on the Boston Common. She has been conducting these outside services for almost ten years, rain or shine, which her homeless parishioners have named “common cathedral”.

During last night’s lecture, Rev. Little repeatedly discussed giving the “gifts of church” to those around us. These “gifts of church” are the sacrament, and also sharing kindness, community and love with others. As part of her ministry to share these gifts of church, the Reverend sits with people on park benches, and on the steps of doorways, and asks them to pray with her:

Most days I spend two to four hours in direct street ministry. I walk and visit people on the streets, on benches, where meals are served and in railway stations, etc. When first meeting someone, I tell him, or her, my first name and that I am a priest. I try to provide for immediate needs (food, blanket, warm coat, medical emergency, etc.). When possible, I ask her to tell me about God, and we pray together.

Since Rev. Little was speaking to a group of LDS church members last night, someone asked her to share her personal beliefs with the group, explaining to her that this was what Mormons call “bearing their testimony”. Rev. Little liked this idea of bearing her testimony, and told us that she didn’t want to romanticize homeless people and that the work was hard. She says she has her own support group of friends and spiritual advisors that helps her to keep herself going. In order to cope with the daily tragedies and suffering, she said that you need to take care of yourself, and you need to confess your own contradictions. She doesn’t live with the homeless people, and she enjoys many privileges and comforts they don’t have. She said that in her work, you don’t get to “feel good” a lot of the time.

And then she told a very touching story. She said that once at the beginning of her ministry, she spent an entire day calling around to find a bed in a detox facility for a homeless man who couldn’t make up his mind about whether or not to treat his substance abuse problem. The man kept changing his mind about whether or not he wanted to go, she couldn’t find a bed for him at any of the facilities, etc… At the end of the day, she finally did find him a bed, he agreed to go, and so she took him to the detox facility and checked him in.

The very next day, she found him out on the street again. The Reverend said she immediately felt humiliated and “ludicrous” (which is a good word – “laughable or hilarious because of obvious absurdity or incongruity”. How can she really be making a difference with these homeless people and their intractable struggles and problems? Isn’t it absurd to think she could help them?).

In the middle of this despair, a feeling of peace came to her with the words, “give with no hope for return. Give with no hope for return.” The Reverend said she felt Jesus Christ was communicating with her at this desperate moment, helping her to understand the value of what she was doing – regardless of whether or not she saw positive results from her efforts. She says she prays and talks with God daily to do this work that is so difficult and so grueling.

After sharing her testimony with us, the Reverend then asked us to share with her how Mormons minister to others. Someone brought up visiting teaching and home teaching, and she was very impressed with these programs – pointing out, again, how important it is to share these “gifts of church” – of kindness, of caring, of community – outside the walls of the church.

I appreciate discussions like these – sharing religious beliefs and practices – because they help me understand my own religion. It’s kind of like how learning a foreign language helps you notice the structure and nuances of the English language from another perspective.

In conclusion, I’d like to thank the Reverend Little for speaking with us last night, and for all the incredibly good work she does here in Boston.

For more information, check out this link.

Comments

  1. Elisabeth, thanks for the insight. As I walked around downtown SLC this week, I was confronted again with the folk who stand about Temple square and beg for hand-outs. The friend I was with couldn’t believe that there would be homeless in “Zion”. I think that it is true that the bulk of our conception of Mormonism focuses on those who self identify as Mormon’s and come to church every week. I wish Laurie Di-Padova-Stocks would comment – I know that she worked quite a bit with Pres. Swinton for the Church’s mission (or whatever they call it) to help those in need in downtown SLC.

    I was also reminded of a story my Father told me about his mission in Hawaii in the fifties. There was a hospital that asked the Elders to go by once a month and administer to all the patients. Must have started by missionaries visiting sick Mormons then making their ministration universal. I was touched.

    The reality remains that I still am pretty centered on my own life and don’t make the time to minister generally. This is sad.

  2. Elizabeth – your story reminds me that when we take the time to thoughtfully discuss our religious beliefs with those of other faiths we usually find that we have much in common. And it helps us understand that the world is full of wonderful people like Reverend Little who dedicate their lives to the service of others. While I firmly believe, and sometimes can say I know, that our faith is the restoration of the ancient church, I know equally as well that God wants us put aside our pride and wants us to fellowship with all of our earthly brothers and sisters, from all walks of life. And so it becomes so important for us to find common ground and to look past those things about which we disagree. To do so is my greatest need. Thanks for sharing this experience.

  3. “Give with no hope of return” — that certainly sounds Christ-like to me. It’s a hard principle to learn. Years ago I had some experiences working with multiply-handicapped children who gave very little response to the attention we gave them. I’d do it for only an hour or two a week but I’d always be exhausted afterwards. We’re so used to getting positive feedback from people if we do something good for them. Of course that isn’t always the way it works out.

  4. Jared E. says:

    Elizabeth – I really enjoyed your post. I served my mission in New York City, a place where homelessness is a huge problem. The members in the poorer parts of town were particularly inspiring to me, I often heard them say things like “it doesn’t matter what a homeless person wants money for, we should just give”. At the time I thought this to be a somewhat naive view, but now days I think they had the right idea. I’ve often thought it would do members of the church great good (myself especially) to be more engaged with the homeless. Opening up the church for a soup kitchen, once a week on mutual night, I think would do us all good.

  5. Elisabeth says:

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Rev. Little emphasized last night that she rarely gives money to the people she meets on the streets. She says that many homeless people are starving for human interaction, and that a smile or a pleasant greeting means a great deal to them.

  6. Elisabeth,

    So anyway, I’m envious of your opportunity to attend what sounds like a great presentation. It sounds like you had a great (err, tremendous) opportunity to talk to an interesting and energetic person with a strong vision.

    I particularly like a few things you mention:

    First, the strength of the LDS testimony model. It’s something that we like to tease and mock and roll our eyes at, as member use it for travelogues and whatnot. But if used properly, it’s an incredibly powerful tool.

    Second, this sounds like a really cool wake-up call of sorts, and a bit of an embarrassing one at that. We’re Mormons, for crying out loud. We’ve got some dazzlingly egalitarian scriptures — “Zion, and there were no poor among them” and King Benjamin on beggars — and yet we seem to do very poorly, as a people, when it comes to caring for the poor. (Witness various blog discussions past as to whether it’s required to live by King Benjamin’s injunction). She’s actually living the life that our scriptures tell us to lead. That should be a kick in the pants. (I fall into the same boat as J. – I don’t take the time, and it’s pretty sad, when I think about that).

    Third, I _love_ the idea of giving with no hope of return. That seems like the ultimate Christian act. A while back on T&S, Melissa posted about supererogatory acts – that is, acts where we give and expect nothing in return. There is something beautiful and profound and celestial – Christlike – about that attitude. It is one that I don’t see very often (I think the word “never” comes to mind) in my own life. And it’s an attitude that I need to cultivate more. So thank you for an elegant reminder of the need for supererogatory acts.

  7. Kaimi, don’t confuse me with Languatron. I was talking about Star Trek, not Battlestar Galactica. Battlestar Galactica has nothing whatever to do with homelessness. In fact, in Battlestar Galactica, being homeless basically means floating dead through space.

  8. “Give with no hope of return” reminds me of the poem “Saint Judas” by James Wright, which I love.

    Coincidentally, the text of the poem was posted by Elisabeth during her guest-blogger stint at T&S:

    Saint Judas by James Wright

    When I went out to kill myself, I caught
    A pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
    Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
    My name, my number, how my day began.
    How soldiers milled around the garden stone
    And sang amusing songs; how all that day
    Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
    Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away.

    Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten.
    Stripped, kneed, and left to cry. Dropping my rope
    Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
    Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
    The kiss that ate my flesh. Flayed without hope,
    I held the man for nothing in my arms.

    http://www.timesandseasons.org/?p=2271

  9. Amri Brown says:

    I got to go to this lecture too. The thing I am always struck with when we talk about this is why all Christians are not more invested in this. It seems like Jesus always hung out with this type, they followed him, they were healed by him. The haves were peripheral to Jesus and the have-nots were central (unless of course they were the killing type). So why isn’t working with the homeless and desperately poor a continued, main focus in our Church (and all Christian churches)?

    Here are the things I am afraid of: (1) I’m a little afraid of being rejected, like somehow I don’t really know life or am somehow not cool enough to be accepted by this type. (2)I’ve been asked out on many dates by homeless guys and that’s made me nervous, scared. (3)Every once in a while there’s a guy whose hustle drives me crazy and I get angry and never want to give to him or talk to him (4) I’m most ashamed of this but sometimes when I talk to them I get bugged with how much they want to talk and I’m always trying to figure out how to end the conversation.

    I only confess this because I think it’s the only way to start trying to change my dumb behavior. I may not have a lot to offer but sometimes I’m lonely, often times they’re lonely and that seems to make us a good match. Oh and WWJD.

  10. Thanks for the reminder of that poem, Travis — it’s a good one.

    Strangely enough, today’s discussion comes on the heels of recent suggestions from the Gospel of Judas, suggesting that Judas may not have been a betrayer after all. (See the BCC Sidebar ). So there are other lessons in the Judas story kicking around my own mind at present — lessons on historicity and discipleship and judging others.

    However, the point of the poem and of this post still holds true — that even if others _are_ truly bad, they may still be capable of doing good things. They may still be capable of giving, with no hope of return. And there is something divine in that impulse.

  11. Thanks for posting that poem, Travis, and reminding me of that thread of Elisabeth’s. I do believe that it was among the first T&S threads where I commented as Miranda PJ. It’s a beautiful poem.

  12. Thanks for this post, Elisabeth.

  13. Mark IV says:

    Elisabeth,

    Thank you for this post. I read it yesterday, agreed with it, and went on to other tasks.

    This morning I had a chance to think of it again. I and other men from my ward pitched in and built a fence around the back yard of a single mother. It is certainly not a matter of life and death, but she lives on a busy street, and now the kids can play in the yard. As I leaned on my shovel (I did a lot of that!) and watched the people who were there laughing and working, I realized the only thing we had in common was the church. I doubt if any of us would even know each other, or the family we served, if the church hadn’t brought us together.

    I know lots of jokes about home teaching, and I’m only mediocre at doing it, but the fact is that the church has at least made an effort to account for the sheep and see that their needs are met. Sure, we fall short all the time in the execution, but I would be surprised if other organizations of comparable size made an effort like this. That effort, as much as modern day scriptures or doctrine, is evidence to me that God’s hand is in this church. I agree completely with the idea that we ought to love our neighbors, but if I am honest with myself, I’m really not very good at doing it without help from the church organization. I believe Gordon B. Hinckley was speaking with prophetic authority when he said that everybody needs a job, an opportunity to serve.

    As I lie here in the overstuffed recliner and recuperate, (next time, we need to invite some teachers and priests of the wrestling and football playing variety to carry those bags of concrete) I am grateful for the blessings of the church. And I will be even more grateful once the ibuprofen kicks in.

  14. Elisabeth,

    I wonder if you’d say more about the forum in which Rev. Little was asked to speak. A fireside? Presumably not in place of a sacrament meeting high councilor? At an Enrichment night? How were the connections made that she came to speak at an LDS event? And, I guess more pointedly, who was there to listen? People who self-selected in interest or agreement with such a project as hers, or…? Was the room crowded? I hope for her sake it was. Some of those details might help those of us who are trying to achieve better interfaith dialogue not have to reinvent the wheel next time.

  15. Elisabeth says:

    Hi, Tona-

    The lecture was a part of the “Women of Faith” speaker series organized by some women here in the Boston area. If you’d like to know more – feel free to send me an email at info@bycommonconsent.com.

  16. Mark IV’s comment about building the fence reminded me of last month when I spent a day working with Habitat for Humanity. I want to put in a plug for them, because they’re a great organization and working with them made it easy for someone like me (socially shy – I have a hard time ministering to others or doing service projects on my own – i need a framework to work within). I won’t pretend that I was doing it for purely generous reasons… I knew that I would get great benefits in return, and I did! I was completely sore and achey, and spent a day laying bricks in the blistering sun, but I felt great afterwards because I could just do something for someone anonymously. It was such a pleasure – I totally recommend it to everyone here! Much more rewarding than most church “service” projects I’ve done. :-)

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