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.