I had just about given up. On the church, on the future, on Jesus, on everything. We were deep into the pandemic. Gone were the early days of baking and art projects with the kids, gone were the days of intensely planning our first online services. There was no more adrenaline rush, just the daily trudge through Zoom calls and occasional outings with a mask and hand sanitizer. I wasn’t feeling the spirit. Not in the almost vacant church on Sunday, and not in the rest of my life either. I was feeling empty and tired. I was going through the motions of prayer and piety because I had made a commitment, and am very stubborn. But inspiration was long gone, gone the way of dinner parties and in person school.
One day I was out with a couple of members of my church delivering sandwiches to a local encampment of unhoused folks. This group of people was living mostly in run down RVs, with no running water or cooking facilities. The street was desolate, mostly empty warehouses. They were extremely isolated, and extremely grateful. I asked “How else can we support you?” and was stunned by the emphatic answer: Prayer. Here we were on the side of the road, and I felt very much that I was in church. More than I had in a long time. I was not expecting his answer and it broke through the numbness I’d been feeling. We could be in solidarity with our friends through prayer, we could be activists through prayer. I had, in fact, been forgetting to pray very much. The reminder helped me return to the core of my faith and reframe my work. I started to see evidence of the Spirit, moving at the edges of things, still there.
I’ve been thinking and praying a lot since that day. And I’ve been in conversation with unhoused friends. I have some ideas.
The ministry my churches, All Souls and St. Alban’s, engaged in this past year with our unhoused neighbors, during the pandemic, was incredibly moving. We brought sandwiches and supplies and love. I found that the heart of my call, at present, lies there. Starting in March I will launch a new ministry in my diocese. I’m calling it “Prayers of the People” because I hope it will be a vehicle for us to make our prayers for humanity into action, and an opportunity to listen to the needs of people who are often overlooked. With the support of All Souls Parish and building on the work we have already done, in part with a grant from the Episcopal Impact Fund, I will be working with our friends in encampments in Berkeley to identify concrete needs as well as spiritual needs, and I will be working with churches in the neighborhood and throughout the deanery to meet those needs. I anticipate there will be elements of food ministry as well as Morning or Evening Prayer services and prayer ministry. I look forward to dreaming and collaborating with folks living in encampments and church leaders and members throughout the diocese.
I think a lot about my friend in the camp and how he appreciated the sandwich but really wanted the prayer. I want to build a ministry that brings both, that meets folks in the middle of their struggles and offers both practical resources and spiritual resources. I think the church has a lot to offer on both fronts. I hope to be brave in trying new things, and in being open to that Spirit I had thought for a moment had abandoned me. Meeting the needs of my friends on the streets is where I’m most likely to run into Jesus, with his crazy requests for prayer on the side of the road.
Note: part of this article appeared in a sermon at St. Alban’s Church, Albany, January 24th 2021 and in their newsletter.