Meet the members of Street Church . . .
- Mike is one of the funniest people around. He’s lived on the streets for years, addicted to alcohol, and to making people laugh.
- Sharon is mentally ill. Voices in her mind threaten and confuse her. She is on and off the streets.
- Sue is an attorney with a prominent law firm in town and lives in a comfortable suburban home.
- Grace and her boyfriend are heroin addicts. Grace supports their habit through prostitution. She often has cuts and bruises on her face, signs of the abuse she suffers at the hands of the men she meets.
- Ken is a hospital administrator and active in prison ministry.
- Diane is a college professor and often coordinates meals for Street Church.
- Dwayne and Keisha are the parents of six children under the age of 12. They are living in a near-by hotel until Dwayne can earn enough money to find them a place to live.
- Ben and Kylie and Rebecca are “urban pioneers” living in intentional community.
Every Sunday at 1:00 pm these folks and many others come together to worship, eat lunch, and share their lives at St. John’s Episcopal Church’s second worship service of the day. We meet on a busy, centrally located corner in the Franklinton neighborhood of Columbus, Ohio, about one mile from the church building. Average attendance is anywhere from 25 to 150, depending on weather and week of the month. Many of our parishioners are hungrier as the month wears on and lunch is always yummy. They are also more comfortable outside, remembering times when they have been shunned by other churches for not being “properly attired.”
Our hour together begins with Eucharist. We open with prayer and a confession. “Let’s think about the week we’ve had,” the priest says. “We’ve all done things that have separated us from God and from one another. Let’s name those things as sin, then give them up to God, and know that we are forgiven children of God.” The group then joins in the Serenity Prayer.
After a reading from the Bible and a short homily we bless bread and grape juice (out of respect for the alcoholics among us), then share the Body and Blood of Christ around the circle. Hands reach out. Hands that bear the marks of hard work, fist fights, cigarette burns, and hard living. Hands of men and women and children. Hands of the privileged and hands of the oppressed. Hands reach out to receive Jesus
Lunch follows worship and more people from the neighborhood gather at the table. In addition to the members of St. John’s “inside” congregation, people from several other congregations join our worship and prepare food for lunch. Hot meals on cold and rainy days are welcomed by the gathered community—something lighter in the summer. We try to offer healthy meals with plenty of nutritional value, including salads, fruits, and vegetables.
As people eat and visit, two deacons and the priest circulate, catching up on the latest news, praying with individuals, and seeing that needs are met. We usually have a supply of new, dry socks. In the winter we carry gloves and hats. Other emergency assistance is provided where possible, usually through referrals to agencies better able to meet the long-term needs of people. Throughout the week, clergy attend to pastoral needs.
Why Street Church? The idea originated in Boston several years before St. John’s worshipped on the streets. The Rev. Debbie Little-Wyman began Common Cathedral on Boston Commons. Her inspirational leadership has led others to create accepting, life-giving worship for people without homes in many parts of the nation and world. The concept was a natural for St. John’s. The church building is located in one of the poorest, primarily Appalachian communities in the country. The crime rate in Franklinton, on the near west side of Columbus, is the highest in the county. Educational attainment is quite low, as are incomes. Unemployment, drug and alcohol abuse, and homelessness are quite high. The majority of people calling Franklinton home come from religious traditions very different from our Episcopal roots and do not come to the church for worship.
So we went to the people. On Easter Sunday 2006 a small group of “inside church” members took a table, a cross, bread and juice, and lunch to a vacant lot near our present location. We had told folks that we would be there, but wondered if anyone would come. As 1:00 approached, people emerged from all directions, about 20 in all. We’ve been on the street every Sunday since then—through rain and snow storms, searing heat and bitter cold, even a tornado on Pentecost Sunday! We laugh together, cry together, celebrate together. We’ve baptized some people and buried others. We are the Body of Christ.
The joys of Street Church are great. Very few other worshipping communities enjoy the diversity of ours—rich and poor, black, white and Latino, addicted and recovering, young and old—all together to worship and fellowship together. And those of us who have been in the community for a while have had the privilege of developing rich, deep relationships with people we would not have known had we not been gathered together at Street Church.
But Street Church is not everyone’s answer to “What can our congregation do to reach out to those in need?” In fact, we bristle at the thought of Street Church being an outreach ministry. Street Church is a ministry of St. John’s, as are our other worship services, our Christian formation programs, our children’s choir, and our Wednesday community dinner.
As congregations grapple with the reality of decreasing attendance and increasing numbers of the “unchurched,” the tendency may be to look beyond one’s own community toward service to some other, seemingly more “needy” one. The answer often lies much closer to home, in one’s own back yard. St. John’s happens to be in the middle of a poor neighborhood with lots of people who do not have homes. Your own congregation may be in a more affluent neighborhood, but the needs in your location are every bit as great as the needs in ours, just different. Perhaps looking at new ways to be in community with older folks or single parents or alcoholics and drug addicts fits your community better than traveling outside your community to another one. Perhaps church at the soccer fields on a Sunday morning would give harried families an opportunity to worship. Whatever the setting, we can bring Christ’s presence into focus and enter into Christian community.
May your congregation be as blessed as St. John’s as you offer yourselves to others in the name of Christ.
The Rev. Lee Anne Reat is the Priest-in-Charge of St John’s Episcopal Church in Columbus, Ohio. Several years ago, while on Sabbatical, Lee Anne traveled to street churches across America and shared her journey at the blog streetchurchacrossamerica