With cars and buses whizzing by on a downtown Atlanta thoroughfare, a dozen Episcopal clergy, a mitered bishop and a homeless man gathered in a city park on an autumn afternoon around Robert Book to consecrate him a priest. Book is known as "Pastor Bob" to members of the Church of the Common Ground, a community of mostly homeless people that worships Sunday afternoons in Woodruff Park. When it was time to schedule his ordination, Book said he knew there was only one place to hold it.
Getting a city permit for the event brought a series of challenges. But on October 15, family members, colleagues and the Common Ground community filled the folding chairs in a nave created by arching trees. A table loaded with food, prepared and staffed by members of a suburban congregation (St. Aidan's, Alpharetta), stood nearby.
The Rev. Deborah Little Wyman of Cambridge, Massachusetts, founder and missioner of Ecclesia Ministries, was one of those who placed her hands on Book's shoulder during the ordination rite. She was beaming. There are now 80 Ecclesia communities serving the homeless and 145 affiliate congregations, she said. "But this is the first time we've ordained a priest in their church" -- on the street.
Assistant Bishop Keith Whitmore of Atlanta led the service, which he said was unlike any he'd seen and one he'll never forget. "An event like today's turns everything upside down just like Jesus turned everything upside down," he said in his homily. "It takes us out of our safe places. This allows us to focus on the least of us and helps them feel like the most of us, even for a short time."
When clergy gathered around the kneeling ordinand, one of the homeless congregants approached Whitmore on his left. The bishop raised his left arm and welcomed him into the circle to consecrate the new priest.
Being with people, not fixing them
The Church of the Common Ground has a storefront gathering place a few blocks from the park that is open on weekday afternoons. Each day offers a different activity: Bible study and healing service, arts and crafts, a medical clinic and an addiction recovery program.
Book, formerly an ordained pastor in a Canadian Lutheran church, is joined in his ministry by his wife, Holly; brother-in-law Mike Munger; Deacon Carole Maddux of St. Aidan's, Alpharetta; and volunteers from a variety of Atlanta-area congregations.
He said Common Ground is about being with people who are homeless and not fixing them. "We support them, but they support us too. They pray for our families and share our joys and sorrows. And while we're not a parish, we are church and a community."