Worship without walls

Washington, D.C., church feeds body and soul in the park
September 30, 2006

Three blocks from The White House in Franklin Square Park, the Rev. Anne-Marie Jeffery lifts a folding table from a small cart, sets out a woven basket of sandwich bread and a plastic bottle of grape juice and opens her arms wide.

It’s lunch hour in downtown D.C., and women in sunglasses and summer skirts sip bottled water under the trees, while businessmen with Blackberrys share benches with the destitute.

And it’s Tuesday, the day volunteers from the Church of the Epiphany on nearby G Street pack up programs and peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and take church to the street. Billie – The Rev. Shaman Mrs. Billie Razer Bill Louk, according to her name tag – has been singing since the group, pushing two carts laden with lunch, straggled into the park at a quarter to one.

“Holy Spirit. Thou art welcome. In this place,” she belts, head tilted back and arms outstretched. “Oh omnipotent. Father. Of mercy. And grace. Thou art welcome. In this place.” Jeffrey pockets her cell phone – just in case – shoos a squirrel away from the sandwiches and invites one and all to participate in the worship.

The service is short, and the message is simple: A Gospel reading on Nicodemus from the previous Sunday. A short homily – “not much because it’s hard to hear with the sirens.” Prayers of the people. A Eucharistic prayer. Communion with the sandwich bread and grape juice in small plastic cups.

“Do you experience Jesus in the most broken part of your life, when you realize you have lost everything?” Jeffrey asks, looking around at the small group that has gathered. “We have a God who is still present with us,” she continues. “A God who loves us so much he sent his only son.”

A dreadlocked man on crutches limps over to join the circle. A pastel-clad grandmother offers an occasional “thank you, Jesus,” as she and her granddaughter eat hotdogs nearby on the grass. A fight breaks out over a bench. And a woman laughs out loud when two men run away as Jeffrey approaches to offer them Communion. “They think it’s a collection plate,” she cackles.

PB&Js in the park

Each week since Feb. 28, when Street Church began, a stalwart group of about five has assembled at Epiphany – already well known for its Sunday breakfast program – to make lunches.

Today Jewel Terrel, an 80-year-old grandmother, and Brenda Morris, a soft-spoken retiree, are assembling sandwiches with two young men, Jose Perez and Sam Hensley. The volunteers usually make about 80 sandwiches. After the group returns from the park, Hensley records the number given out on a spreadsheet. (This Tuesday’s tally was 60 sandwiches, 40 pieces of fruit and all of the bottles of water).

“If anyone wanted to fund us, it’s good to have stats,” he explains. When the lunches are packed, the carts are loaded and Jeffrey has looked over her sermon notes, the group gathers for a prayer before stepping outside the church gate.

Common cathedral

Street Church is new to the Diocese of Washington, but Ecclesia Ministries, a Boston-based program, has been inspiring similar initiatives in cities across the country for 10 years.

Besides donating brass crosses for the volunteers to distribute, Ecclesia offers a wider sense of community by operating a listserv and inviting the various open-air churches to pray for each other each week.

In late 2004, Epiphany’s rector, the Rev. Randolph Charles, spoke with Ecclesia’s founder, the Rev. Deborah Little, about starting a “common cathedral” in Washington. “After he got off the phone, he asked me to make it happen,” Jeffery says.

To minister in a public place, Epiphany had to obtain a permit from the U.S. Park Police that must be renewed every 21 days that the group is in the square. And food-service rules mean that, for now, sandwiches are limited to basic peanut butter and jelly.

Once plans were made and volunteers mustered, Jeffery had to address another concern: nerves. After months of preparation, she worried about how the service would be received, and some of the volunteers were apprehensive about interacting with the homeless guests. “It took a few weeks before I stopped being nervous, but now I’m starting to settle down,” she says.

Thanks to Epiphany’s long-standing breakfast program, many of the volunteers are accustomed to dealing with the homeless, Jeffery says. For others, a workshop that taught de-escalation techniques and offered guidelines about when to call 9-1-1 helped to quell anxieties.

“When you’re homeless, I think that people are always chasing you away,” she says. “They’re not looking at you. If you go and sit next to [a homeless person], they’ll start talking. You’re sitting together, you’re eating the same thing. People are willing to let you sit with them and join with them, usually.”

Community and prayer

Attendance has been steady, Jeffery says, and she is starting to see some regulars. “We did notice that more people came out when it started getting warmer,” she says. “But people who are homeless are outside in all kinds of weather because they have nowhere else to go.”

The service lasts about 15 minutes, and the format doesn’t alter. “We keep it the same because when you’re outside you get accustomed to something,” Jeffery says. “We sing the same songs each week – Amazing Grace, Let Us Break Bread Together, We Shall Overcome.”

The message is similar each week, too: “We talk about God’s love: God has not abandoned you; God is waiting for you. Comfort words. A down-to-earth, simple, straightforward message. They’re tired. They’re exhausted. They need something they can hear easily.”

And they need to be accepted for who they are, where they are, she says. “A lot of people won’t come near a church for one reason or the other,” she says. “They’re worried that they might smell, that they might not be dressed properly.

“[Street Church] is a place where they can connect. It kind of brings back community, and that’s an important thing -- community and prayer. People are making this their own. This is church.” And under the blue dome of summer sky and the dappled light of trees, all are equal in God’s sight.

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