Grace at Epiphany

The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany is located on G St. between 13th and 14th NW. My interest in Epiphany’s work was piqued by several of their programs. On Sunday mornings they have something called The Welcome Table. Oriented toward members of the homeless community, it begins with optional Bible Study or 12-Step programs at 7:00 am. A worship service in which members of the community take active roles follows at 8:00 am and breakfast is served at 9:00. I would have loved the opportunity to be a part of that experience on Sunday morning, and my regret was even deeper when I learned that former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams would be preaching at Epiphany’s main Sunday service on November 6. Unfortunately, my travel plans were already fixed when I learned of this.

On Tuesdays, Epiphany with the help of volunteers from other neighboring congregations, organizes “Street Church” at nearby Franklin Park. I was able to be a part of that experience and to talk with Interim Associate Rector the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing.

When I arrived at Epiphany, I was greeted on the street by a man who talked with me about the Street Sense newspaper, produced by members of the homeless community. It operates at Epiphany as well. He proudly pointed out the articles in the current edition that he had written and directed me to a woman nearby who was selling them. Street Sense operates on the same model as Madison’s own Street Pulse but the presence of its offices at Epiphany means that there is a constant stream of traffic, vendors, volunteers, staff.

In the kitchen, volunteers from Epiphany and the community were preparing sandwiches for the Street Church lunch. While they worked, Catriona and I chatted about Epiphany’s ministries and future. They are currently in the search process for a new rector, so it’s likely that there will be changes in the coming years. The physical plant clearly suffers from deferred maintenance. In fact, replacement of the Parish House’s slate roof, funded by a grant from the DC Preservation Society, is currently underway.

As we walked through the building, I could hear music. Epiphany has a weekly concert series at noon on Tuesdays and the Washington Bach Consort was rehearsing its program—Bach’s Cantata: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69. Also on the program was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 with organist Julie Vidrick Evans. My sympathies were torn. I would have loved to take in the free performance but had already committed to being with Street Church.

Eventually, we made the several blocks’ walk over to Franklin Park. Supplies for the Eucharist, tables, and the food were transported in shopping carts. As we walked, I chatted with one of the volunteers pushing a cart. He told me that he had been volunteering with Street Church for several years. He had heard about it at his church and thought that it was something he could easily do. His office was nearby.

It was a warm afternoon. Around the park are several food trucks and there are tables with folding chairs at various places. Many of the tables and park benches were taken by office workers eating their lunch and enjoying the balmy weather but the area that Street Church staked out seemed to be something of a boundary area that separated the lunching office workers from the homeless people who were occupying many benches with their belongings.

When the service started, the volunteers and visitors seemed to outnumber the homeless, but as we continued, people began to gather. The liturgy is adapted from the Book of Common Prayer. On this occasion, one of Epiphany’s seminarians offered the homily. Several familiar hymns were sung. After communion, the lunch was laid out for all.

Street Church was a powerful experience for me. To hear the gospel preached out in a park at mid-day, to see the body and blood of Jesus Christ shared with people whose lives have brought them to this place, where they are generally perceived by passers-by (and politicians) as nuisances, disgraces, and eyesores, but to see their dignity, and the community created around the Lord’s Table, is a profound witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist and the shared meal created community and it was obvious that there were deep bonds of love, care, and trust among the volunteers and the people who came to the table.

Catriona and I had talked about how easy it is for churches’ social justice ministries to function as and become social service agencies. Street Church provides its meal in the context of the Eucharist. The proclamation of the Word of God and the sharing of Christ’s body and blood offer nourishment for the soul, place the distribution of food in the context of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and shatter the barrier between service provider and guest (client?). As we come to the table we are all one body—Jew and Gentile, male and female, homeless and housed.

It’s also powerful symbolically that at the same time as preparations for Street Church took place, the Washington Bach Consort was rehearsing for its noon concert. Clearly there are tensions—musicians and volunteers share the same space in the last few minutes before they go their separate ways. But still, I was deeply touched by the presence of both of those groups and the way they were sharing their gifts and their passion. The church can be many things to many people. It can connect spiritually in many ways—through the beauty of music or the beauty, grace, and love of communion with pita bread and grape juice in a park.

 

 

Movement on the homeless shelter?

The long-awaited and overdue feasibility study commissioned by the City of Madison has finally been completed. Architects are proposing several alternatives for using a city-owned property on S. Fairchild St. for a permanent men’s homeless shelter. You can read about their ideas here.

We’ve been waiting for this report for months and its completion is another step in what might be an exciting and very different future both for homeless men in Madison and for Grace Church. The Men’s Drop-In Shelter came to Grace in 1984 on a one-year trial basis and we’ve hosted ever since. Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to find alternative locations and better solutions, but nothing ever came of them.

A recent series of articles in the Madison State Journal have provided a comprehensive and troubling overview of Madison’s homeless problems and the inadequacies of our shelter system. Those articles are available here.

This is truly a wonderful opportunity but there are significant challenges still to come. The neighborhood meeting on Monday night will be an opportunity to hear about the possibilities and to provide feedback to the architects, city staff, and elected leaders. Perhaps the greatest challenge will be financial. While the city is willing to provide the property, there are no public funds available for renovation of the space. At this point, we don’t have any idea of what those costs might be, and whether the private sector can produce the funds necessary.

Nonetheless, I am optimistic about the future. We have found a location that could work which is an important step forward and in conversations and meetings I’ve been with other stakeholders, there seems to be a great deal of excitement about the possibility of a new shelter designed for our current needs.

But that leaves a final question. What does all this mean for Grace Church. We have hosted the shelter for over thirty years, and over that time, ministry to and with the homeless has become part of our identity. We have created enormous good will throughout the community because of the shelter’s presence here, and when there is negative publicity, we suffer as well.

If and when the shelter moves, the effects of that move on Grace will be significant. We will have to think about how we might continue to engage in ministry with the homeless; how we might continue to support the work of the shelter and its current operator Porchlight. Beyond that, Grace will have to discern anew what the best uses of our space might be and how best we might share Christ’s love with our neighbors. Those conversations will be exciting as well and I look forward to them.

 

Sharing the Bread of Life: A Sermon for Proper 13, Year B, 2015

This past week, I had an interesting encounter with a young homeless man. He came to the reception desk at Grace and asked to speak to me. He said he needed assistance and counseling. I brought him up to my office and began asking him questions, trying to figure out what he was looking for, what he needed. Eventually, he told me that he needed money to go somewhere. The story he gave me was rather flimsy, so I ended up not providing financial assistance.

I remembered that he also had asked for some counseling, so I tried to engage him in conversation around his life, the struggles he was having. Whatever had led him to ask for counseling, by the time he got into my office, he was not about to share anything substantive about his life. So I led him out of the building and sent him on his way. But a few minutes later he was back. This time, he wondered whether we had a computer he might use. Of course, we don’t, but I pointed out to him that public computers are available in the Central Library, and that Bethel has a computer room as well.` Continue reading

Moving the men’s drop-in shelter from Grace

An article by Pat Schneider provides some background on the potential move. It is an exciting prospect for the future of homeless services in Madison, and for Grace Church, too. If the shelter moves, we will engage the community and our congregation in a conversation about our future ministry and mission in a spot where we have been worshiping and serving God for over 150 years. At the same time, we will continue to advocate for “the least of these.”

So, Back to Square 1? Or Capitol Square?

Reports are that the courts have ruled in favor of the Town of Madison in its dispute with Dane County over locating a Day Resource Center on Martin St. Will the County appeal?

In any case, it’s almost June  and we’ve got five months to come up with a solution for next winter. How long has this been going on?

Let’s see if the city and county can bury the hatchet, work with homeless advocates and service providers and come up with a permanent solution for a Homeless Day Resource Center in the downtown .

 

Lectionary Reflections for Christ the King Sunday

RNS-HOMELESS-JESUS

This Sunday’s texts are available here.

Canadian sculptor Tim Schmaltz has incited controversy with his bronze statue “Jesus the Homeless.” The image gained notoriety when it was rejected by St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City and St. Michael’s Cathedral in Toronto. The latter image was installed at the Jesuit School of Theology in Toronto and another cast was purchased and installed at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Davidson, NC. The statue depicts a homeless man sleeping on a park bench. His facial features are partially obscured by the blanket that covers him but the marks of crucifixion on his hands and feet clearly identify him as Jesus. After the statue appeared in Davidson, the police were called by a woman who thought it was a real homeless person and others complained that it demeaned the neighborhood. One woman was quoted as saying, “Jesus is not a vagrant; Jesus is not a helpless person who needs our help.” (A story on Huffington Post with images of the statue is here).

This Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year, is Christ the King Sunday, a day when we are encouraged to reflect on the reign of Christ. Often, such reflection takes the form of images of Christ ruling in majesty or coming in triumph. Today’s gospel from Matthew 25, points in a very different direction. We read the familiar parable of sheep, goats, and judgment. For all its familiarity, it continues to challenge us at the core of our existence and at the core of our faith. The king divides sheep and the goats on the basis of how they responded to the deepest human needs: to the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger, the sick, the naked and the prisoner. But when told of their respective fates and the basis for the judgment, sheep and goats answered alike, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or naked?”

The Kingship of Christ, the Reign of Christ, is not primarily about recognizing Christ in majesty and triumph. It is about being Christ—in the weakest, lowliest, and most vulnerable of humans; in feeding and clothing, ministering to and being with the stranger, the sick, the friendless. In acts like these, the reign of God is announced and made present. The reign of Christ is proclaimed in a homeless Jesus.

The county plays hardball over the day shelter and the homeless community loses

So this bit of news came out today. Dane County is threatening to sue the Town of Madison over its continued legal efforts to prevent the County from opening a day shelter.

“The Town of Madison continues to stonewall the operation of a day resource center at the exact location where services to the homeless have been provided for ten years,” Parisi said in a statement.

Several observations:

1) It sounds like it’s getting personal
2) The Town of Madison has 120 days to respond, delaying the timeline even more
3) what a great way to gain local support for the facility!
4) I wrote weeks ago that I thought the county should abandon this location and find alternatives, but anyone watching this whole process will think twice about having the county as a neighbor.