Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A STREET CHURCH STORY

On Easter Sunday, the San Francisco Night Ministry celebrated the third anniversary of its Tenderloin Open Cathedral, an ecumenical open air Eucharist, where every Sunday for three years - rain or shine - spiritual bread has been broken with a regular congregation of fifty or so and physical food shared with over a hundred.  It is a place where people have been baptized, wed, and changed.
 
Last week, we inaugurated a new service, an Open Cathedral in the city's predominantly Hispanic Mission District.  And, now, we can say "OC Mission is up and running!" 
 
It was 5:30 last Thursday, May 12… bright and sunny.  Ron, our usher emeritus, was waiting as Monique, our UCC minister, and I arrived at the BART at 16th and Mission.  So was an eclectic crowd – black, white, and brown; old and, mostly, young; speaking English and, mostly, Spanish; some busily hurrying on, some lolling about on the metal benches and circular stone stoop around the station entrance.  We knew all would be well, for Moses was there to welcome us, too.  After we told him what we were about, he promised to return and, indeed, dropped in – and, out – at various times during the service.
 
To be sure, most kept their distance, only a few, it seemed, listening at all…except, that is, for Mark, a young – and big – African American who listened intently and with growing curiosity, as I read the Psalm and, then, Gospel in my deep voice which startles some.  As Monique began to preach – to no one, it seemed - he began to wave the service sheet and shout about sin and hell.  I went to quiet him down and received instead a sermon about Leviticus…about how I "should not lie down with other men," about how "you know what you are" and, "if you don't change, you'll burn in hell." 
 
Putting down the microphone for the moment, Monique joined us.  Mark explained how his life had been a mess and turned around at some local evangelical church where – not his words – he learned to fear God, to be judged, and to judge.   Monique, in turn, explained our non-judgmental theology of a God of love.  As she did, he calmed down.  They promised to continue the conversation after the service and he quietly walked off to the side.
 
Then, a funny thing happened.  Maybe it was the unexpected  noise, the overheard conversation…but, as Monique continued the bilingual sermon,  as Ron passed out the bilingual service sheets, people started to come – black, white; Anglo, Hispanic; a few with kids in tow.  The interest turned to reverence, as Monique broke the bread.  And, as we began the Lord's Prayer, our circle numbered more than a dozen, strangers holding hands, praying together in Spanish and English.
 
There were still more – newcomers, old friends Monique knew from the street – as we shared the bread and wine.  Monique gave an extra- large piece of bread to the disheveled barefoot woman who kept repeating loudly "I'm hungry!" - responding, I couldn't help but feel, to yet another persistent widow.  And, passing the cup, I've learned to say – and mean - "Sangre Cristo."     
 
It came time for the dismissal.  I hadn't given thought about what to say in Spanish.  All that came out was a loud, simple, and heartfelt "Vaya con Dios!" 
 
We all did…but not before sharing what little physical food and drink we had – a case of sodas and that blessed box of Bob's donuts.  It wasn't much.  It wasn't enough.  But, oh, how the little boy beamed, when I produced that chocolate covered donut…how grateful the lady who returned for seconds and thirds.
 
Little knots of people gathered for continued conversations – old friends of Monique's who promised to return; a newcomer, a troubled young lady raised Roman Catholic who, upon learning that Monique and I had shared her background, asked about Baptism.  Names and phone numbers were written down, promises made to see each other next week.
 
The sun was still out.  We had done our "thing." It was time to" go with God."  We did, waving to each other and to our new friends – as we went our separate ways.  Crossing Mission, then 16th, I found a new spring to my step.  About a block away, outside the now-closed Chinese market, I passed a lady who had shared our bread and donuts.  She said "Thank you."  "See you next week," I replied.
 
It's a start.


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