As most of you reading this know, I am the Urban Missioner in Worcester, running a storefront ministry of presence in the Main South neighborhood. Main South is a challenged neighborhood, with lots of folks who are either homeless or marginally housed, and many of the people we meet are struggling with addiction and/or mental illness. It is easy to list all the ways this ministry is different from the parishes I have served, but what has surprised me over and over is how similar some of the questions and issues are.
Opioids are everywhere.
The problem is not simply one for urban areas or homeless people. Many of the folks who wind up in Main South began their lives in Holden, or East Longmeadow, or other suburbs. They got a prescription for pain pills due to an injury or surgery, and found themselves in trouble before they knew it. While the problem is enormously complex, one of the simplest ways to help is to dispose of any unused opioids in your house. Many people receive a prescription for 30 pills and use only five or six. The rest live in their medicine cabinet where a child, or grandchild, or friend might use or sell them. If you take a zip lock bag and add used coffee grounds, a squirt of dishwashing liquid and a half cup of water, the pills can be emptied into that mix and thrown in the trash. Don’t flush them down the toilet!
Walk your neighborhood.
It is easy to assume that you know your area because you drive through on the way to church. Walking gives you a very different perspective. Walk with two or three others—20 minutes in any direction. What do you see? What surprises you? What did you expect to see that is missing? There are no laundromats within a twenty minute walk of our storefront. In your neighborhood you may see lots of elderly people with no place to gather. It may be that you see lots of children and no playgrounds. Or lots of people speaking a language other than your own. What might you be called to do in response to what you see?
People are not only not churched, but they are post-Christian.
Many of the people I meet have never been inside a church, and don’t know what we do or why. We need to be ready to answer very basic questions and teach basic traditions. Many people never learned the words to the Lord’s prayer. When someone asked me about my clerical collar, I said I wore it because I’m ordained. “What does ordained mean?” was her next question. We can no longer assume that people know basic prayers, stories or language, not because they are unwilling to learn them, but because they have no exposure.
Rituals are important.
Simple things bring a sense of continuity and joy. Every month we close Laundry Love with a prayer circle. We give thanks for the time together and then ask people whom we need to remember in prayer. We don’t recite things together (see the paragraph above), but we always hold hands. Folks coming in late ask “Have we prayed yet?” Gathering for simple prayer is central to the community.
Everyone has something to share.
Not everyone can write a large check, but everyone can support the ministry we share. It is a truism in 12-step groups that someone with one week sober can help another person with just one day. Offering our gifts promotes human dignity. Here at the storefront people help make coffee, sweep the floors and sidewalk, carry packages in from my car, and wash down tables. The sugar bowls get filled, trash is emptied and coffee cups are washed. People bring in pictures for the walls, share extra food, and translate for us. The group which uses the space for an exercise class decorates for the holidays. We come in to hearts on the walls for Valentine’s day or red, white and blue tablecloths for the Fourth of July.
Gratitude changes everything.
Here at the storefront we have a gratitude wall, where people post stories about gratitude. When we focus on what we are thankful for and not what we think we lack, our spirits and hearts are lifted. Folks here are grateful for a warm coat or a day with work. They are thankful that they can see their children or wake up sober. Simple kindness given and received is cause for delight. I make a daily gratitude list, and it changes my focus from what I want to what I have been given. Maybe our parishes should institute a season of thanksgiving during Eastertide, where the Prayers of the People are simply prayers of gratitude. So often the additions to the prayers are all about who is sick or worried, and not about the joys and blessings of our lives.
So let me close with gratitude for the opportunity to share some of what I have learned over the past three years. I am grateful to the individuals, parishes and to the diocese for financial support of our work, and the many small gifts of detergent or baked goods or toiletries which have come our way. And I an eternally grateful for the prayers of a wide community, which support and undergird all of our work.