The Anglican Diocese of New England remains full of extraordinary God-centric surprises! Canon Brian Bethke and I drove 130 miles yesterday to visit a church that meets on Saturdays. With a congregation of over 200 people, this is one of our larger ADNE church families. It was so good to be with them. They worshipped with all of their hearts. They shared bread and wine together, praying the liturgy with real conviction. They read the word together and the word was preached with passion. The entire congregation leaned in and audibly sounded their agreement. They took up an offering. They prayed for their city. They prayed for each other. And at the close of the service, they had lunch together – some really good soup and fresh bread. I have to add that their coffee was spectacular. I learned later that a local supplier had sourced and provided the best coffee in the city. I am a something of an expert on church coffee and let me tell you, this really was exceptionally good!
In many ways, I am sure that our own Sunday experience is not entirely dissimilar. Except this church has no roof, no walls, no pews or chairs. Instead, they meet on the steps of City Hall in Hartford every Saturday morning come rain, freezing rain, snow blizzard, hail, or blistering heat and the large majority of its members are homeless.
Sharing Holy Communion with our church family in Hartford that morning was deeply moving. Bruised and cold hands, shaped by the harshness of the elements, reached out for the sacrament. Prayer pervaded every moment of their time together. At one point in the service church members were encouraged to huddle up in groups of three, laying hands upon each other and praying with power and compassion. Prayers of this nature broke out all of the time; in the coffee line, standing together with soup or in the line for clean clothing.
At one point, they invited me into the middle and prayed for me as their Bishop. The man who prayed for me had recently given his life to the Lord. My intercessor was homeless and had given his life to the Lord in prison. The presence of the Holy Spirit was profound. There was a particular quality of glorious silence that fell, as we celebrated communion, that spoke to me of the inbreaking of heaven.
As the service drew to a close, spontaneous worship broke out as a young man called Eric (whose father had died that week) sang, “You are here, touching every heart, I worship you, I worship you. You are here, healing every heart. I worship you, I worship you. You are here turning lives around, I worship you, I worship you. You are here Mending every heart. I worship you, I worship you.”
The entire operation was seamless. I met two members of the leadership at a U-haul storage facility, just a few miles outside the city. A U-haul truck was packed to perfection with open-sided tents, tables, coffee, food, and clothing. As we arrived in the van, the volunteer set-up team had already assembled in front of County Hall in readiness. We stood in a circle, introductions were made, and we prayed together. Many of the set-up team were themselves home-less. Within fifteen minutes the contents of the truck were unloaded, and the church rose up out of the cold, concrete sidewalk. A sound system was assembled together with a fold-out communion table complete with chalice and patent that was set before a small iron cross. Tables were unpacked, unfolded and positioned under the open tents to keep coffee, soup, and sandwiches dry.
And in this simple but extraordinarily thoughtful process, the Lord established a place where his Spirit began the work of recovering the beauty and nobility of the image of God, in each person. This included the simple grace of holding out the dignity of choice. What kind of sandwich would you like? Would you like cream and sugar with your coffee? I was helping distribute new underwear to the guys. They got to choose – boxers or briefs? The simple task of asking someone who feels forgotten and has lost sight of themselves, what they would prefer, was a simple but beautiful act of recovering God’s image buried within them.
This remarkable ministry started with just one-man, ADNE clergyman, Reverend Bryan Bywater.
This one man, with one fold-out table, and a broken heart for the forgotten and the marginalized also had faith that, if we came together, in the power of God, we could really can make a difference. The problem is when the Bible says, “you” we have a tendency to take it as “me” when we should take it as “we.” In God’s power and leading, we are supposed to work in this together. This is now gloriously evidenced by the large number of volunteers, including students and older children, who now come each Saturday to worship and serve as part of this church family.
One lady told me that she had felt God’s call to join this church fellowship for some time and yet Saturday was always crowded with other demands. At the same time, she asked the Lord, “But if I came, what could I possibly do? She prayerfully sensed the Lord encourage her, “My prayer, poured out upon your heart and lips – is the prayer that keeps them alive until you pray for them again the following week.” She is now there every week and men and women wait patiently in the cold to have her pray with them. She knows them by name and by heart.
If Hartford were not quite such a drive, do you think you might be persuaded to be a part of one of the largest churches in the Diocese? And yet, maybe we don’t need to drive 130 miles to be part of a church like this? What if we let the Spirit take the lead and asked him where to set up His table? What miracles is He longing to perform through His presence in us – if we had the courage to step out in faith? How many more might know His life, through His prayer, poured out upon our hearts and lips? Is it possible that God is calling us to build church family for the outcast, the prisoner and the homeless up and down New England? Can any of us think of a city or town in New England where this kind of vibrant street church is not desperately needed?
Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.”
As I was headed back to the welcome warmth of my car (my feet so cold, I could no longer feel them), I noticed three Street Church members sat on a low wall. A young man with an older man and woman. The older lady asked me if I would pray for her arthritic knee and so we stopped. After we had prayed, she asked me if I had anything to eat. I said we had given everything away but before I could say another word, the young man (also homeless) reached into his back-pack and reassured her, “Don’t worry you can have my sandwich. I was saving it for later, but here, you take it.” Here is the church of Jesus Christ, alive and serving on the streets of Hartford. Jesus is where He always said He would be. The only question is, are we willing to join Him?
– Bishop Andrew
View the full gallery of Bishop Andrew & Canon Brian’s visit to The Street Church: