(This is the second in a year-long series published in Ministry and Liturgy Magazine, March 2015 issue. I am grateful for Ada Simpson, editor who made the decision that these reflections from my years at the Downtown Chapel in Portland should see the light of day in Ministry and Liturgy magazine.)
Processions on Concrete
“Jesus himself drew near and walked with them,
but their eyes were prevented from recognizing him.” Luke 24
A concrete sidewalk surrounds our urban parish. We have no fancy water feature on the parish property, no parish garden or grassy area, or any school or parking lot or driveways, only a sidewalk. The uneven path connects people to the diverse businesses of our neighborhood, – a loud nightclub next door, and a gay bar on the corner, an automotive repair shop, a sushi hangout, an improv theater, a single-room occupancy hotel and a convenience store.
I begin with the actual concrete sidewalk because the Church challenges us to open up new pathways to Christ Jesus. Some people have worn down a familiar path to church without much thought or reflection and do not even see whom they might be missing along the way. Others have walked away from the Church because they have been hurt along their own journey. Many people do not feel safe along the path that leads to our parish churches. These people no longer feel welcome or worthy for such a journey because of how they have been treated in a confessional in years past or hearing about the public crimes of the clergy in recent years.
The Holy Spirit calls us into prayer and our challenge is to sweep away all the obstacles we put in the way of people getting to church. Our challenge from Pope Francis is to create a clean, hope filled path to the Eucharist. We are called by the Holy Spirit to acknowledge the prejudice, ignorance, laziness and apathy that we find along the route to Christ Jesus. The Holy Spirit is calling every community to open up a new path to faith and love, no matter in what parish community we serve. We must take the risk to unburden people’s lives, to offer reconciliation and hope along the way. These efforts are never easy or simply pious, but require hard work and real interest for the believer in any community.
Before we walk into any parish church on Sunday morning, we need to reflect on the path that leads to Sunday Mass, from our daily work, the farm or office, the factory or home school. No matter if the path is a dirt road, a cobblestone sidewalk or a super highway, we discover our relationship with people along the way. We all bring with us to Sunday Mass a set of personal and spiritual needs. We do not leave the truth of our lives at the doors of our churches.
In the daylight hours, our narrow sidewalk is tight with passersby. Elderly men roam the concrete path to pass the time while smoking cigarette butts found in the gutter. Some other people stagger along sobering up from overnight bingeing. Other people who live outside stand in line to enter our building in the early morning, waiting for coffee and hygiene products. The concrete path around our building is not always calm; sometimes fistfights break out because people try to steal other’s possessions. People scream for help, shout to be noticed or fight to gain their power.
At night the streets and sidewalks really come alive. Couples stand outside the gay bar smoking and carousing. Young people line up to get into the clubs. Music blares from cars touring for drug deals and from clubs struggling to attract new costumers. At night the sidewalks have a life of their own.
In the nighttime people sleep huddled at our doorway and nestled up against our concrete building. Many of these folks are visitors during the day to our morning hospitality center. They know firsthand that we will allow people the space on the sidewalk where the police will not arrest them. Their security up against our outside walls is only an illusion. They still face thieves in the nighttime rummaging through their belongings. They still dodge spit from people who believe that poor people are trash.
Women face the threat of rape even huddled together up against the church wall. Women often spend the night sleeping close to each other. They hide their faces, and bind together around the perimeter of our building finding places under the lights. They sleep outside our chapel building when the women’s shelter is full for the night.
When I first arrived at the chapel, people sold drugs on our corner both in night hours and in broad daylight. In fact, I was told when I arrived that if I wanted to buy drugs in the state of Oregon, all I needed to do was to stand at my church door. The sidewalks were littered with drug paraphernalia. People blocked the sidewalks trying to make the next sale or looking for the next hit.
The sidewalks are also a place to be arrested if you sit down, though arrests only take place if you are homeless or poor. The young people waiting to get into the nightclubs who sit on the sidewalks across the street will not be arrested. People in poverty carrying bags, sacks and gear who have nowhere else to put down their burdens will be ticketed and fined.
Since a renovation a few years ago, our chapel floor now is exposed concrete. After ripping up the frayed maroon carpeting during the two-month renovation, the connection between the concrete sidewalk outside and the concrete floor of prayer inside is easily noticed. People stream into our space before the noon Mass, after our hospitality center has closed, to pray for a while. They carry their belongings on their backs, which are often soaked from the Portland rain.
Our morning guests come into the dimly lit worship space searching for quiet. They enter the space and plop down their belongings to find respite from the brutality of the streets. The boundaries of the concrete sidewalks and the sacred floor of worship blur with each day, the margins erased by deep prayer on the inside and understanding the issues of people’s lives on the outside.
On Sundays, we usually have to wake up people sleeping at our red doors in order to open up for people attending the morning Mass. Sometimes parishioners have to carefully step over people still sleeping near the door. We often are blamed for not doing something, like fixing the situations of those whose despair is so apparent. What many people do not realize is that everyone has to make their own choices about housing and about their health. We can persuade and insist, we prod and nudge, but we cannot solve some of those situations. The State of Oregon can only intervene in a person’s illness if they are imminently harming themselves or others or if they are very near death.
I learned quickly in my time at the parish that there is one thing we can do for people. We can pray. We can celebrate sacraments amid the grind of poverty, loneliness and ugliness. I often sit on the concrete floor of the chapel and pray in solitude. I pray alone on the concrete in the nighttime hours because I desire to connect what we do on the chapel floor with all that happens on our block. I started doing this to break down my own stereotypes of people, to remove any obstacle lodged in my heart that blocks my view of the unity and dignity of another person. I pray on the floor aware that no one person has more dignity than another person; no person has a more influential voice than another. We are all equal in God’s eyes. I realize that offering healing for people in the Eucharist begins with accepting the reality of what people face on the streets or wherever the concrete sidewalk takes them.
I begin the Eucharist with an awareness of who is walking on our streets and who has decided to enter our building for prayer. I have to make these connections in my gut, in my life of personal prayer, before I stand up to begin the Eucharist. When I reflect on our concrete floor, I know there are no distinctions among us who come to pray. We are all on the same ground, the level ground of truth. We gather at Mass as advocates of people in poverty and people who live with mental illness. We gather as people who want to live alone as well as people who face the day in severe loneliness. We gather as volunteers, parishioners and people who sit in our pews because they are too exhausted to face the day.
The stained grey concrete floor invites unity among us. The floor connects us with all the issues of the streets. We are all one, all united under the grace of God. I watch a young parishioner push the wheels on his wheelchair into the worship space with ease to join us for Sunday Mass. He thanked me for getting rid of the old, ripped carpeting that would catch in the wheels of his chair. A staff member cleans up feces off the concrete floor yet one more time from a man from the neighborhood suffering from Alzheimer’s. A woman debilitated with muscular dystrophy uses her finger to guide her chair into the chapel. Her urine bag leaked again on the concrete floor, during the procession of the Eucharist on Holy Thursday. We are all one on the concrete floor and Jesus has promised to be with us.
One Holy Week a parishioner noticed a man covered in a red blanket sleeping near the chapel door. Each day as she entered the building for prayer, she noticed him sound asleep under the red blanket. On Good Friday, I began the liturgy kneeling and prostrating my body on the concrete floor, dressed in a red chasuble. In the silent prayer, the women who had seen the tired man on the streets, wept as she saw me lying on the concrete floor of the chapel wearing a garment the same color as the blanket under which he slept. She wept for us all. She connected in her heart the reality of the brutality of the streets and the prayerful space of the chapel. She finally realized that there is no distinction of sacred and profane. She came to a new awareness of our mission here beginning with prayer and connecting prayer to how we serve people in poverty. She came to a new understanding on that Good Friday that we are all one in the suffering and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
I now understand the beggar who sat at the roadside waiting for Jesus to pass by. I can see his hand waving for help, reaching out from disability. I feel the urgency of the man with an unclean spirit. I ache to hear Jesus heal all the unclean, the mentally ill and chase after handicaps and job loss, heartache and bruised egos. As we begin Mass I imagine now the woman who sweeps the floor of her home searching for what is lost. I now understand Jesus in the garden path with his sleeping disciples unable to face the death of their friend and master. The streets, floor and every path of life for people who suffer are connected and Jesus walks them all.
I realize every day as we begin the Eucharist that our concrete connects to paths well beyond our block. The Introductory Rites of the Eucharist invite us to see beyond our own journey to Mass. These rites are meant to open us to the reality of people’s lives here and beyond. The path of prayer leads to the slick floors and chaos of an emergency room because a parent has just received word of an accident. The sacred path outside our chapel leads into the deep woods where runaway teens have gathered together because they are tired of families and systems that sexually and emotionally abuse them. Our prayer leads to alleyways where deals are made, drugs are sold and our young suburban girls are trapped in human trafficking. Our prayer leads to highways that take us to new jobs and opportunities. Our liturgy along the byway takes us to a suburban home where a family sits at the bedside of a grandfather gasping his last breath. We are taken to concrete corridors in the monastery where a young monk decides to serve the poor in his neighborhood.
We begin the procession of the Eucharist every day on the solid floor believing that we are one in Christ Jesus. The Introductory Rites of the Eucharist blur the lines of division, of sacred and profane. Our assembly must remain connected with those leaving the bars and all the other issues and people of our block and beyond. We are connected on the concrete floor with the drunken, elderly man who just vomited outside our doors. We begin by removing obstacles about people’s pasts and present, and by breaking down barriers. We begin by affirming people who are marginalized by other people’s opinions of them.
We process proudly to the altar knowing the gift of people who fight for their dignity and who advocate for people who cannot speak for themselves. We connect to women huddled together so as not to be shamed. We are connected to our gay and lesbian neighbors who sometimes receive the message that their life is less worthy of respect than others. We believe everyone deserves his or her daily bread. We process with joy for those who have just received housing and to honor our work to get others out of the cold.
We begin our procession in the ancient tradition through which we are all on the road to the Kingdom of God. In our particular community, in our neighborhood, in our chapel, that journey begins on concrete. However, throughout the Church, on this side of the grave, we are to open up a new path of faith. We find our way to the holy and ancient altars of our communities where hope and healing dwell, where love is waiting for us.