MANNA (Many Angels Needed Now and Always) is a leadership organization working with people who do not have homes. Read more about MANNA in my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers. I recently attended their Monday worship at The Cathedral Church of St. Paul in Boston.
The quiet of MANNA's Monday Lunch provided respite for many after a night of protests for Black Lives Matter in Boston. Jennifer McCracken, the priest for this congregation, checked in with me frequently during lunch, but didn't have a minute to spare as one person after another wanted to share their stories with her. She knew, she understood, she was there. She looked tired as worship began.
We sat in a large circle, each chair six feet from the next, a couple chairs in the center, also appropriately distanced, and in front of the altar, two more chairs. The hand painted altar cloth was a little lopsided, and all the animals from Noah's ark had been carefully placed, along with Terry Dactyl, the plastic dinosaur, sitting on one arm of the cross. This is a time of pandemic; the Eucharistic elements were missing.
As worship progressed our group of six grew to ten or twelve, some sitting in the far corners of the sanctuary. Each person had a backpack or bag at their feet, the hosts at the back entrance offered hot lunch to the latecomers, along with hand sanitizer and masks. Outside the Cathedral's glass doors two more volunteers continued to offer bag lunches to people who didn't want to come inside.
Inside was a hushed. People talked, quietly, to others or themselves. The slouched shoulders expressed a sense of rest. The meal had been quiet, but tense, now we began to let out that tension, to share our unrest with God, to let go. The service is familiar and yet specific to the day.
“I love this Psalm,” Jennifer hands out a paper. “It's a lament. Today we are going to cry out with all of the pain of the racism, the violence, the pain of last night, and of our lives." Together we read the words of Psalm 13.”
“How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart?”
We sit a moment in the pain. Jennifer invites a parishioner to create a Gospel Alleluia and he does, mournfully, quietly, it fills the room. His head drops as he finishes.
Members of the congregation read the gospel, first in Spanish, then in English. Jennifer calls up a parishioner to preach. He is tall, dark, and devastated. He speaks in spurts, as if God fills him up, he pours it out, and then the next message arrives and gushes onto us. Struggling to hold his body in the chair, clenching his hands in frustration, wiping tears from his face, he preaches confidence God wants something different. As his message dies down Jennifer mentions the scripture we have read and he starts again, more words of God piling on us. Some us look away, I look away, it is so much pain, so much trust, so much power.
There is silence. There is peace that passes all understanding. We shuffle in our seats. We wait for the words to flow through us. We wait some more.
At lunch one of the volunteers told me to stay for worship. "They do a blessing that is amazing." I had no idea.
Jennifer begins by turning to her right, to the preacher, sitting there, and blesses him for his words. She encourages him to bless the woman to his right, and her to bless the man behind her. One by one, the priest naming each person in turn, we each bless the next. Everyone has some little contribution. Everyone is blesses; everyone is blessed. Over the physical distance required by the virus, we pull together in blessing. Over the spiritual distance required by our nation's racial divide, we pull together in blessing. Over the social distance separating people with homes from those without we pull together in blessing.
This is church.
Upper Room Books has done a series of videos on how people find hope in this time of coronavirus. Honestly at first I didn't find hope. But the my congregation rose up to do great work at our Food Pantry. I find God in the people who do this work, and the people who donate, and the people who come to get food. Here is the video that I offered to Upper Room: Link.
Silvia volunteers on Wednesdays and Sundays at the church on the corner. She isn’t always on time for set-up but they hold a place for her in the serving line—she likes to help with the salad. Impeccably dressed, her long curls are pulled into a loose bun, her bright red nails skillfully break the seal on a new bottle of salad dressing.
“Here hon,” she says, “let me hold your plate and you can put on as much dressing as you want.” Some of the eaters ask about her kids, others just grunt and move on to the drink table to choose lemonade or coffee.
They are all from nearby—the shelter up the street, or from one of the rooming houses, or a tent over by the railroad tracks. A few are from the senior housing around the corner. Silvia lives in the garage behind one of the walk-ups on Oak Street.
“No tomatoes, right?” to one person, and “Oh, you’ve got to have salad, sweet heart. Mama always said to eat your vegetables.” Staff has warned her that she can’t make people take salad, but nothing stops her from trying. “Just take a little” or “come on, it’s lettuce, it doesn’t even taste like anything.” Salad is nearly impossible to chew if you don’t have teeth, but Silvia persists.
When I ask for volunteers to be interviewed Silvia is eager to take part, but does not show up for her scheduled Thursday appointment. I see her again on Sunday and try again. “Can you spend a few minutes before we start serving?”
She can, and she shares freely about how the meal program works—she was there at the start, when the pastor and a few others were brainstorming on the front steps of the church. She effuses about the pastor, and about Marina, the cook. “They really listen to you. Like they know when you need to talk and then they don’t judge you.”
“What kinds of things do you share?” I ask cautiously.
“Oh, you know, when things are hard,” Silvia’s eyes avoid mine, darting around the room. “I think its time to start serving.” She hurries away as I call “thank you” to her back.
I approach the serving table and Camilla places me behind the green beans, next to Silvia, and hands me a one-cup measure as a serving spoon. Right away I run into trouble—the scoop holds water with the beans which I pour onto someone’s plate. The water pours off onto the table. Silvia pops up to grab paper towels and cleans up the water, and then calms the man whose meal I’d messed up. Once he was settled she showed me how to hold the cup against the side of the serving bowl and drain off the water.
“I thought you were an expert in meals?” she said accusingly. The pastor had in fact introduced me that way.
I shrug with an embarrassed smile. “I don’t know much about the food part. I know about volunteers and churches.”
“What good is that?”
For my organized thoughts, see my book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Developing Relational Food Ministries. In this spot are thoughts that appear for a moment--about food programs, mission, church, building community, writing, and whatever else pops into my head.