|Penn Baccalaureate 2013
May 21, 2013,
Volume 59, No. 33
<< Back to Baccalaureate/Commencement Index
Baccalaureate Address given Sunday, May 12, 2013 by The Reverend Dr. Deborah Little Wyman, founder & missioner, Common Cathedral & Ecclesia Ministries
Following Your Feet
Caminante, no hay camino,
Se hace camino al andar. —Antonio Machado
Traveler, there is no way,
The way is made by walking.
Thank you all, for welcoming me, I am honored. And especially, as you know I come bearing two uncomfortable realities for most of us: homelessness, and “the church.” I am so grateful.
One day, in 1985—I was director of communications at Harvard Law School—I was driving up Mass Avenue to a press conference and I was on my phone with a NY Times reporter. I stopped at a red light, and I just happened to glance to my right. Sitting on the steps of an entrance to my own apartment complex was a woman surrounded by all her belongings in paper bags. I heard my own silent voice say, I want to have a life in which I could go and sit with that woman until she has what she wants. I had been uneasily aware for some time that despite how much I loved my work, 35 years in publications and communications, something else was lying in wait for me. An unexplained itch was not going away.
A few months earlier, the rector of the church I’d gone to for a few years initially for the music, sat me down and told me he thought I was a priest. I had stormed out of his office and stomped down Newbury Street in Boston saying with every muscle, no no no. I grew up in the ’60s and had no desire to be anywhere near something as hierarchical as I knew the church could be. Besides that, I wasn’t spiritual enough. I was a writer. I couldn’t stand up in front of people and talk. I needed a salary, a job description, benefits. I couldn’t afford seminary, and from what I’d heard, I wouldn’t pass ordination exams. These two “invitations” literally fell unbidden and unwelcome into my life.
How do people do things that are impossible? What followed for me were several years in an excruciating cavern between one life and another I couldn’t yet see. I had a grip on my dearly-won seat as a responsible tax paying adult, and I was sifting and sorting through the rich soil of wounds and dreams that life so generously provides each of us. How far could I roam and still be me. A sure sign of new direction is the prize combo of fear, doubt, and insecurity.
In the early ’70s I worked with Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid, as he was inventing a major advance in instant film. After a very long day with skeptical shareholders, he turned from us to retreat into his lab. As he went, I heard him say, as if to himself, “There’s nothing so fragile as a new idea.”
What happened to me was a slow stripping of layers of myself I thought I couldn’t live without. One day I evidently hit bottom with my no, and I said “yes”—out loud, quietly, to myself. Immediately, the knot in my stomach loosened. I became curious. What might I do with both ministry and caring for that woman on the steps. I resigned from all my nonprofit boards and started volunteering in a new women’s shelter in Cambridge. The director wanted me to do communications and development work, of course, but I was there to move closer to the women, to basic needs, to just sit still, on those hard folding chairs, and listen.
I fell in love, with the simplicity, the women, the no nonsense, bare vulnerability, truthfulness, no justifications or explanations. Lives with no footnotes, just out there on the page. It was the beginning of a slow turning from a life I loved to another, very different one. I wanted to take what I had experienced as the gifts of church—community, celebration, acceptance, continuity, accompaniment, silence and music, the gifts I knew first hand—out to people who could not, for whatever reason, come in to receive them. Here was a way for my energy from civil rights, anti-war, free speech, women’s rights, AIDS and other actions, a way to bring together my best political and social impulses, with my best skills (writing, creating something new, networking, being outdoors, organizing, talking with people, and especially one person at a time), to create an environment in which people who have nothing could make a safe, kind community.
You know you are on to something when the interesting people start cheering and the institution digs in its heels. The diocese did not think a priest belonged on the street. I think it’s in the job description of authorities to make innovators miserable. Important to remember that’s the job they—and not we—have chosen. But still, we have practicality, including a living wage, responsibilities and fear to protect us from change. So a yes is the beginning of a long trip requiring all the faithfulness and doggedness we can muster.
Friends reminded me of old truths: “just keep doing what you are doing” and “you know Debbie, sometimes it’s not enough to be right,” I needed to keep doing the ministry, collecting stories that would make the necessary bridges to change old thinking. As I fell more and more in love with folks on the street, I felt their support and became better at putting words on what we were doing. Over time, as the ministry became real and more public, many radio, TV and print pieces appeared, and I began to hear us referred to as a movement, and that our street ministry was changing the church, breaking it open, giving it meaning, and changing how people understood homelessness.
We all navigate in spheres starved for innovation. Individually and collectively our very integrity depends on new vision, requiring every last ordinary one of us to show up.
In fact, it’s true, in the beginning I didn’t know what I was doing. I made up street ministry as I went along. “What are you doing out here?” I was asked by a man I’d greeted for two weeks passing by his panhandling spot. This was the dreaded question not just Jack, but my bishop was asking. We’re standing there, eye to eye, Jack, his outstretched cup into which a passer by had just dropped a coin—and brand x, middle class me, in a clergy collar. He looked me in the eye, he, having nothing to hide or lose. He said,“Doing good is a hustle too, you know.” In no time, I was panhandling too.
Street church doesn’t cost anything, but I needed a salary. Two things I felt passionate about made fundraising very tough. I insisted that we are not an outreach project. We are a church that has no way to support itself. I would say, “We don’t need your money as much as you need to come and be with us.” Second, donors love successes and I had to resist the temptation to sell our ministry as a solution to homelessness. People we referred to as “the chronically homeless” are dearest to my heart and they are by definition likely never to go, as we say, “in” or make life changes that people who live as we do consider worth supporting.
After two years of hanging out on park benches, subway stations, heating grates and train tunnels in Boston, during the week before Easter 1996, I had the idea that we could actually have an outdoor worshipping church. I sensed people were waiting to be gathered. That Easter I set up a folding table on Boston Common and 10 brave souls came. I hadn’t asked permission or planned this to be regular, but the next day as I made my street rounds, several men who had not even been at the service told me they’d see me on Sunday. Celebration is deeply sought by people who by our standards have nothing to celebrate.
I learned that church can be made from the shards of real life and is big enough to welcome the bloody faces, raw truths, drunken gospel singing, cigarette smoking, seizures, nakedness, squabbling, ecstasy and despair. Dave overdoses on Listerine waiting for the Sunday morning bootlegger and the EMTs drive into the middle of our church to pick him up. We pray for him and I’ll head to the ER at Boston Medical after the service. John needs his new wheelchair blessed. “Here, I have a song for ya,”says Jimmy grinning and singing rounds of “God bless the Boston Red Sox” as we start our prayers. Micky has a shoebox full of baby rats she wants baptized.
We created a pastoral care team to visit in hospitals, plus common art and common cinema. Part of making it up as I went along included how to handle all the offers of help, and how to ensure the physical and emotional safety of people working with us, and I found myself chaplain to the new social services teams. I realized we needed disciplined self reflection to prevent burnout. I required volunteers and seminarians to attend Al-Anon, have spiritual directors, and attend team reflection meetings.
I was determined that the ministry survive the founder’s leaving and I knew that meant I shouldn’t stay too long. This is one of the hardest things, but it worked. Today Common Cathedral Boston is in its third generation of leadership. I left my ministry and my salary and miraculously received a Ford Foundation grant to support what I call the mission work of helping people start street ministries and churches. Today we are some 270 affiliates in the US, Brazil, Australia and the UK involved in about 130 ministries: Church of the Advocate in Asheville, Church of the Common Ground in Atlanta, Open Cathedral in San Francisco, Common Cathedral in Longmont, CO, Street Church in Cincinnati, Igreja na Rua in Rio de Janeiro, Church on the Green in New Haven, the Bridge Church in Guerneville, CA, Grace Street Ministry in Portland, ME, Welcome Church in Philadelphia, and so on.
Now that there are many with experience in this ministry, we have a large team of mentors for new ministries. I could be hit by a scooter tomorrow and the ministry would thrive. We receive new inquiries and are connected by a listserv, a website, a Facebook page and a director. Simple links maintained by volunteers.
Yes has a life of its own.
A small good thing. You get an idea, let the idea get you, help it to grow just by following your feet, as soon as you know how to do something really well, teach someone else how to do it and let it go, keep giving it away, give it away. Tell stories about it, invite people to be part of it.
We each hold a unique, fragile idea, a small good thing, the question that needs to be asked, the answer that needs to be tried. An angle on the problem no one else has. No one else can do that thing. It’s yours. You’ll know it when it comes. Inshallah. May it be so.