On the Friday before Christmas last year, I stood in front of the Red Door congregation gathered for the weekly service of Healing Prayer which we hold before serving a hot lunch to anyone who is hungry and in need of a good, home-cooked meal along with conversation, music, and safe space from what can often be a harsh world.
No one has to come to the service before they eat, but every week there are around 30 people who do choose to gather in the name of God in the sanctuary space of the urban parish who offer up this ministry of hospitality. Every week, we pray: silently and out loud, individually and as a community. We recite the psalms together, and we read the text from the upcoming Sunday’s Gospel, offering a short reflection.
On this particular Friday, it so happened that Sunday’s Gospel was for the upcoming Christmas Day. As a seminarian, I don’t often get to practice preaching for such a major feast day. As I had read and studied the text of John 1:1-14 in preparation for that reflection, I kept thinking about the Word made flesh, the Word who dwells with us, the Word who became incarnate in this world in the most humble and unhoused of ways, the Word who was and is and is always becoming known in the midst of those who gather from street corners, parks, parking lots and parishes alike.
There are more times than I can recall when I have experienced the Word made flesh in this space, with these faithful ministers of the streets. Some people are there ever week, offering me their reflections. Others straggle in for a break from the winter’s cold or the summer’s heat. We are people who are yearning, seeking solace, recovering, struggling, doubting, believing, praying. That day was no exception. When I stood to speak, the first thing I said was: “Merry Christmas! This is the first time this season, in this space, that anyone gets to say that and you are the first people who hear those words.” I noticed, at that moment, that John had tears in his eyes. I felt what he was feeling. The Word made flesh was, indeed, with us.
After the service, still teary, he came up to me: “Pastor Sarah [as he liked to call me], I just started crying. I couldn’t help it. It’s just that we are never first…we never are. And then, today, there we were and it was us…we were the first! We had the first Christmas!”
I had no words, so I just nodded, and hugged him. I had tears in my eyes, too. Something stirred in me, and stirred in us. There is a presence of Christ in the lives of those on the margins which is palpable and present and transformative. That was the gift of that moment.
John didn’t know then…nor did any of us…that it would also be his last Christmas here on this earth. A few short weeks later, the Friday healing service would be a memorial for John’s life. He lived unhoused, under a bridge but worked washing dishes or volunteered somewhere every day. He saved the lives of several people from near drug overdose, but he died from an overdose himself. He was and is one of many people whose complex and faithful lives on the margins touched and changed my own life. But, in between that Red Door Christmas and his untimely death, the idea for this project had already been birthed. That idea was floated during my January seminary intersession, put to paper and submitted as a grant on which I had sought John’s input, and even in grieving his loss, the restless spirit of something new coming to life was taking shape.
Although it has been several months in the making, Faith from the Margins to the Web is now a reality that will begin with regularity on the first Sunday of Advent, Year B and will grow week by week over this next liturgical year and (hopefully) beyond. Behind the scenes, people are being trained and interviews are being scheduled. Evangelism is happening and will soon be brought into being as words to the web. These stories and weekly blog commentaries are indeed life giving, because they come from the spaces where God meets us, and we are changed.
I hope you will join in this project to help nurture its growth week by week. Let us know how the stories are shaping your faith, too. We welcome your comments, your prayers, and your reflections.