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Late to Prayer

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It’s already about twelve minutes after the time we’re supposed to get started when I step out onto the porch. “Five minutes and we’re going to get started, yall,” I say, knowing full well that I probably mean more like eight or nine minutes. There are cigarettes and cups of coffee to finish and at least one more conversation waiting for most of us. Answered by a chorus of nods and waves, I head back inside to pick up the remnants of a conversation with a sister who’s still learning who we are and why she’s a blessing by her presence.

Once again, we will not start our community prayers on time, but it’s hard to be on time when you’re trying to learn to pray without ceasing. Some of us gather on the porch, while others wander the garden, inspecting the tomatoes and eggplants in particular. Some of us have already found a seat in one of the house’s living rooms turned community prayer spaces. Depending on where we’re sitting or standing, we might be having a boisterous conversation or keeping silence and searching for the whisper of the Holy Spirit. We’re learning to see the unceasing praying in those moments when we’ve already started our prayers, even though we’ve not passed anything out and the only songs we’ve been singing are badly belted top forty hits or classic rock bass lines.

When the last car packed full of brothers and sisters from another neighborhood pulls around the corner, the folks on the porch and in the garden start making their way to our makeshift chapel. What makes it a chapel and not a high-ceilinged living room is the countless prayers it has heard and our agreement one with another that this is a place we all go to meet God. As we gather, each of us finds a seat or a spot on the floor around a beat up black coffee table. With everyone gathered, the children help to cover our altar with an old green curtain spotted with candle wax, but no less sacred for the mess. We place the steadily shrinking, white, pillar candle we use for our Christ candle in the middle of our table-turned-altar. Then we add our prayer book, a Bible, and maybe our plate and cup before our youngest brothers and sisters find a lap to sit on somewhere in the room. We light the candle and take a moment or two of silence, or as close as we can get to silence, to calm our minds and welcome Jesus into our makeshift place of prayer. Of course, he’s been there since long before the click of a stick lighter.

So, we sing and we pray. We gather up the prayers of the people packed into that room where the fan has to stay on. Some of our prayers are for loved ones, while others are for us. Many of the prayers will be for sisters and brothers struggling with homelessness, hunger, addiction, and deprivation. We lift up a brother, whose days remaining in jail will be counted and recounted like prayer beads each time we gather together. We clap, hoot, and holler for a sister who announces, with praise to God, that she’s been clean for eight days and this time she intends to stick with it. Some of the loudest “amens” come from our leaders who are also recovering, but the loudest comes from her husband who has been bragging about her for at least six of those eight days, and is quietly celebrating nearly nine months of his own recovery. We pray for people who have recently started sleeping on the streets, some of them in the room with us, while also praying for the brothers and sisters sleeping in our hospitality rooms. We pray for peace with our enemies and for peace with those who might name us as enemies. We pray for justice and mercy to be so wrapped up with each other in our world that we can’t tell which is which.

We pray for God to turn our every breath and action into a prayer, proclaiming God’s greatness and worthiness. We want to pray unceasingly and we no other way to do it than to turn the living of our lives into a prayer.

Praying together has taught us to slow down to make room for people to offer worship to God even in ways in which they are not strong by the world’s standards. Sometimes, we’ve learned that prayer sounds like a brother reading scripture haltingly but lovingly. After we read the scripture together, we interpret it and often find that the Spirit’s voice waits for us in unexpected places. We have to slow down, so we can listen carefully for God who may choose to speak to us in the happy tears of a brother no longer homeless or in the hard won experience of a sister with an empty refrigerator. God doesn’t always show up in the same place, but God does always show up.

Sometimes, we pass the plate and cup to remind each other that all of us are welcome at God’s table and God has died for all of us, regardless of what the world says about our deficits and gifts. Sometimes, we dip our fingers in water to remember the vows we made to follow Jesus when we were baptized into his death. Sometimes, we pray over each other with oil on our fingers and foreheads, asking God for healing of so many different kinds: physical health, recovery from addiction, mental health, spiritual peace, and as many other types of healing as there are ways of being broken.

We close with a blessing designed for all of us to pronounce. With hands joined and looking from face to face, we pronounce a blessing over those God has put in our lives to teach us to pray and follow. But, it will be another thirty or forty minutes most weeks before everybody has finally made their way home by foot, bicycle, or packed into a shared car. Our prayer continues in a dozen tiny ways: making a pot of coffee, picking up cooling conversations where we left them, catching a few more minutes of daylight on our skin while talking about bad days and hard weeks, drawing on the front wall with sidewalk chalk, talking a little more about what that scripture might have meant, and cutting cake to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, or days, weeks, months, or years of recovery. We may not bow our heads and we may not fold our hands, but all these little things are just as much our prayers to our loving, gracious, and hospitable God who knows you can’t be late to prayer if you’re learning to pray with your life.

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How You Should Be Walking

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***

Derek is hard to describe, but I’ll try. The first time I met him, he wanted to know if I could “lay down a beat” for him to freestyle over. He had had an idea for a new rap while walking to the meal in our home and was ready to try it out. Derek has a way of entering a new and unfamiliar place with confidence, his eyes darting to the left and right to take in his environment as quickly as possible. He is an astounding judge of character most times, but is also eager to assume the best of people even when his instincts suggest differently. Derek walks with an understated strut that we’ve learned to recognize from a block away, knowing him by his walk before we can hear him yelling our names. Derek has a sense of style that defies imitation, shifting subtly from day to day with his newest clothing creations—composed of other people’s castoffs and often given away shortly after their debut—but remaining consistent to a few themes, such as his penchant for handmade necklaces and redesigned skullcaps. Regardless of what’s going on in Derek’s life on any given day, he always asks me how my daughter is in the first minute or two of any of our conversations. He’s eager for us to know he loves us and tells us regularly.

Derek was one of the thirteen people who used to live at the apartment building that we called “Little Calcutta” and wrote about here previously. After four years of sharing countless meals together, planting flowers in the courtyard, taking turns playing the guitar on the porches of roach infested apartments that often lacked running water, and talking very seriously about what the tenants deserved, the tenants were ready to ask for better. Derek was one of the key leaders who helped cultivate justice in that neglected place and he did it with all of his characteristic soft-hearted swagger and persistent hopefulness. When the building was condemned, Derek celebrated alongside everybody and debuted new art and new fashion.

But, the condemnation of the building meant that once again Derek was facing the possibility of homelessness. For years, Derek had drifted between homelessness and near-homelessness, between lack of security and the hope of security. Though there are a particular set of material, social, and health challenges that vex Derek, it’s far too simple to say that those challenges are why Derek has struggled with homelessness. The reality is that Derek’s struggle with homelessness says just as much—if not more—about our society as it does about Derek.

We’ve been taught to expect people like Derek to act desperate and servile. We’ve learned to trade support and assistance, from positions of power and control, for dignity and flattering gratitude. Too often, we ask the Dereks to be somebody else, because we don’t know what to do with who they are. Sadly, when they don’t, can’t, or won’t fit themselves into a broken set of expectations for those in need, we write them off as ungrateful or undeserving. This certainly isn’t justice, and it’s hard even to call it charity. Rather, it’s something of a transaction where we trade some of our surplus resources for good feelings, and the Dereks of the world trade dignity and agency for whatever we’ve chosen to give. Frankly, it’s a bad trade for everybody involved, but it seems to be one we’re all accustomed to making.

So, we did what we’ve done dozens of times before and started going with Derek to make applications at better apartment buildings and to put together the documents and paperwork that he’d need to find a place to lay his head in relative security. The former tenants of Little Calcutta had ten days to find somewhere to go and we were able to relocate most within a week, but Derek kept being turned down for a variety of reasons. Finally, with only a few days left until the building was finally boarded up—a victory worth celebrating in its own right—one of our leaders, Ed, sat in yet another waiting room with Derek as his application was scrutinized in private. As Derek paced the room, Ed noticed that Derek’s shoelaces were tied together, forcing him to shuffle his feet to avoid tripping. Thinking this was a fashion choice, Ed asked Derek, “What’s up with your shoelaces? They make you walk like you’re shackled.”

Derek, normally cheerful and playful, turned his downcast eyes to Ed and responded, “That’s how I feel, that’s how I should be walking.”

So, what do you do when your brother makes that kind of confession to you? You wish it wasn’t true, but then you cry because, for the moment, it is. Then you tie your own shoelaces together, because it’s not just the Dereks of the world that are shackled by our broken way of looking at poverty, homelessness, justice, and charity. You tie your shoelaces together and shuffle through the next few days alongside the brother or sister that God gave you, because when that’s how you feel, that’s how you should be walking.

Together, we got there and Derek found a place to take shelter with less than 24 hours to spare. He untied his laces, he joined us at yet another meal and for prayers, and we all gave thanks that for a little while, everything was alright. That night, as we dropped him off, he walked back to his new home with victory on his shoulders, the love of his community around him, and with that familiar strut which fits him so well. After all, if that’s how you feel, that’s how you should be walking.

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We depend on the financial support of people like you. If you’d like to make a donation (one-time or recurring) to continue to support our work, you can do it online at: bit.ly/3CMdonate.