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Empower Those in Need to Minister to One Another

If it can be said that the economic downturn has a bright side, without sounding too distant from the distress many are experiencing, that claim might fit events at Boston's Cathedral Church of Saint Paul (Episcopal). Twenty-five years ago, the nearly 200-year-old church began a typical soup kitchen; however, when the "great recession" hit and the number of people seeking a free meal nearly tripled, church workers asked help from the homeless they had been serving. That request has developed into a thriving ministry to the homeless by the homeless, with the support of church staff and volunteers. Fifty to sixty homeless or recently transitioned to housing volunteers help the staff to welcome guests, serve the meals, and keep the peace. Team members hold meetings to consider other ministries, such as a mission to provide blankets "from a friend, to a friend," and a proposal to send cards to the homeless who land in jail, hospital, or other isolated settings. While the church recognizes the need for professional support, particularly in administrative follow-through, it also creates an environment that invites and supports leadership development among the homeless population.

"Trinity's long-time volunteers have needed to adapt to change. The challenge has been to relinquish control and accept some new and perhaps imperfect systems in exchange for higher, albeit less tangible, outcomes," writes G. Jeffrey MacDonald, in an article on the church's program archived on Faith & Leadership, an online offering of Duke Divinity School. However, he continues, "it's essential for creating an atmosphere of social equality," and it is "also a key step in empowering guests to help themselves and one another." In addition, that sense of mutuality has spilled over into worship: "On any given Sunday, those serving as greeters, readers, crucifers, vergers and subdeacons include some who slept outside or in a shelter the night before, " which means "the homeless" have ceased being a category; now particular men and women, participants in the faith community, have names and stories. And that means that "for those in the pews, homelessness is no longer a mere issue, but a personal challenge faced by friends." For more on community outreach, see our feature articles, "Best Resources for Community Engagement," and "Take Action: Community Engagement."

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