NEWS

Walking the walk outside the box

The “church” is the people. We are all told this over and over. Yet, we continue to struggle as we cling to our church buildings that, perhaps, we believe define us. “Church On the Street” provides a very different ministry in our diocese. Here is a snippet of what it represents.

By Gail Trewhitt

On September 2, 2018, as a deacon postulant, I began my three month “internship”.

Earlier in the spring I had set in place what I had envisioned would be a new learning experience in a different church than my own; yet, familiar in its traditional Anglican liturgy and routines. I was all set for a challenge but nothing that a ‘cradle Anglican’ could not handle.

One of the things I am learning on this journey towards the diaconate is God often has very different plans for us than we do. This time God’s plan came to me through the Reverend Stephen Martin.

Rev. Stephen has been with the Diocese of Huron for more than two years now, working with a group called “Our House”, presently in Clinton. Steve and his “crew” have been looking to expand their outreach into surrounding communities.

Gail with Rev. Stephen Martin (right) and Andy, an ABATE member

Outreach is what deacons are all about! So when Steve said to me when we met for coffee one afternoon in early July, “Why not do your internship with us? We are outreach!” – I decided to change my plan for my internship.

It has been quite a journey; one that has intrigued me and, at times, I will admit, has frustrated me. I have certainly come to appreciate the journey the disciples travelled with our Lord and have often wondered how did they do it, never knowing what each day would bring or how they would manage.

Here is a snippet of what I have learned about a very different ministry in our diocese, called, “Church On the Street”.

When Rev. Stephen Martin first proposed that I join his team I envisioned this new project like a child on Christmas Eve who has “visions of sugar plums dancing in her head”. My visions included travelling into remote towns around Huron County in Rev. Stephen’s Ford Explorer, an SUV marked well with decals of Church On the Street and Deus Volens. This vehicle would let people know ‘who’ we were; a “mobile” ministry. (I must tell you it impressed even Bishop Marinez of Amazonia, Brazil, when she visited St. George’s parish in Goderich!)

I was sure many people in remote areas would come to us to find out what we were all about, like people in the gospels did, to learn about Jesus, whenever the disciples came into towns far from Jerusalem. I envisioned feeding the poor and clothing the naked just as Jesus has told us to do in Matthew 25. In my naive mind this would be true deacon ministry and I was ready!

For any of you who have worked in rural areas you can well imagine that that is not the way it went. My first biggest lesson was this – unlike the marginalized and needy in urban areas where poverty is in your face, in rural areas it is well hidden.

Certainly no one came running up to us asking for help; rarely did anyone even stop and ask what were we doing in their little town. Wonderful gatherings of sharing stories of faith with people who desperately needed to hear God’s word from the Gospel has been a rarity.

Often we would do a Pioneer Prayer walk praying together over buildings of business, shopping areas, playgrounds, asking for God to bless the people in these places and the lives they led to keep their towns alive and thriving. Occasionally, someone would stop and ask us why we were praying. And for that moment we got to share a little of God’s love with someone we did not yet know.

That encouraged me, but I wanted more. After a month of doing this two or three days a week I confronted Stephen: “What are we really accomplishing? Are we reaching anyone at all?”

Church on the Street vehce is visibly marked (‘Deus Volens’): in the early stages o ministry on the street it is all about “presence” – simply being there, wherever that may be.

One of my greatest areas of learning has been around “patience”. I am a “doer”. Hence, I can become very frustrated with gray areas in life where there are no obvious solutions. Steve had chuckled when he told me he was waiting for me to voice such a healthy concern. He then went on to explain that in the early stages of ministry on the street it is all about “presence” – simply being there, wherever that may be: a Tim Horton’s parking lot, a park in a small town, at a picnic table near the beach, or simply walking the streets of each town and village. This gave me a whole new way of looking at God’s command to “be still and know that I am God”.

I have been exposed to people who no longer attend a church building but still have a desire and a need to ‘be’ with one another and share with one another, their beliefs and their faith in our Lord Jesus Christ. Rev. Stephen’s ABATE group, the founders of Our House, a group of motorcyclists, is a prime example of this.

ABATE is a group of men and women who come together to do good works for their communities whenever they can. It is ABATE, under the leadership of “Soulman”, Rev. Stephen Martin, that is 100% behind ‘Church On the Street’.

Whenever I meet with this group I recognize how much they see Church On the Street and Our House as “their” church. A church that is not a building but is a community where they are free to share their thoughts and ideas about God and the presence of Christ in their lives, without the formality, traditions and dogma of an institutional church; yet being open to the guidance of a non-traditional, but still, an Anglican priest, Rev. Stephen Martin. Was this group my “church on the street” vision? Not really. But it certainly is God working in His way to reach His people.

As much as I am most comfortable with the Anglican traditions I have been raised in, I believe that the “Anglican” way is recognizing all people of faith in their varying ways of celebrating God’s presence and sharing God’s kingdom here on earth.

I do not see us as a closed religion, one that only allows the faithful of our own church to be a part of who we are. Jesus was, and is, for all people, in all walks of life, and in my heart, that is the Anglican way. I am so grateful that the Anglican Church in Huron is looking at this type of ‘mobile’ ministry to bring the Gospel to the people, where ‘they’ are and not always where ‘we’ are.

Working in our rural areas with hopes of helping the poor and marginalized, I have learned, is not an easy task. I am told even in the busy streets of Toronto many years ago it took Rev. Stephen two years to establish his ministry on the street program.

Patience in becoming a visible presence for others to feel God’s Holy Spirit reaching out to them is what I needed to recognize is what is most important. This type of ministry has not been about me and my vision. But it is about the Spirit of our Lord swirling around and touching those who are ready to listen and to those who are ready and willing to give, whatever God is calling us to do.

As I am writing this and my internship is drawing to its closure I am reminded of Thomas Merton’s “Thoughts In Solitude”. His words have been part of my daily prayers as I journey on this road toward the diaconate. Many times we do not see the road ahead of us; yet, as devout people of faith we continue to pray that God will lead us by the right road.

I have been led into areas of ministry I never imagined I would work in. Rev. Stephen has helped me to see the importance of meeting our brothers and sisters where they are and not where we are. We have blessed homes of the ‘unchurched’ who have reached out to us in fear and are now comforted and willing to open themselves and their families to God’s everlasting and protective love. We have assisted troubled souls who only needed a listening ear for just a moment and then went on their way. We have prayed over many towns and villages on our Pioneer Walks.

I have come to recognize that no two towns or villages are the same. Each has its own distinct needs and each meets their needs in their own way. It is still the hope and prayers of all involved with Church On the Street that we will be a part of helping needy communities to help themselves – whether that is setting up daily cafes for seniors to meet and share with one another, or youth programs to help young people know they are an important part of their community, or pool halls for bikers and friends to enjoy, or family gathering places, or travelling in a van with room for people to come inside on hot or cold days as we gather in a group to share the gospel.

In time I pray we will feed the needy and clothe the naked just as our Lord tells us we must. As I write this very statement I recognize we already are!

Gail Trewhitt is a licenced lay reader at St. George’s, Goderich and a postulant in diaconal process.