For Reverend Jedediah Mannis, founder of The Outdoor Church in Cambridge, MA, caring for people experiencing homelessness is a manifestation of faith. It has inspired a commitment to sustain more than 8 years of tireless ministry to men and women who experience homelessness and who have few other sources of affirmation.
“We're not trying to convert people or convince them to make a religious commitment. We are completely nondenominational. We just keep coming back, week after week, because we care. In turn, people come back because they feel embraced by the community we create.”
“We bring prayer services, pastoral assistance, sandwiches, and toiletries outdoors in all seasons and all weather to about 100 homeless men and women. We serve people who drink too much, people with mental illness, people who've been traumatized on the street or in encounters with systems, and those who don't stay in shelter if they can avoid it,” Reverend Mannis explains. Colleagues from the clergy, lay community, and local divinity schools are part of this effort.
For many of the men and women experiencing homelessness who join for outdoor services, housing feels like an unrealizable dream. “Although there are wonderful programs to end homelessness, and although a few of our people have gained housing with the help of these programs, many remain on the street, beyond the reach of those programs. Either they aren't together enough to make use of housing when they get it, or they get into trouble with the landlord and lose their housing, or they just leave and come back to the street.”
Many may see these behaviors as “self-sabotaging” and “irrational.” However, as Reverend Mannis notes, “we are unwilling as a society to adequately invest in ending homelessness.”
At least some of that resistance may stem from the cultural belief that people experiencing homelessness are responsible for their own plights.
As Reverend Mannis says, “A surprising number of our congregants make those same judgments about themselves. They describe their drinking as a tragic choice and not the manifestation of addictive disease. They are intensely proud of hard-won sobriety, and so deeply ashamed of relapse. When they relapse, they often avoid us in the aftermath.”
Outdoor Church's unconditional commitment to and acceptance of its congregants is an important antidote to the debilitating shame that many carry. “We are a church for the people who show up, no matter what condition they’re in, and no matter how they got where they are.”
Homelessness, with its attendant feelings of marginalization and shame, constitutes an ongoing assault on the self-worth of the men and women who are in its grip. The unconditional acceptance and love that Reverend Mannis and his colleagues offer week after week is a small antidote.
It is impossible to quantify the impact of this care in the recovery of those who receive it. Still, Reverend Mannis and his colleagues will be back at their ministry next week, because if even one person experiences the grace and sense of belonging that congregants find in The Outdoor Church, it is worthwhile.
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