“i am a little church [no great cathedral]”
In poem “77”, e.e. cummings [he rarely used capitalization] proclaims: ‘i am a little church [no great cathedral].’ He sings a song of sacrament to everyone who loves the mystery of ordinary every day life. His celebration is familiar to anyone who discovers the presence of God in service to others. His poetry of life is created in response to the ordinary needs of everyday people. Ministering to others reveals the sacred truth that we are all ‘little churches’ and, as such, bearers of grace and mystery.
The requirement for ordinary, every day ministering may be a recent discovery for some Christians, in part because words like ministry and sacrament and pastoral care were traditionally associated only with the work of the clergy. Historically this helped define the vocations of ordained priests as being distinct from the work of laypeople.
It also protected a distorted image of the Church as a giant spiritual waterworks dispensing grace through spigots controlled by bishops and priests, who alone stood as witnesses on behalf of Almighty God. This misconception gave the impression that only the clergy had access to God and they alone had a vocation to do God’s work. Fortunately, this is no longer the case. The upstairs/downstairs theology once prevalent in many of our parishes eroded a generation ago.
In recent years we have increasingly accepted the challenge of being Christ to the world we live in. We understand that God has given us special graces necessary for building up His Church so that we should do what He indicated should be done; to welcome, to speak, to share, to serve and to love. Good theologies have erased the dualism of separate secular and sacred realms and freed our understanding of God’s grace made visible in our world whenever and wherever and by whoever God’s love in all its forms is revealed. The employment of our God given gifts makes ‘little churches’ of us all.
We are ‘little churches’ because baptism has allowed us to serve one another and minister to this world of ours. As little churches, we are also tables of hospitality entertaining angles without knowing it. We are also altars of sacrifice, where simple prayers count, every self-offering is acceptable and effective
As servants of Christ, who join with and serve the needs of our neighbors, our everyday activities are blessed. The pre-offered ride to the doctor or the market, caring for a neighbors child, phone time with a shut-in, adding an extra place at the table, giving a listening ear or an encouraging word, saying a silent prayer, lighting a candle, stretching our circle to include new friends, repairing broken relationships -- this is ordinary ministry. It’s what the Church does best, it’s what makes each of us a ‘little church’.
What personal ministry leads to, of course, is community ministry. A meal program served from the back of a station wagon in New Kensington led to a city-wide consortium of churches providing groceries and basic services to hundreds of in need people weekly. Compassion for a young Guatemalan hitchhiker led to a lifetime of hospitality in a Manhattan Church that welcomes and resettles immigrants. Concern for undocumented mill workers being deported without their children led to church-sponsored civil disobedience in New Bedford. Sharing a sandwich with a homeless veteran on the Boston Common became a shelter and jobs training program supported by local parishes. This is how it starts. The grace of baptism works, it unfolds naturally in ordinary Christians doing everyday things. Service completes our baptism.
We admire those engaged in important ministries – in inner city youth programs, in clinics and mental health care for the uninsured and underinsured, in shelters for abused women, in meal programs. We admire, but we are also called to imitate. At St. George, among other things, we volunteer at the Boston Rescue Mission each month, our 20/40 has a regular lunch to the homeless program called ‘Boston Gives Back’ and we work with St. Francis House for the homeless and Habitat for Humanity for the underprivileged. Each of us in our own way, in our own space, big or small, is called to share our gifts and to serve our neighbor. We are thankful that we are ‘little churches’ caring and doing.