In what they call the “radical tradition of Jesus,” Cathedral in the Night, a worshiping community that’s on track to becoming an ELCA congregation, welcomes all who show up to a “community and a common meal.”
Supported by an ELCA churchwide ministries grant, Cathedral in the Night is one of 345 new congregations in development and one of 70 new ministries the ELCA has committed to starting in 2012.
Every Sunday at 5 p.m., “rain, sun, snow or shine,” the congregation hosts a worship service, communion and a warm meal to anyone interested in stopping by.
“One of the things that’s really important to us about this ministry is that it’s not outreach to anyone; it’s creating community with everyone, that we are church together,” says Stephanie Smith, pastor of Our Savior’s Lutheran Church in South Hadley, Mass.
In the spirit of a congregation that “welcomes everyone,” Stephanie is joining with pastors from two other denominations to shepherd the ministries: Chris Carlisle, director of Campus Ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, and Eric Fistler, pastor of West Suffield Congregational Church, a United Church of Christ congregation.
“It does honor to the way Jesus did his ministry,” Chris says. “The early Christian communities were wandering communities in the open air where Jesus really seemed to do most of his reaching and teaching.”
The services attract a crowd from all walks of life. In good weather worship typically attracts 45 people while 20 to 25 more might show up afterwards to eat, and, Chris is quick to point out, “everyone is welcome regardless of whether they want to be in worship or not.”
While some of the attendees are homeless or marginally homeless, others simply enjoy the atmosphere.
“We have young families with young kids, some older people, people who are unchurched, and people for whom this kind of alternative experience made sense,” Chris says.
Worshipers meet in front of the “first churches” in Northampton for a blend of contemplative worship from local musicians, poets and artists. After worship the congregation has a special type of offering.
“What we ask people to do is to take a token, pieces of wood that we’ve written down the gifts they have to share. So each week they come up and pick something out of that basket and put it in the cross to represent the gifts that they have to offer to God,” Stephanie says.
“We become our own offering, (so) that it’s not financial offering but our own lives that become an offering to God.”
After the offering, worshipers share communion before gathering to eat dinner together.
“When we began, after the first couple of weeks we had people who had found this is the only meal in town on Sundays and would just come for the meal,” Chris says. “As we have progressed, we see increasingly folks who might have been on the periphery of the worship experience waiting for the meal become involved in the worship itself.”
And this is exactly the type of community that was the idea behind the congregation. “I think the biblical precedent was an important catalyst to Cathedral in the Night and offers the church an extremely economical opportunity for community,” Chris says.
“It’s interesting that for all of the discussion about the literal meaning of the Bible, we tend to overlook the literal experience of Jesus on the street outside. He goes out constantly — to the streets, on the shore, and what does that do?” Chris asks. “It gives him an opportunity to meet all sorts and conditions of people; it allows him to speak the truth not according to the institutional boundaries but according to his relationship with God.”