For many people in Uptown, family reunions aren't an option; and while many Christmas services are held at local churches, some of those churches do not quite welcome with open arms those suffering from the sort of profound, chronic trauma we find in people who frequent the ministry. Those dealing with homelessness, mental illness, abject poverty and other similar forms of marginalization may attend such services at local congregations, but many also report feeling that they don't quite fit in; as if there is no room for someone from their world.
To be fair, most churches are not equipped to address the needs of most of the individuals we see at Chicago Uptown Ministry. Yet everyone needs to find a place where they feel welcomed, as if they belong. Worship should be one place where we begin to live into the promise of what it means to be people of faith; in which the reality of the beloved community starts to come alive.
One way to look at worship is to imagine it within the framework of gatherings, proclamation and response, thanksgiving and blessings, and finally, sending forth. While what we do in worship at the Ministry does not necessarily look the same as it would in most mainline worship services, what we do addresses the very particular needs of those whom we serve within the same framework of worship. Our worship is raw worship; we praise God most when we are real with ourselves about ourselves.
For any congregation, gathering is a time to prepare to worship God. Many churches have greeters standing in strategic locations, passing out bulletins, shaking hands and welcoming those who come to worship. We enter the church, move into the worship space, perhaps sit down and listen to the prelude, pray and center ourselves, maybe mark the hymns in our hymnbooks. At the Ministry gathering is also a time to prepare, and begins when we announce to those sitting in the day shelter drinking their coffee that worship is about to start. It is an invitation . . . simply an invitation. Many will remain sitting in the day shelter drinking their coffee, others will ask questions and then decide if they will enter the chapel. Still others will come to the Ministry specifically to attend worship. Unlike many shelters, worship at the Ministry is not requirement for a cup of coffee and refuge from the weather, it is an option and a choice our client/parishioners have the autonomy to make on their own.
But gathering is also a time of preparation in the same way it is in any other congregation. Gabriel, a transgender person, sets up the chairs and helps organize the worship space. When she is finished, she sits in the day shelter waiting for worship to begin; when she sees a former intern who has come for a visit, her face lights up and she runs to greet her. Alexis, is a former sex-worker and addict in recovery. She passes out songbooks and our homemade rhythm instruments in preparation for worship. When I head to the day shelter to offer the invitation, she follows me and enthusiastically encourages everyone she knows to joins us.
This week at Chicago Uptown Ministry, we had our service of Lessons and Carols. It is, as are other such services, the story of the Christian faith told through the reading of scripture and singing of Christmas carols. Since its inception five years ago, it has been a high point of the year for many at Uptown Ministry, our community members and former interns as well as staff from our larger agency, LCFS. It is certainly a high point for those who attend our weekly spiritual gatherings as it is a time in which they have the opportunity to do the welcoming. They greet the strangers who enter with a kind word, offer them a seat and a songbook, explain how worship is done at the Ministry . . . and then we see the Body of Christ gathering. There is room for everyone.
Uptown Ministry is a program of Lutheran Child and Family Services and is affiliated with The Missouri Synod Lutheran Church.