From the shadow towards the light

By on October 9, 2009

Paul Fromberg, rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, and Sara Miles, founder of that church’s Food Pantry.

On a bright September Friday in Victoria, B.C., Sara Miles and Paul Fromberg, our sister and brother in Christ from St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, messed up the comfortable order in which many of us relate to God and to one another.

Invited by Rev. David Opheim, rector of St. Saviour’s Anglican Church and the parish’s Rainbow Kitchen, they led a social justice awareness conference called Marginalization: From the Shadow Towards the Light. 

Sara Miles is founder of the Food Pantry at St. Gregory of Nyssa, and author of Take this Bread, an engrossing, enlightening and best-selling spiritual memoir. Paul Fromberg is St. Gregory’s rector, artist and imaginative liturgist. They talk, serve, sing and pray together, rather like the disciples that Jesus sent out to visit communities up and down the country, sharing the Gospel and eating with people who welcomed them. 

And here they were, welcomed not by the luminaries of the diocese, but by God’s rather ordinary people, in a church hall converted to a kitchen and dining room. In this humble space, people who have looked at those who hunger for good food are living out the words of Jesus when he said to Peter, “Feed my sheep.”

Folk at the conference were indistinguishable from one another, wearing the comfortable garb that can handle the work of serving and cleaning, that can be washed at the end of the day, that keep feet from slipping and arches from falling. There were no name tags, so people had to make themselves known to one another.  There was no way to tell clergy from lay, speaker from panelist, or from anyone else until the time of a talk or discussion. And that seemed to be the point. Who indeed is marginal? 

In a conversation over a meal, Ms. Miles told me that, “It is people at the centre who determine who is on the margins.” On the Friday morning, as bread was shared around the eucharistic table, it was pretty difficult to figure out who, if anyone but Christ, was at the centre. And if this was so, would any of us be marginal to him?

The next morning, coffee mugs in hand, all attending the conference were seated, like a chancel choir facing one another, to hear and engage a panel of speakers shedding light on what it means to be marginal. Jody Paterson, a columnist for the Times Colonist and director of PEERS (Prostitute Empowerment, Education and Resource Society), spoke about the lives of women and men involved in prostitution, and the circumstances in which they find themselves living on society’s margins. Patricia Vickers, clinical psychologist and Native Canadian referred to contradictions she often sees between the gospel and the conduct of the church. If actions speak louder than words, she asked, how does the church enable the transformation it preaches? 

Paul Fromberg spoke about the importance of liturgy as a way for the stranger to enter community. The stranger comes not by accident but from a longing to belong, to heal and to be fed.  The act of eating together becomes a fundamental expression of healing and of belonging.  In it, we experience Jesus’ giving of self, as he invites us to give ourselves to one another. Giving food to the hungry, as at the Food Pantry at St. Gregory’s, or in the Rainbow Kitchen at St. Saviour’s, is eucharistic. Mr. Fromberg also spoke of liturgy as a tool to enable gathered persons to most perfectly reflect the image of God. People are transformed by being fed and touched by God, and then touch the lives of others.

Chris Lind, ThD, former director of the Toronto School of Theology, and Gregory Kerr- Wilson, bishop of Qu’Appelle, spoke of what it means to be marginal in Canada.  Mr. Lind observed that today, the Anglican Church is marginal to contemporary Canadian life, especially when compared to its status in the mid 20th century. Can being marginal liberate the church from its colonial legacy to become more fully the Body of Christ? he asked. Bishop Kerr-Wilson shared with the conference how his diocese has found tangible expression of healing through building a house with Habitat for Humanity. In this house, a refugee family will have affordable shelter, a table for meals, a place to call home, he told delegates.

On Saturday afternoon, Ms. Miles and Mr. Fromberg dragged their suitcases from the Rainbow Kitchen, down Henry Street, to a waiting car. They were headed home to San Francisco, to feed and be fed.  On Sunday, St. Saviour’s resumed its customary worship, clergy at the altar behind the chancel rail. In his homily, Mr. Lind spoke of spirituality as our common need for meaning, for healing and for belonging. This is what we have to offer the stranger, and what the stranger offers us.

Seated in a pew and following signals to sit or stand, and cues for what to say at the right time, I understood what Ms. Vickers meant when she talked about contradictions, about the “do’s and don’ts” of praying together. Changing the church looks pretty challenging, I thought, as we sat with our backs to one another and to the door where a stranger might just enter.  Here we were, praying in rote to an invisible God, all of us as anchored in tradition as firmly as the pews bolted to the floor.

— Mary Louise Meadow is retired priest from the diocese of Toronto.

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