Wearing a traditional black clerical shirt and collar, and less-traditional black shorts and sandals, the Rev. John Mennell sits near a portable altar, waiting for stragglers. About a dozen people – one with a leashed dog named Gideon at her feet – sit facing him in two rows of folding chairs. Backed by the sounds of diners chatting outside a nearby eatery and passing vehicular traffic, Mennell rises and greets worshipers at the corner of Church Street and South Fullerton in Montclair, New Jersey, to the July 28 Worship Without Walls.
From the weekends of Memorial Day through Labor Day, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Montclair is holding 5:00 p.m. Sunday Eucharists in public, outdoor spaces. Similar to “flash mobs,” participants are alerted to the location each week via text message. Passersby are encouraged to join.
“It’s fun to see different people’s reactions,” said Mennell, the church’s rector. “Last week, we ended up in the park in a walkway. … This one woman walked through with her dog, and her dog desperately wanted to join in the service.”
When the woman walked through a second time, Mennell invited her to join them. “She politely informed me how the dog leads her to the temple each Saturday.”
Such invitations, accepted or not, are among the points of Worship Without Walls, Mennell said. “Part of it is getting people used to inviting people in in ways that are uncomfortable.”
“In our beautiful Episcopal reticence,” he said, churchgoers don’t stand on street corners talking about Jesus. “This is about as close as people comfortably get.”
“If I told my congregation, ‘Go out on a street corner and witness,’ they’d run me out on a rail,” he said. But worshiping together publicly, “it’s really doing the same thing.”
On this particular Sunday, nearly 20 people ultimately joined the service, with a few passersby stopping briefly to check things out.
“As people come by and look curious, invite them into what we’re doing,” Mennell instructed the congregation. “We will sort of go with the flow.”
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