‘Over the course of the next few years I get an indispensable education. How to cultivate safe, welcoming and inclusive space. How to honour the dignity of each individual and how to coax them to share their gifts with each other.’
Extract taken from Even the Sparrow: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Prayer, Trust and Following Jesus
By Jill Weber
Published by Muddy Pearl
My friend Sue is a cheeky Brit with a silvery pixie cut. Thirty years in Canada and she’s stubbornly held on to her posh London accent. She is equal parts fierce and tender. We first meet at a retreat where we are assigned as roommates. We hit it off from the get-go, never realizing how tightly our lives would be wound together over the next decade and a half. It feels like we are a string of Christmas lights, and when we each get plugged in, we light up!
My relationship with Sue really kicks into gear one day over coffee. ‘So our House of Prayer is trying to figure out how to grow in mission and justice, and it occurs to me that rather than reinventing the wheel and starting something up, maybe I should just chat with you. Can I follow you around a bit?’ We’re sitting in a local coffee shop. Sue is nursing her tea with milk. Her gaze is both sharp and warm. ‘I’m not sure that I will be particularly helpful,’ like a true Brit, she is self-deprecating. ‘But if you would like to come and be with us that would be just fine.’
That Sunday I find myself outside the local homeless shelter and rehab centre where Sue serves as chaplain. A handful of smokers loiter outside – they stare at me as I approach. I take a deep breath and run the gauntlet to the front door.
The staircase leads downstairs to the hall where the chapel service is held. It smells vaguely of sweat and something else, slightly sour and undefinable. ‘Glad you could come!’ Sue beams and shows me around. ‘Here is the kitchenette, there is the ratty little storage closet. And here is my office. Probably a good idea to leave your valuables in here.’ On her door is a painting of Lucy from the Peanuts comic strip, sitting at her booth with a sign that says, ‘The doctor is in.’ There is a line through the word ‘doctor’ and the word ‘chaplain’ has been written in instead. ‘My daughter painted that for me,’ Sue laughs.
Some of the residents arrive and briskly set up chairs and put Bibles and songbooks onto them. ‘We use songbooks and they choose the songs. It’s important that they choose – there is so much going on in their lives that they can’t fix, where there aren’t choices and options. Mostly they like songs that they heard at their parents’ funerals. Those are the ones that they remember.’
‘Number one! I want number one!’ Jackie’s hand shoots in the air. She’s quick on the draw, so we sing number one, which is ‘Amazing Grace’, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
I spend the first year hiding behind the coffee table. It provides a safe distance from this group of unkempt strangers but also gives me an opportunity to meet each one of them as they line up for cup after cup of coffee, which they take with spoonful after spoonful of sugar.
They arrive hungry and, before long, I am spending the week baking in preparation. The treats are well received, especially the cupcakes decorated as spiders and hedgehogs. I become an expert forager, gathering leftovers and snacks for our little flock.
‘Is there a full moon tonight? Everybody’s restless.’ It’s just one of those days when everything feels out of joint. One of the congregants is particularly agitated and while Sue attempts to speak, he lurches out of his seat. Swaying on his feet, he mumbles an invocation, sweeping his arms towards the four directions of the room. The crowd loses patience and begin to heckle.
Sue breaks into the rumble.
‘No one gets kicked out of my chapel!’
Cowed, the crowd quietens.
Sue then waits until he finishes, gently encourages him back to his seat, and proceeds with the service. I’m in awe. She may look like a tiny Englishwoman, but I see through her disguise. She’s really a Jedi.
I become Sue’s Padawan, her apprentice and shadow. Making coffee. Setting out and stacking chairs. Following her around. Watching everything she does and chatting with her about why she does it that way. Over the course of the next few years I get an indispensable education. How to cultivate safe, welcoming and inclusive space. How to honour the dignity of each individual and how to coax them to share their gifts with each other. I am wrecked for ‘regular’ churchy church.
I am dropped off in a neighbourhood that seems to be very much on the wrong side of the tracks. The front door opens to a hall where a bunch of scruffy men are sitting at tables, clutching coffee cups. ‘Here is where we have the soup kitchen and food bank,’ my host is showing me around. ‘Over there we have laundry machines so people can do their wash for free. And we’ve got a clothing bank as well, mainly for the men. Socks are always in demand.’
At the entrance of the prayer room there is an ancient and wispy woman swaying back and forth to the music. She has the gentle and vacant look of someone with dementia. Inside, a few African American children are playing tag amongst the seats and someone is passed out on a pew in the back. On the platform one of the singers is nursing her baby as she sings into the microphone. The singing is interspersed with rap and spoken word.
With a sigh of relief, I settle into a chair. Best pick a wooden chair, don’t know what crawly creatures might be living in the padded ones. My heart feels at home.
Even the Sparrow: A Pilgrim’s Guide to Prayer, Trust and Following Jesus by Jill Weber is published by Muddy Pearl, priced £12.99