A ministry of presence, advocacy, and street outreach in Portland

By the Rev. Regina G. Knox
Diocesan Urban Missioner

The Rev. Regina Knox talking with a guest waiting to enter St. Elizabeth's Essentials Pantry

Many years ago I experienced a beautiful example of hospitality.

One bitter night, some members of my church gathered to made sandwiches to take to those living on the steamy sidewalk grates. I can remember the volunteers knocking on the door of a cardboard home in the same way they would have greeted any other neighbor. This image has never left me.

Years later I saw a photograph in the New York Times of the Rev. Debbie Little Wyman, an Episcopal priest, offering the Eucharist on Boston Common. The article, as I remember it, described a community becoming church in a different way – a church made visible outside in the open for those who felt unwelcome inside.

I had always felt the desire for the church to be more noisy, more visible. I was so glad to see this witness to the Gospel!

Still later, while in seminary, this community – called the common cathedral – became an option for my field education experience.

The ministry I now find myself beginning has deep roots.

Now I find myself a new priest engaged in a ministry of presence, advocacy, and street outreach supported in a part-time way by the Clergy Intern Program of the Diocese and based at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke in Portland.

This ministry began in small ways over the last two years. In January of this year it received a seed grant from Ecclesia Ministries in Boston that was matched by the Diocese.

I spend Tuesday mornings at St. Elizabeth’s Essentials Pantry, a ministry of several Portland-area congregations and the Diocese that offers low-income families and those who have just arrived in Portland basic essentials not provided by other service agencies.

More than an essentials pantry, St. Elizabeth’s shows the guests and the volunteers alike the kingdom of God – a place where we experience the grace and space to welcome the stranger and to love our neighbor. Could we be more blessed?

Clothing goes fast at St. Elizabeth's Essentials Pantry

Myriad peoples, from many parts of Africa and other far away places like Iraq, sit together with those who do not have quite enough and maybe never will. Many who have fallen through the cracks. Some mentally ill, some homeless. Some of these people need more than the tangible items we provide on Tuesdays: the toilet paper, the soap, the laundry detergent, the clothing and the myriad household goods.

Those are the needs – the listening ear, the help connecting with language classes, the last bit of money for a housing deposit, the friend to rejoice with over a new job – that this ministry is called to address.

I was thinking this morning that in some ways we pastor a small congregation, though not in the way we always think of one. This ministry is about taking the church and its gifts we are sustained and strengthened by to those who might not otherwise step past our doors.

We have begun a Eucharist that takes place right before the pantry opens. The Prayers of the People are gathered from those waiting in line  Around the table are men and women, young and old, from Burundi, Rwanda, Congo, sitting side by side with those who have lived in this neighborhood a long time.

When we pass the peace, and I watch people extend themselves to one another, I think, “Could we be more blessed?”

Though this ministry is young, I have many life-giving stories, stories full of hope and sorrow and God’s grace.

In the corner of the office I use at the Cathedral is where I keep bottles for a brave woman who uses them to buy the occasional phone card to call her family in Africa. I recently watched her as she walked away from the Cathedral, carrying those bottles with such dignity.

One young man recently came in with a letter he excitedly wanted to share. A private donor was providing his entire housing deposit. He was excited because he was able to tell me that he would not need the $50 I had promised to him. He was excited that I could use it to help another.

These are patient people who are used to waiting. They wait on God to answer their prayers and are not surprised when they are.

Every week I visit Florence House, the women’s shelter in Portland where I go to provide spiritual support. We pray together or just talk. I bring devotional materials for those who want them. I am simply there, available. I began these visits a while ago, going with Mair Honan, the UCC pastor of Grace-Street Ministry. The work is humbling and hard.

I am beginning to walk our neighborhood.  I take the time to pay attention to what I see and the time to talk to those I meet. I keep some basic necessities in a back pack, just in case a need arises.

My hope is to be able to deepen this holy work, bringing others in the church to these places where God’s spirit is so palpably present. I invite you to come and see how blessed we all can be.

4 Comments

Filed under Ministry and Outreach

4 responses to “A ministry of presence, advocacy, and street outreach in Portland

  1. Rebecca Grant

    Regina, many thanks for sharing your thoughts on this ministry. St. Mark’s in Augusta finds itself host to a number of ministries that call us to the heart of others lives and needs. I find that it is always a privilege when they choose to share a portion of their life stories with us. We’ve seen some begin to wander through the doors of the church on Saturday afternoons when ministries are active and on Sunday mornings. What a gift to be able to great them by name and welcome them into our midst.

    Peace,

    Rebecca

  2. Benjamin Barr, Jr.

    I truly think that this is indeed, much more the idea of the church and what church is that Jesus meant.

  3. Carol Huntington

    Please say more about your advocacy work

  4. Bob Hargreaves

    Regina, I’d love to come and spend some time with you, including walking the streets between the cathedral and Preble Street Resource Center. I have an AA sponsee who has been spending months on those streets homeless, drinking, and becoming old at age 35. He has given me a real heart for the “anawim” of the city. I may call you sometime to do that. I’m thrilled about the ministry you’re starting!