Last summer, we started following an unusual congregation that only meets in a city park. This summer you might want to join them!
The rain on a hot Sunday last August were the drops of holy water sprinkled by Joya Colon. She chanted, “This is God's holy ground.” To the audience of the homeless and poor, she declared, “You are God's holy children.”
The Reverend Earl Kooperkamp took off his straw hat and put on his white silk robe. After Colon’s blessing, the service began with the hymn “I've got peace like a river.”
Although their song sheets were scuffed and fingerprinted around the edges, the smoothing out of wrinkles showed a spirit that was persistently careful of things that matter. Joyful faces jutted up toward the blue sky with loud, exuberant singing that matched the vibrancy of the backdrop.
Towering trees gently swayed in the wind, and blades of grass glimmered under sunny, high-70s weather. Interlaced with the melodic voices were the squeals and giggles of children, who enjoyed themselves as they played in the water sprinklers a few feet away. They sought respite from the summer heat in Marcus Garvey Park, in Harlem, Manhattan. For the homeless and poor being shepherded by Kooperkamp, they too looked for refuge.
The Marcus Garvey Park Congregation holds Sunday service at 2pm in the mid-east section of the park. Much improved by over $12 million of city money, the public space is a magnet for young families during daylight hours of the weekends and when school lets out. Parents and their children take advantage of the grassy knoll, baseball field, and swing sets. However, interspersed are also drug addicts and the homeless, remnants of the park's dreary past. The mixture of haves and have-nots rarely blend together nor do they acknowledge each other's presence. But Marcus Garvey Park Congregation is trying to turn that around and its efforts began during its inception.
Dr. Clyde Kuemmerle organized the congregation four years ago through Ecclesia Ministries, which established churches for the homeless in NYC parks.
Kuemmerle has ministered to the homeless for many years as the director of the soup kitchen at the Church of the Holy Apostles in Chelsea, an Episcopal church that serves over 1,200 meals daily. The pastor found that the homeless looked forward to his church’s food but drew back from praying side by side with regular church go-ers. They feared rejection by the congregation. “And sometimes they will be,” Kuemmerle admitted when we asked if their fears were justified.
As a result, the homeless averted the danger of starvation on the streets, but their spiritual hunger grew. Their bodies became stronger, but the will and strength to get off the street stayed weak. Kuemmerle needed to find a way to help the homeless grow stable enough to live in permanent housing and obtain jobs.
The pastor decided to skip over efforts to bring the homeless to the church, because it probably would be too big of a hurdle with both the homeless and his own congregation. So, he wondered if the church could go outdoors for people living on the street. Thus, Ecclesia was born.
Ecclesia has outdoor churches in Thompkins Square Park on the Lower East Side and Madison Square Park in Midtown. It is operated through a volunteer staff of rotating pastors who have churches of their own. The core groups of Ecclesia includes Kooperkamp’s Saint Mary's Episcopal Church, Grace Congregational Church, Mount Morris Ascension Presbyterian Church, and Riverside Church. Seminary students, like Colon, also dedicate their time freely to Ecclesia's congregations.
Attendance ranges from a handful of people to dozens depending on the weather. Some individuals, such as Calvin Earl Moore, come every week.
When I first met him he was a skinny, middle aged Black man in his Sunday's best: blue alligator loafers, faded-out yellow dress pants, and a gray blazer with cuff lengths too short for him, Moore looked like he had stepped out of the swinging 1970s. He was still there in spirit.
I noticed at least four silver and gold watches decorated Moore's wrists. They weren't cheap watches either. They were Rolex and Timex, or at least good imitations. When asked why he had on so many watches, he mumbled before launching into his personal story. Moore recalled that he was a “drifter” in Marcus Garvey Park when he started attending Sunday service over a year ago.
Although homeless stories may wander into the mythological, Moore had a genuine, tender quality. His soft-spoken words were nearly drowned out in the midst of car engines and screams of children. His wrinkled hands trembled as he brought it up to shake mine. With his other hand, he clutched onto a black bag filled with his belongings.
He recalled now Ecclesia found permanent housing for him in the Bronx last year, which freed up his attention to start looking for a job. Now every Sunday, “rain, shine, or snow,” Moore said, he walks from the Melrose section of the Bronx, across the bridge into Manhattan and south towards the park for service. This is a pretty far trek.
There's still plenty of effort Moore needs to invest in getting a steady job, but having a roof over his head is a good place to start. Ecclesia gave Moore a fragment of hope and an opportunity for a different life. We will continue to check up on him.
The Two-meal Sermon
Those in attendance for Sunday service receive two meals: a spiritual meal of Holy Communion, and a bagged sandwich lunch.
The spiritual meal is an open table Holy Communion. Many churches have closed-table communion because they believe Holy Communion should be taken with a clean conscience and church membership. An open-table communion means there's no requirement for baptism and formal membership in a church to receive the body and blood of Christ – anyone, if willing, can. While all churches allow the homeless to receive communion, the homeless would have trouble becoming regular members. The pastors believe that the homeless will benefit from the stability that communion implies. Open table Holy Communion expresses the message that the homeless are people who are part of society and that they are deserving of God's love. In Marcus Garvey Park, communion is an event that takes place every week.
“This is the body and blood of Christ,” announced Rev. Kooperkamp last summer as he lifted up his arms above two chalices which rested on the foldable table covered with white linen. He looked radiant in his pristine robe. His extended arms made him look like a dove about to take flight. About ten others stood around holding hymn sheets. Some clasped their hands, with their hymn sheets wedged between fingers toward the grass. Others stayed motionless with their faces still buried in the paper waiting for the next song to be sung. One man, who seemed tired from standing, sat cross legged on the ground looking ambivalent as he stared off into space. I shared my hymn sheet with Jose, a Hispanic homeless fellow who lived in the park and barely spoke English. My fingers held on to one side of the paper, while Jose's chubby, dirty hands held on to the other side. He looked up for the next words that would issue forth from Rev. Kooperkamp.
“If you wish to not receive communion, please place your arms in X formation in front of your chest, and you will get a blessing instead,” continued Rev. Kooperkamp. Colon translated for the Spanish speakers. The wafers were dipped in the non-alcoholic wine, then Rev. Kooperkamp made his rounds. He went from person to person as he delicately held individual plum-colored wafers and slid them through the parting of lips. To me, the non-alcoholic wine tasted like fine grape juice. His hand laid on top of those who wanted blessings instead.
All but one of the congregants took Holy Communion. I felt the mood of the service change, as if God's hand blessed our group in unison during the act. Smiles began to appear on Moore's and Jose's faces, and even Colon became more talkative.
I stepped back for a moment and tried to absorb where I was and what was happening. It was quite a sight to see Holy Communion, a private act, being performed in a park, a public space. When a native New Yorker, such as I, thinks of parks, he or she does not think of God. Instead, we anticipate terms like “municipality” and “city-owned.” At best, we think of nature as a solace from the isolation of concrete city life.
Furthermore, the public event of Holy Communion challenges two common stereotypes of prayer in the city: that it is held in the comforting presence of kin and family; and that it is contained within four walls. Ecclesia Ministries tests these two conventional standards by meeting in an outdoor setting, while praying with strangers – strangers who are known as odorous and unkempt. I must admit that there were times during the service that I was hesitant to be shoulder to shoulder with someone who hadn't showered for weeks. Yet, by the end of service, I paid no mind, nor cared.
The people behind the scenes
Colon, a student at New York Theological Seminary (NYTS), is doing a field internship at Kooperkamp's church, St. Mary's Episcopal. She discovered that his colleague Kuemmerle needed help to organize the pastors while he was away for the summer, so she took on that responsibility too.
Colon is a strong-willed woman of Hispanic descent. Her short, cropped hair was exacting and neat. Coming to faith occurred in Colon's mid-20s. Raised in New York City with a Baha'i father and a non-religious mother, her decision to attend seminary was not at first taken seriously by her parents. When I asked Colon about her “big-C,” which stands for the calling from God that religious leaders receive, she blushed and smiled sheepishly. Instead, she told me that she works part time at the United Methodist Committee, in addition to taking classes at NYTS and organizing Ecclesia's pastors every Sunday. Boy, I thought, that's a full load. Rev. Cynthia Jackson is also one of these very active pastors.
A Journey spoke to Jackson of Grace Congregational Church, one of the rotating pastors. “It's a unique opportunity to reach out to a new segment of people, we're reaching out to folks who will not usually go to church,” Jackson said. It wasn't hard to convince pastors to volunteer their time preaching in a park for the homeless, Kuemmerle observed. They see the need and opportunity to serve, but most didn't realize there's a distinct message too for those who have homes.
The philosophy behind the Marcus Garvey Park Congregation applies to both the unsheltered and the sheltered. To the unsheltered, like Moore and Jose, it conveys the attitude that they too have the same right to receive God's love just as those who have homes. To the sheltered, it is a message of equity, awareness, and compassion towards all who live on God's land.
Religious institutions are known for providing basic necessities to the needy, but the Marcus Garvey Park Congregation adds a unique twist, a public information message on social justice. One part of the message is “to increase social awareness of their [the homeless] challenges,” Kuemmerle said over the phone. In an interview laced with themes of social justice, he offered that the congregation is also like a beacon that sheds light on the homeless and their problems, such as finding food, clothing, and shelter.
In 2011, one in 3,087 people in NYC were homeless, according to the NYC Department of Homeless Services. Furthermore, families with children account of over half of the unsheltered population in the city.
Communing in the park together, experiencing the intimate act of spiritual nourishment, and an open-table breaking of bread is a powerful symbol of God's eternal love. As Rev. Kooperkamp's sermon came to an end, perhaps he felt compelled to deliver an affirmation of natural prosperity that reflects the essence of an outdoor congregation.
“There will always be enough on God's green earth to go around,” he said. His robe came off and his straw hat came back on. Brown bagged lunches, which sat peacefully under the summer sun during service, were distributed by Kooperkamp and Colon. I watched his arms move swiftly handing out food, as he chewed on leftover wafers he'd snapped just a second ago.