I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.
Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. —John 13:34-35
Motivated by our love-your-neighbor-core-value and the commitment to hospitality and community building that value commands, we have been making connections with shopkeepers, neighbors and passersby at every opportunity. Grady has taken ownership of Open Sanctuary, our electronic presence and the hospitality we plan to offer. As well, he is planning for the volunteer network we need to build in order to offer gracious welcome and a sense of sacred space when folk drop by. Rev. Tom has been building powerful new connections through a weekly commitment to ministry at the Medford-in-the-Middle teen drop in program. Next week he will begin to do the same at Bright Stars in order to facilitate connections with those families and help Kim and Karen to connect volunteers to that ministry. Rev. Fred has started to offer pastoral office hours on Wednesday and Thursday after work, is helping with leadership of the Adult Bible Exploration, the 12 Step Recovery group and will lead new initiatives for adult faith formation.
All of this (and more) has tilled the soil for us to be a sanctuary in the city of Medford. Over the past couple of weeks the Sanctuary UCC staff have experienced love-buds springing forth from that soil! We have had a series of moving and meaningful new ministry interactions that could not have occurred in our former model for ministry. The experiences are so affirming of both our bold decision to move out of the building and our plan to follow Jesus into the city square that I wanted to witness to them a bit—and tell you about what seems to be unfolding.
Last Wednesday we offered Ashes-to-Go throughout the day and evening—all over West Medford—in storefronts, restaurants, banks and in the street. It was an amazing experience of offering care to the community! We imposed ashes on many people, leaving them each with the message that God was totally in love with them. For those who declined ashes we offered God’s blessing. We connected with harried motorists driving by, weary construction workers moving snow, commuters waiting less-than-patiently for their very late bus, shopkeepers who admitted they could not make it out of the store, salon patrons dressed in plastic capes and hair dye, young bartenders who seemed on the surface too cool to take the risk, kitchen staff who needed an interpreter but who immediately understood the ritual being offered, hipsters walking by on their way to a beer and a burger, and wordless bakers who just presented their forehead.
We have also had a few guests seeking God in worship who came because of the rainbow on our sign out front or because of the intimate nature of what we are doing. There have been drop in opportunities for us to express care to folk connected to the nascent 12 Step Recovery group—and these conversations have turned into invitations to other things we are doing. The Chair Yoga class has been a spiritual success and we will begin a second session this month. Our Open Sanctuary hours have begun to bear fruit with a few visitors and users of our space. Each of these folk have given us a chance to express our care with Wi-Fi, warmth and welcome.
More than that though, we touched people deeply and connected them to each other and to God through our care. Many of the recipients of ashes welled up with gratitude and expressed delight that we had come to them when they couldn’t get out to church themselves. There have been one-on-one opportunities for theological reflection on the meaning of Lent and teaching moments about the practice of imposing ashes. There were solemn and prayerful responses to our offer of ashes and coy comments about mothers who would be so glad to learn that “I got ashes this year.” There were questions about whether it was okay to take ashes if it wasn’t in “The Church” (from a female clergy person) and several heartfelt moments about whether someone deserved to receive.
Throughout this time, as we have turned our attention to the community and our call to care for others—we have experienced delighted surprise that we would be a church in the way we are being church. All of these experiences have affirmed the path onto which we have stepped—”Sacred Circles of Service, Love and Care”—and we are truly blessed to be able to be the church like this.
Friends, as we continue to develop our ministry circles we will be prioritizing a “Called to Care” or “Medford Cares” ministry* as an organizing principle for mission in the local community and a way to attract folk to the good news of communities of faith. I pray you will find yourself called to care and love as God first loved us!
With blessing and prayer,
Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade (firstname.lastname@example.org)
*Please watch for a gathering to brainstorm and develop this ministry circle and let me know if you already have a sense of call to create care!