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Outdoor Church invites homeless in on Easter

Weekly services inspire community

From this portable “pulpit,” the Rev. Thomas Hathaway of the Outdoor Church of Cambridge offered an Easter message in porter Square to a congregation of those who may be less comfortable in a traditional setting.

Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff

From this portable “pulpit,” the Rev. Thomas Hathaway of the Outdoor Church of Cambridge offered an Easter message in porter Square to a congregation of those who may be less comfortable in a traditional setting.

CAMBRIDGE — On a concrete plaza in Porter Square on Easter morning, the Rev. Thomas Hathaway talked about how frantic Jesus’ disciples became when they arrived at the cave where he had been buried and found that the body was missing, not yet aware of his resurrection.

People today can live with the same frantic energy, Hathaway said to his congregation of homeless men and women, whose lives on the streets or in shelters are often marked by instability.

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The Outdoor Church of Cambridge is in the city every week, ministering to people who may not feel comfortable in more traditional churches, said the Rev. Jedediah Mannis, who cofounded the church.

“Being outdoors is a chaotic life, and we try hard to keep it calm, predictable,” Mannis said. “People have made it their church, and they have a proprietary feeling about it.”

The status of Easter as a major Christian holiday, one that typically fills church services, is not particularly important in this church, Mannis said.

“I think what matters to our congregation is the fact that we’re here, that there is a community that they’re a part of,” Mannis said.

On the “pulpit,” a small metal cart on wheels, were laminated prayer sheets, coffee and doughnuts, and a glass cross inscribed with the words “Faith sees the invisible, believes the incredible, and receives the impossible.”

‘We try hard to keep it calm, predictable. . . . People have made it their church, and they have a proprietary feeling about it.’

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About a dozen congregants and volunteers sat or leaned against the concrete plaza ledge. Others stood and shared their thoughts about the resurrection of Christ.

Every Sunday at 9 a.m., the Outdoor Church holds a nondenominational service outside the Porter Square T Station, or inside the station if it’s raining or especially cold. Instead of a formal sermon from the pulpit, people talk about their thoughts on the day’s Bible passage, as well as problems they’ve had during the week.

They pray for other people on the streets, for family members who have died. They take communion — bread and thimble-sized glasses of juice.

The ministers also hold a 1 p.m. service at Cambridge Common — “the matinee,” congregant Chris Harding called it. Volunteers then walk around Harvard and Central squares until the evening, handing out food, socks, and toiletries.

In the 11 years since Mannis began ministering outdoors, they have missed only two Sundays.

It is not the only outdoor church in the area; Common Cathedral, part of Ecclesia Ministries, has been ministering to the homeless in Boston since 1996.

Harding, who attended the Easter service, said he has been living in shelters for about nine years, since health problems brought him back to his native Massachusetts after years living and working in New York and New Jersey.

About five years ago Harding was at the Cambridge Common, where he had spent time in the 1960s and 1970s walking through crowds at summertime outdoor concerts and going door to door on nearby streets to spread the word about political protests.

Mannis approached Harding in the park five years ago, asking if he wanted to attend a service. Harding, who was raised Protestant, has been going ever since.

“In some ways, Easter is bigger than Christmas,” Harding said after the service Sunday, holding a cup of coffee and contemplating the story of Jesus. “He maintains his relationship with Mary Magdalene, she was a controversial figure. And similar to the Outdoor Church, he was an outdoor minister.”

Kacey Minnick, a church intern and fellow in the Life Together Community, an Episcopal service organization, said people in the Outdoor Church don’t talk about religion the same way as people in the United Methodist church she grew up attending in Nashville.

She has been struck by the way one man has talked about “being delivered from” his heroin addiction, she said; by the way a woman and her boyfriend came to the church after walking through the city all night, unable to find a place to sleep; by the way an experience like seeing God in a dream, which people in other churches might dismiss, is taken more seriously here.

“This is a community people forget about,” she said. “The pain and the struggles are very real when you are ministering to the homeless. I see them regularly, and it’s not ‘them’ anymore. It’s ‘us,’ it’s ‘we.’ We struggle collectively, and it’s our job to help those who are hurt.

“That sounds super hokey,” Minnick said. “But I’m gonna stick by it.”

Gal Tziperman Lotan can be reached at gal.lotan@globe.com.
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