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Outdoor ministry strives to serve the homeless

Pat Penzerro (center) and Pastor Mary Eaton (right) participate in the passing of peace during an Ecclesia Ministries service on Boston Common.PAT GREENHOUSE/GLOBE STAFF

It’s Sunday around noon and a line forms that winds around the towering bronze Brewer Fountain in a corner of Boston Common. Weary-looking men and women shuffle forward, making their way toward the folding card tables, where a dozen teenagers hand out carefully wrapped sandwiches and bags of potato chips. It is the end of the month, and many of these people’s food stamps have run out.

Walking by, you might mistake the whole thing for a soup line. The cast of characters seems right: the long line of the downtrodden, carrying their belongings on their backs or in tattered bags; the suburban youth group bused in from some parish outside of Boston, offering sandwiches from their perches behind the tables; a few clean-cut, middle-aged men and women overseeing everything, stopping to chat with the people waiting for their lunch. But then around 1 p.m., something altogether different unfolds. A woman with short blond hair and wearing a clerical collar steps forward.


“I’d like to invite all of you to form a circle,’’ she says. And in the space in front of the fountain, most of the 30 or so people who had stuck around to eat come together with the teenagers who had handed them their sandwiches, while a few remain standing at a distance.

Standing there quietly, they form an unlikely looking group that suddenly does a most unlikely thing: They begin to sing.

Common Cathedral, the outdoor church of Ecclesia Ministries, has met every Sunday for the past 15 years, rain or shine, snow or sleet. Although the size of the group changes each week, its numbers dropping and rising along with the temperature, a communion service is always offered.

“We take the gift of church outside to people who can’t come inside, for whatever the reason,’’ says its founder, the Rev. Deborah Little. The group is made up mostly of homeless and formerly homeless people from around Boston, who don’t feel comfortable attending traditional services indoors. Lunch is served before every service at Common Cathedral. “This is not an outreach program,’’ says Little. “This is a church.’’


“Do you see that man there? The one with the loud, gruff voice,’’ says Ginny Walden, a former Common Cathedral intern. She points to a small, elderly man, hunched over and with a scraggly gray beard and a weathered face. She says he comes to Common Cathedral almost every week. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine,’’ the man hollers at the top of his voice. “Let it shine, let it shine, let it shine,’’ he croaks, and then stops short when the chorus ends. While the people on either side of him continue to sing, he looks from face to face, waiting for them to return to the part of the song he knows.

“Here, Frankie experiences himself as a fully human person,’’ says Walden. “Where else in the city of Boston is Frankie going to be recognized as someone made in the image of God?’’

Ecclesia Ministries is as homeless as the people it serves. It was born on the streets of Boston in the mid-1990s, shortly after Little was ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. “I put a knapsack on my back, filled it with socks and sandwiches, and set out to meet people,’’ Little recalls. “I started talking with people, and I started praying with them. And then I got this really crazy idea.’’


One Christmas Eve, she held her first communion service at South Station with the homeless people she had gotten to know there. “I was frightened,’’ she recalls. “I didn’t know if folks there would want it, if anyone would even come.’’ That evening, about 12 people joined Little around her table.

She continued to meet with people at South Station through the winter. In the spring, she held her first service outdoors on Boston Common. Word had spread among the homeless about what Little was doing, and on the third Sunday, people insisted that the group should have a name. “This is our church,’’ Little recalls them saying. “This is common cathedral.’’ And so it was.

Little has since left Ecclesia Ministries to perform missionary work. The Rev. Kathy McAdams serves as the executive director of Ecclesia Ministries. But its original mission hasn’t changed. “It’s about helping [people] see that they are worthy in the eyes of God,’’ McAdams says.

Last year, construction on the Brewer Fountain pushed the group off Boston Common for months and onto the steps of St. Paul’s Episcopal Cathedral across the street. Attendance diminished to less than half the normal size. Although the group recently moved back to Boston Common, attendance is still down. The parish also recently lost its music director, Bill Meehan, who took a leave of absence.


Yet Common Cathedral keeps singing, even if only for a few minutes. “Hall-e-lu-jah, hall-e-lu-jah,’’ their voices cry out, some low, some high, most off-key, hoarse, and scratchy. One day, two women volunteer to substitute for Meehan. They stand just outside the circle, one playing a tambourine and the other shaking wooden maracas.

Debbie, the woman with the maracas, is petite with neat brown hair and a perfectly made-up face. “A lot of us are educated people that had hard times,’’ says Debbie, who says she is a graduate of Northeastern University and, like many of those who attend, declined to give her last name.

She says she worked for years as a registered nurse and lived with her parents in Brookline. After her parents died, however, the house was sold, she lost her job, and eventually found herself on the streets.

Debbie now floats from one shelter to the next with her friend Wynn Rose, the woman playing the tambourine. Rose comes to Common Cathedral, she explains, “because you’re with your people here.’’

“At another church, everyone is going home [after the service],’’ says Rose. At the end of Common Cathedral, she and Debbie will rush back to the shelter to wait in line, hoping for a bed for the night.

Not everyone, however, feels comfortable attending service at Common Cathedral. “There’s a lot of finger-pointing, and people thinking: Look at the homeless people praying to God,’’ says Jayne, a homeless woman who attends the regular service at St. Paul’s. And it’s true. While most people walk by without noticing, others slow their pace and crane their necks to stare at the ragtag group singing around the fountain.


But no one sings any less loudly. Frankie launches into “Amazing Grace,’’ wheezing through the first few lines alone. Slowly, the others join him. Right before launching into the third stanza, he pauses and a yellow-toothed grin appears. “I know all the words!’’ he exclaims happily. Everyone laughs. They continue to sing, and the people walking by continue to stare at the little old man standing inside a circle, singing a song in the middle of the afternoon on Boston Common.

Rosemary Chandler is a journalism student at Boston College.