This is the place.
It’s Sunday morning, and a small group of us are milling around the concrete apron surrounding the Porter Square T station. The Outdoor Church of Cambridge, which is really just a couple of part-time ministers rolling an altar-on-a-shopping-cart around town, is conducting a service for the homeless. As it has every Sunday during this horrible winter.
This is religion in the raw. Even at 9 a.m., Porter Square is buzzing. Horns honk, families are scurrying to make ice times, red-eyed outlanders are clattering their rollerboard suitcases off the subway escalator. Passers-by stare at us, alternately befuddled, surprised, and occasionally scornful.
This gathering doesn’t look like church. Visitors like me generally arrive early — to get a good seat? There are no seats. The homeless congregants show up on their own clock, traveling from shelters like the Pine Street Inn, 240 Albany Street, or the Harvard-student-run “UniLu” dormitory at the University Lutheran church in Harvard Square.
The nondenominational Christian Outdoor Church service is spare. Instead of a prayer book, there is a laminated list of recitations that is distributed, and then retrieved at the end. There are no hymns, no offerings, and no sermons. In place of preaching, we listen to a Bible passage, and then we offer our thoughts. Or don’t.
The lectionary recently assigned us Matthew’s account of Jesus’s Transfiguration, but no one seemed to understand what was happening in this passage. I certainly didn’t. Instead, Tony announced the forthcoming sixth anniversary of his sobriety, and Carol complained about police harassment.
The homeless do have something in common with suburban worshippers — they love the post-service coffee hour. When the Rev. Jed Mannis starts pouring from Dunkin’s Box O’ Joe and hands out free doughnuts around 9:40 a.m., the house is full, meaning that the complement of roughly a dozen regulars has assembled. Mannis and his colleague, the Rev. Tom Hathaway, perform a second service on the Cambridge Common at 1 p.m., and spend most of Sunday wandering around the city, handing out sandwiches and clean socks.
Street ministries aren’t new. Much of the New Testament can be understood as an outdoor street ministry in ancient Judea and Galilee. At the beginning of the 19th century, a long-forgotten Unitarian minister named Joseph Tuckerman — “the friend of the poor,” it says on his headstone in Mt. Auburn cemetery — took the church to the neighborhoods of Boston’s ever-increasing ranks of the destitute.
In 1996, the Rev. Debbie Little conducted a church service for the homeless on the Common, a tradition that continues to this day. “I wanted to take the gifts of church out to people who can’t come in to receive them,” says Little. Over 250 churches in the United States and overseas, including Mannis’s, have adopted or adapted her original idea.
Some programs offer counseling and placement services to the homeless. Cambridge’s Outdoor Church has a more modest mission. “We are a church, not a social welfare agency,” comments Mannis. “We don’t set out to end homelessness, or even, strictly speaking, to improve the material lot of the people to whom we minister.”
Mannis and his colleagues aren’t hard-hearted. Cambridge is probably one of the best-equipped cities in the country to deliver social services to its several hundred homeless citizens. City and city-related agencies offer food, shelter, and some medical services. The Outdoor Church provides something else.
“Think of what we do as a hospice regime,” Mannis says. “There is no plan to end death, and it’s very, very rare to get someone off the street.” Little chooses her words more carefully. “We are a force against homelessness, helping people make the next step that might be healthy for them, like just going inside.”
Nonetheless, she is painfully aware of the perils of “helping” men and women who often don’t want help. “Sometimes, when people find permanent housing, they can’t adjust to the new situation,” she says. “A lot of men and women are more comfortable living on the street.”
“There are other people who are gifted advocates for the homeless, and that is their passion,” she adds. “We offer the gift of people being consistently out there, ministering, and it’s a lot more than nothing.”
Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.