Worship With* the Poor

This post, written by Amos House Community member Autumn Dennis, was originally posted on the Ministry With* the Poor blog. The original post can be accessed here: http://www.ministrywith.org/blog/view/216/

This article is the fifth in a series of reflections on Autumn’s experience this summer living and working at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia. The Open Door Community is a residential Protestant Catholic Worker community. They seek to dismantle racism, sexism, heterosexism, abolish the death penalty, and proclaim the Beloved Community through loving relationships with some of the most neglected and outcast of God’s children: the homeless and our sisters and brothers who are in prison.  

Every Sunday at 4pm, the Open Door residential and extended community gathers for worship. However, just as every other aspect of life at the Open Door, worship is very intentional and looks quite a bit different from the mainstream church. While our service does include hymn singing, lectionary readings, sermons, altars, and Eucharist, the similarities end at this face value level. In order to explain how the Open Door views worship with the poor, I must first explain how I believe the Open Door understands worship.

The church has historically considered worship to be a practice in which devotees meditate on their God, often in a manner where we remind ourselves of the attributes of God, or where we engage with God. Most churches I have been in do this by mostly focusing on praising God, giving thanks, and asking God to intervene in their lives. I know especially in the South, this praise and worship is especially focused inward, considering the moral implications of our personal faith lives and how God can work in our personal lives. I’ll cut to the chase- a lot of our worship is pretty selfish. Instead of meditating on who God is and how we can get closer to God, we often meditate on who God is and how we can reap the benefits. Worship at the Open Door does involve meditating on God, reminding ourselves of the attributes of God, and seeks to engage the Divine. However, we do it very differently. Peter Gathje, Open Door Community historian, writes in Sharing the Bread of Life, “Worship [from the beginning of the Open Door] sought to embody the biblical insistence…on the connection between worship and the practice of social justice in the lives of the participants. Worship which made people feel good but did not move them to seek justice in their way of life and in society was offensive to God. Worship was to be the basis for community action” (35). Let me paint a picture for you on what worship looks like at the Open Door.

Worship at the Open Door

You walk into a somewhat industrial looking dining room and kitchen that has the walls decked in anti-death penalty posters, flags declaring “peace” in different languages, with a cross on the back wall bearing a black crucified Jesus. Banners with the faces of the executed (or those approaching execution) hang on the wall to your left, saying “We are Andrew Cook” and “We are Warren Hill”. You find yourself to a small plastic chair, and check out the makeshift altar. A small hip-high table is draped in hand-stitched cloths that show the liturgical colors, but with ethnic patterns. Handmade ceramic plates and chalices holding the bread and juice have Matthew 25 carved around the sides. The bread is robust, home-baked, and is brown and white. The table is also set with Georgia wildflowers. You look at the bulletin that was sitting in your chair, and the written liturgies all refer to God as Liberator and Advocate, to Jesus as poor and executed, and speak of the homeless and prisoners. The songs are a mixture of slave spirituals, protest songs, and other various folk and liberationist hymns—maybe even some Woody Guthrie or Pete Seeger. Today, its “Ezekiel Saw De Wheel”, “Make Me a Pallet on the Floor”, “Wade in the Water” and “This Land Was Made For You and Me”. The lectionary is read, and a short reflection is given, either dissecting the liberationist aspects of it, or it might be connected to a current day issue, a local concern of the local homeless community, the mass incarceration system, the state of war in the world, or of a friend up for execution. We make our way to the sermon, which is given by a different person nearly every week on a variety of topics. What is guaranteed is that it will revolve somewhere around the constant theme that we come to know God through the plight of the poor and prisoner. When it comes time for the Eucharist, people pass the bread and the cup around: “…Until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at the Welcome Table…AND COME AGAIN HE WILL!” Soon after, an adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer is read with the celebration of the Mystery of Faith: “Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ WILL come again!”

All of the many symbols I just depicted are intentional and key to how the Open Door understands worship and the life of discipleship that proceeds. The homemade bread is intentionally made with white flour and a separate batch of white flour mixed with cocoa. The two doughs are then braided together and baked to become white and brown—symbolic of how the Body of Christ is not white, but is of many colors, representing many peoples, and how Christ lived and died for and with all of us. Other symbols are re-appropriated for use in worship; for example, on Pentecost we waved red bandannas to remember the fire of the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure what those bandannas meant to everyone else in the room, but they reminded me of a prominent gang symbol in my hometown, and using it in worship was especially meaningful for me as I remembered the reconciliatory power of the gospel.

When we understand the stories and traditions of the poor and those historically oppressed, we understand God. God is not only an advocate and provider for the poor and suffering, but also is ultimately and most fully revealed through our poor and imprisoned friends. The Open Door takes Matthew 25 to its fullest interpretation, knowing that in order to worship a brown, immigrant, executed, homeless Christ, we must align ourselves alongside and live life with those children of God that come in the same form today. Not only is the story of God and Christ understood through the inspired Scriptures, but also is understood through the inspired lives of our friends struggling to live and die on the streets and prisons. Worship at the Open Door revolves around the key concept that as we remind ourselves who God is, it becomes easier and easier for us to see the broken bodies that come through our soup kitchen as the broken body of Christ. I encourage all of us to rethink how we can make our worship spaces the place where we most creatively proclaim God’s inclusive, reconciliatory, and resurrecting love with* the poor.

I would like to close this article with the words from one of my favorite worship songs at the Open Door Community:

“Jesus Christ is waiting,
 Waiting in the streets; 
No one is his neighbor, 
All alone he eats. 
Listen, Lord Jesus,
 I am lonely too. 
Make me, friend or stranger,
 Fit to wait on you

Jesus Christ is raging,
 Raging in the streets,
 Where injustice spirals 
And real hope retreats.
 Listen, Lord Jesus,
 I am angry too. 
In the Kingdom’s causes 
Let me rage with you.

Jesus Christ is healing,
 Healing in the streets;
 Curing those who suffer,
 Touching those he greets.
 Listen, Lord Jesus, 
I have pity too.
 Let my care be active, 
Healing just like you.

Jesus Christ is dancing, 
Dancing in the streets,
 Where each sign of hatred 
He, with love, defeats.
 Listen, Lord Jesus,
 I should triumph too.
 On suspicion’s graveyard
 Let me dance with you.

Jesus Christ is calling,
 Calling in the streets,
 ”Who will join my journey? 
I will guide their feet.”
 Listen, Lord Jesus, 
Let my fears be few.
 Walk one step before me;
 I will follow you.”

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