The gospel in your face
by Colonel Phil Needham –
I was intrigued by an article in the November 25, 1999, issue of the Los Angeles Times about the Reverend Deborah W. Little, an Episcopal priest. Deborah has claimed Boston Common for God. Soon after her ordination four years ago, she rolled a cart covered with a piece of her grandmother’s table linen onto the Common and held an outdoor meeting. Now she has a regular outdoor congregation of both the well-heeled and the homeless, as well as many of the ever-present tourists who join hands for the singing.
“I think there are probably people who are not enamored of the publicness of what Deb does,” says the executive director of the Massachusetts Housing and Shelter Alliance. Well, I guess not! This is clearly another dangerous public eruption of Christian faith. Most people undoubtedly want their religion in private doses; or, not interested in religion themselves, they want those who are to keep it from view: “Your religious faith is your own business, not mine. You have an obligation to keep it out of my face.”
As a matter of fact, we Christians have an obligation to do the opposite. To be sure, Christ calls us to a deeply personal faith, but not a narrowly private one. He definitely calls us to go public. He himself would probably not have seemed such a threat to the comfortable and the powerful of Palestine (and been executed for treason as a consequence) had he confined his teaching to the private setting of his small circle of close companions. Instead, he went public. The early apostles could have kept to their private gatherings for encouragement and instruction. The Acts of the Apostles tells us that all the religious rulers insisted they do was to keep this new religion to themselves. But, no, they just had to go public –and get arrested time and again.
Among the reasons the early Salvation Army was offensive to many people was that we were a public embarrassment. We were out there for everyone to see–warts and all. We paraded, took our stands on the busiest street corners, rented public halls for meetings laced with public entertainment, invaded pubs with sensationalist War Crys, and successfully got ourselves in the newspapers as public nuisances and disturbers of the peace who deserved their incarceration. We were in the public’s face with our own brand of brash witness, and most of them didn’t like it.
In the USA we are still in the public’s face–now as “America’s favorite charity.” We have claimed a piece of public space for our social work. We are in the face of the American public with mail appeals, newspaper articles, TV news reports, web pages, special fundraising events, paid advertisements, mall displays (to mention only some of the ways)–primarily to promote support for our social services. Little of it is offensive because it is not perceived as cramming religion down people’s throats. The public space we now claim is safe. No one will throw us in jail for saying what we say in public, and no one will take offense that we are giving clear witness to our faith or propagating our particular expression of the Christian religion.
Then along comes Deborah Little and claims her piece of public space, known as Boston Common, for God. She conducts worship in the public’s face, whether they like it or not. Many of them do. Many of her regular homeless worshippers say they come because only God can get them through the week.
Over a century ago, something else of importance happened on Boston Common. A Methodist minister was overwhelmed by sanctifying love. Samuel Logan Brengle was never the same again. He became spiritual mentor to tens of thousands, both inside and outside our Army.
When Deborah Little stepped onto Boston Common four years ago, her life was also transformed. She reports that a ‘painful, itchy feeling’ pushed her into taking that big step.
Maybe we Salvationists need to get in touch with the ‘painful, itchy feeling’ that compelled our Salvationist forebears to claim the public domain for God. Who knows where it will take us? It took them to the street corners where they got right in the faces of the people who gathered there. Where will it take us today? If traditional open airs are not effective in most places today, what is? What are the early 21st century ways of effectively getting in people’s faces with the claims of the Gospel?
I am not advocating that we violate people’s right to privacy. I’m only inviting us to reclaim public space for the Gospel as we once did. Nike hits me from every direction (TV, billboards, Internet, newspapers, etc., etc.); I can’t escape their gospel of the life-fulfilling pleasure of running, jumping, and slam-dunking in their shoes. Why can’t we claim some substantive public space to advocate running with our feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel? We don’t have Nike’s advertising budget, and we don’t need it. There are far cheaper ways to get in the public’s face with impact. Furthermore, we don’t need slick ads anywhere near as much as we need straightforward witness and ministry in the public places no one is now claiming for the Gospel, especially the places where the marginalized gather.
Deborah’s outdoor church on Boston Common is called ‘The Common Cathedral.’ Bill, one of the homeless persons who worships there, says, “The Common Cathedral seemed like a miracle to me. I had often prayed for a church that would take care of the lowest.”