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Finding God in "Worship With* the Poor"

This article is the sixth and final in a series of reflections on my experience this summer living and working at the Open Door Community in Atlanta, Georgia. The Open Door Community is a residential Protestant community in the tradition of the Catholic Worker Movement. Open Door seeks 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. Like other aspects 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 here.

Worship in most churches emphasizes meditation on God, reminding ourselves of the attributes of God and where we engage with God. Most of the churches where I have worshipped do this by praising God, giving thanks, and asking God to intervene in their lives. 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. In Wesleyan terminology, this type of worship focuses on “personal holiness.”

I’ll cut to the chase: I believe a lot of our worship is pretty self-centered. 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, but in a very different way. In Wesleyan terminology, Open Door worship focuses on “social holiness.”

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 of the worship setting at the Open Door.

You walk into a somewhat industrial looking dining room and kitchen, with walls decked in anti-death penalty posters, flags declaring “peace” in different languages, and 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 a small plastic chair and check out the makeshift altar. A small hip-high table is draped in hand-stitched cloths that contain 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 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, it’s “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 highlighting the liberationist aspects of it, or connecting it to a current day issue such as 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.

The sermon is given by a different person nearly every week. The sermon topics vary, but what is guaranteed is that the sermon will focus on 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 to the recitation of these words: “…Until Christ comes in final victory and we feast at the Welcome Table…AND COME AGAIN HE WILL!” Soon after, we recite an adaptation of the Lord’s Prayer, followed by the celebration of the Mystery of Faith: “Christ has died! Christ is risen! Christ WILL come again!”

These symbols and liturgical practices are intentional and reflect how the Open Door understands worship and the life of discipleship that worship seeks to nurture. 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 all of us and lives with all of us now.

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; using it in worship was especially meaningful for me as I remembered the reconciliatory power of the gospel.

When we grasp the stories and traditions of the poor and oppressed, we come to know God. God is not only an advocate and provider for the poor and suffering; ultimately, as Jesus tells us in Matthew 25, God is most fully revealed through our poor and imprisoned friends.

Worship at the Open Door calls us to embody Matthew 25. In order to worship a brown, immigrant, executed, homeless Christ, we must align ourselves alongside and live life with those very children of God who are symbolized by the crucified Jesus that hangs in our worship space at the Open Door. In fact, to even find God and Christ as revealed in the inspired Scriptures, we must come to know, respect, and love our friends struggling to live, but too often die, on the streets and in prisons.

One of my favorite worship songs at Open Door Community points me in the right direction:

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.”

In worship at the Open Door, as we remind ourselves who God is, it becomes easier and easier for us to recognize the broken body of Christ in the broken bodies that come through our soup kitchen.

What about your worship spaces? Is there space to worship and seek to embody our God who self-identifies with the poor? If not, is it time to rethink our worship spaces and liturgies to embrace the gospel of ministry with the poor?

* Matthew 25, labeled in some Bibles “The Judgment of the Nations,” is where Jesus tell us that he IS the poor, marginalized, oppressed person: “for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Matt 25:35-36.

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Autumn Dennis

Autumn Dennis is a native of Nashville, Tennessee and is a senior at Martin Methodist College in Pulaski, Tennessee. She studies religion, is passionate about social justice, organizing, and activism, and is engaged in ministry with the children of God on the streets and in prisons. She is a freelance writer and is a declared candidate for deacon in the United Methodist Church.

About This Blog

Read and comment on a range of personal reflections and perspectives about poverty and Ministry with the Poor. Our goal is to attract diverse voices and points of view from United Methodists and friends, including people and communities living in conditions of poverty, other experts, religious leaders, community organizers, advocates, policy makers, volunteers, and all engaged in Ministry with the Poor.