Saturday, November 15, 2008

Communion Cartel, An Act of Faith

It was about half past midnight, and the chilling rain that had gushed and gusted most of the evening was falling softly, silently, coating the trees that glistened like spider webs against the street lights in the Central West End in St. Louis.

We got out of the car just as a small group of young white men began verbally sparring with a larger group of young black men. “I know you didn’t say that,” said one, turning around to head back toward the others.

As we went to the back of the car to get the bread and juice and the table, other people, white and black, came from buildings toward the young men to stop the fight that was brewing. Words were exchanged, bodies were shoved, voices were lifted as we made our way across the street to set up our little communion table in front of the Coffee Cartel, and all night coffee shop and refuge for college students, homeless people and the urban crowd.

As we set up the table, placing the cups, the juice, the bread, in their places, droplets of water covered everything. I shoved my hands into my pockets to keep them warm. I looked at my fellow seminarians and wondered briefly if this midnight Eucharist on a cold, wet, city street was a good idea after all. Would anyone notice us in this eclectic, boisterous setting, much less stop and join us?

The fight across the street broke up and two of the white men, young, almost boys, really, swept past us. One of them muttered, “f’king a-hole” as he nearly ran into George. Undeterred, George said to them, “Hey, how ya doin’ tonight?” and got a quick, “f’ you!” for his efforts. The other young man apologized for his friend, and they both went into the coffee shop.

No one accepted our invitation to join us, so we communed with one another--Carla, George, Carolyn, Lori and I. We sang softly into the rainy night, “Amazing Grace, How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.” People walked by swearing and laughing and holding each other up as they left a nearby bar that was closing. Most moved on without a glance at us.

Carla prayed and blessed the elements. We recited Psalm 23 as best we could from memory…”you prepare a table before me, in the presence of my enemies…” The words took on new meaning for me. Perhaps enemies are not always those who would harm us. Maybe they are those we fail to understand.

Perhaps we call them enemies because we don’t want to understand, because in understanding them we could more fully understand ourselves. In understanding ourselves more deeply, we run the risk of exposing ourselves to our deepest fears, our most feared weakness, our own sense of abject helplessness.

We continued through our homemade celebration of the Eucharist, tearing off chunks of bread and dipping them into the juice--serving one another. “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in This Place,” we sang into the din of voices raised in laughter and shouting, the swearing, racial epithets and singing of popular songs with obscene lyrics. A man double parked his car nearby to get to the ATM behind us without giving us a glance.

We finished the service by sharing what we thought about this experience. I had thought, along with the others around the table, that we were the truly vulnerable here., exposed to the elements, both human and natural. But who is the more vulnerable, really? The five of us in our raincoats, huddled around a wooden table covered with dripping glasses of juice and plates of bread? The few homeless men inside the coffee shop who had found a warm dry place to stay for awhile against the harsh reality of their everyday lives? Or were the young drunk men and women wafting past us in the saturated midnight air the most exposed?

We had decided to pack up the elements and head in for a cup of coffee and a moment to share further this experience that had already impacted our ministries in ways we could not yet fully fathom. Suddenly, a young man, obviously drunk, bounded out of the shop and stood looking at the bread on the table. We offered him some, George saying it would help him feel better when he woke up in the morning. He took a large piece and then asked for more.

His friend soon joined him and took our offer of juice. I immediately recognized him as the man who had been so angry when we first arrived. His name was Eric; he was the one who swore at George’s cordial greeting…his friend, John, eating the bread, turned out to be his cousin. John was the one who had apologized for Eric.

John started singing songs from his Catholic upbringing. I recognized one--“Here I am Lord, Is it I Lord?…” It’s the hymn every Protestant Seminarian puts in her ordination service. It’s about being called by God and boldly answering that call. I found myself wondering how this child, this drunken, wayward soul, who would probably remember very little of this early morning encounter with a small band of seminarians outside an all-night coffee shop…how did this child know this song?

Then he sang the words wrong. Instead of, “I will go Lord, if you lead me,” he sang out loudly and confidently, “I will go, Lord, if you feed me.” I will go, he said, if you feed me. Is it really that simple?

We did finally pack up our makeshift communion table and made our way to the coffee shop. George made sure Eric and John were with their friends who could get them home safely. It was about 2:30 a.m. when we pulled back into the parking lot of the seminary, shared hugs and made our way to our individual apartments.

That image of the five of us around the table on a busy sidewalk, the air strong with alcohol, profanity and desperation, stayed with me as my everyday life came back into view. I remembered the chaos whirling around us as we stood in the calm, quiet center, acting as surrogates, consuming the body and blood for those who could not or would not accept the invitation to the table.

Did the atmosphere seem calmer, less violent when we finished, or was that my own wishful thinking? Did we do enough? Did we do too much? Did we really do anything at all? I don’t know. But I do know that in performing this act of faith in the wet chaos of the moment, we were fed.”