My Faith Heroine: Deborah Little Wyman by Ellen B. Aitken
In 1995, a remarkable woman was ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church in Boston, Massachusetts: Deborah Little Wyman. She was remarkable not because she was a woman or because of her stellar career in communications and fundraising for Harvard University but rather because of her conviction that her vocation and the church’s vocation lay in the streets, among the chronically homeless and those who live on the streets. What is more, she persuaded the leadership of the Episcopal Church in Massachusetts to support this new form of being church, this new form of gathered Christian community. “We want to take the gifts of church out to people who cannot, for whatever reason, come in to receive them,” she said. With this vision she founded what is known as Common Cathedral. Directly across the street from St. Paul’s Cathedral lies the Boston Common, an open public park “common” to all people (in the 17th and 18th centuries, it provided free and common grazing land for animals belonging the inhabitants of the city). Debbie took the liturgies of the cathedral across the street onto the Common and gathered a community of homeless people and their friends. She celebrated communion among them each week, led Bible studies, and encouraged the homeless to tell their stories and pray their prayers. She gathered this community by walking the streets and talking with the homeless, by sitting on park benches and listening deeply to these men and women speak about their pain, their struggles with faith, with God, and with human society. From Sunday to Sunday,
Debbie and the people who joined her in this work have walked the city of Boston distributing food and blankets, medical care, legal advice, and pastoral care. They have above all been about being the church among those often most alienated and disenfranchised from society, those who don’t “fit” in church. Ecclesia Ministries builds deep relationships with the homeless and helps to create sanctuary—safe space and safe relationship—for people who are very vulnerable physically, mentally, and spiritually. Debbie’s ministry has also been to provide those who wish to join in and support this work a direct, hands-on way of being involved—not in the sense that “we minister to them,” but rather that the church is simply outside, on the streets, among whoever gathers there in whatever need and with whatever capacity to help. She has been directly involved in this ministry since its founding and now works as a “missioner” to help people in other cities to establish similar churches and street ministries—now found in more than 70 cities. The Ecclesia Ministries website speaks movingly of their work: “The main thing we do during street ministry, however, is accompany those in pain. Sitting with people for hours and hours over days and days, and listening deeply to the stories they choose to tell us, births a process of deep-rooted healing that is hard to ignite any other way. Chronically homeless people with whom we work most often, continue to have the hardest time escaping homelessness, finding permanent housing, and reintegrating into community. For these individuals, perception of the world has been impaired by drugs, alcohol, unsuccessful social experiences, and, all too often, diagnosable mental illnesses. There has been a loss of trust in themselves and others—a basic loss of belief. Reestablishing connection, trust, and belief is the heart of what we do as an ecumenical, Christian community.”
For more information, visit the Ecclesia Ministries website: http://www.ecclesiaministriesmission.org/
Ellen B. Aitken is Dean of the Faculty of Religious Studies at McGill University, one of the partner universities of the Faith and Globalization initiative. She is a scholar of early Christianity and an Episcopal priest.