On a crisp Sunday afternoon, near the foot of a statue in Cambridge Common, a minister stands at a makeshift podium before a group mostly made up of homeless Cantabrigians. Together, they share the Word of God and chat over a homemade meal.
This tradition has happened every Sunday for the past seven years as the bedrock service of the Outdoor Church, an initiative started by Harvard Divinity School graduate Jedediah E. Mannis in the summer of 2003.
Mannis, a practicing attorney whose pro bono work for the homeless made him reconsider his calling, has joined forces with other Divinity School affiliates and neighborhood churches to provide outdoor prayer services and meals to the local homeless population.
Each Sunday, the Outdoor Church offers one service at 9 a.m. in Porter Square and another at 1 p.m. in Cambridge Common—to which all are welcome, according to Emma R. Crossen, a Divinity School graduate who directs the Church. For three to four hours every Sunday afternoon and evening, the ministers distribute meals as part of their walking ministry through Harvard and Central Squares.
Crossen says the meal program is relatively inexpensive to run because some of the necessary materials like sandwiches and socks are donated by local churches and Divinity School students and faculty.
Because there were no weekend meal programs for the homeless in Cambridge, the Outdoor Church decided in the spring to add a Saturday meal service to its more elaborate Sunday equivalent.
Beginning last month, Divinity School students have contributed to developing the new program, bolstering the unique combination of public service and spiritual outreach.
WALKING THE WALK
According to Kerry A. Maloney, the director of Religious and Spiritual Life at the Divinity School, her office collaborates with student organizations to provide the meals.
A given student leader serves as the “point person” each month and coordinates with eight to ten other students to create about 100 bag lunches containing a juice box, snacks, and either a roast beef, egg salad, peanut butter and jelly, or ham and cheese sandwich, she says.
Other members of the Divinity School community are contributing by foregoing one meal each week and donating the proceeds to the meal service.
As for those who handle the meal service, after a little orientation about what to expect from Mannis, the student volunteers set off into either Harvard or Central Square and walk a set path to distribute food and fresh pairs of socks.
“The logic behind the trail is to follow the benches,” Mannis says. In the winter, ATM lobbies and fast food restaurants are included in the equation, he adds.
Danyel I.R. Currie, a Divinity School student who led the last meal service, admits that she experienced some sadness on her first shift as she listened to the stories of many of the homeless people she used to pass by in Harvard Square each day.
But her participation in the meal service has changed the dynamic of her interactions with these individuals to whom she used to throw her habitual cursory smile or offer a drive-by dollar in the cup. “You feel good that you can do something, but at the same time, you recognize the limits of what you can do,” she says.