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tourist tsouris

Saturday is a day off for this project. Splendid, I thought: I will explore a couple museums, treat myself to lunch, stay out of Debbie’s way for the day.

So I took off, starting with the Fogg Art Museum. It’s free Saturday mornings, which is nice; it’s less than a mile from here. Since Saturday was a nice day, all the trees are blooming, a few tulips are still out, pansies profusing, a splendid day to walk around.

And I promised myself the “unofficial Harvard Tour,” run by students, after lunch. That’s free, though they politely suggest a $20 tip. At the Fogg, I looked at Renaissance paintings and enjoyed the many detailed explanatory notes: about a shift from episodic style (paintings with many little scenes from a story fitted into a landscape) to paintings of a single, dramatic and emotional scene from a story; about restorations and underlays, about different pigments. The paintings were mostly religious, with some portraits and some classical scenes.

A favorite, though I didn’t note the artist or date: a painting of the Last Judgment: Christ is above, in the center; angels and such with trumpets are here and there. Two large figures in the middle appear to be in monastic habits; they are looking at Christ with hands clasped in prayer and looking, to tell the truth, rather anxious about the whole thing. There are a few women, and it’s not clear whether they’re paying attention at all. One seems to be washing her hair. Most remarkable: the ground is brown dirt, and is dotted with holes with faces staring up. They too are anxious, but not as worried looking as our monastic friends. I am also reading Tom Wright on the resurrection of the body; this painting was very much full of bodies. I will add that none of the figures had a Michaelangelo-David abdomen to be envied; they all — Christ included — could have used some serious ab work by our standards.

Next, lunch before the tour. Off to an ATM to get cash. Let me summarize the next frustrating hour by saying that my ATM — which I had used without a hitch three days earlier, which I have used in many states and overseas — was not accepted by any ATM at any bank. I contemplate my options. It’s Saturday afternoon; my bank is closed. Don’t think they’ll be thrilled mailing a new card to — well, where? I don’t have access to Debbie’s mailbox. I’ve never bothered to do PIN numbers for a credit card. I still have a Charlie card (for the subway), a credit card, and an emergency $50 bill. It’s May 10. I may need to become penurious and stop getting a café au lait every morning before I hit the subway.

Sunday morning, fortified with my $50 now broken into small bills, I headed in my red shirt (it was Pentecost, I’m sure you all wore red) for Boston Common. The subway machine ate my Charlie card. Just swallowed it, no entrance, no return. For the first time, I saw a subway agent actually on-site. He rescued my card and pointed out that it had developed a kink (it’s cardboard). The machines do not like bent cards. He gave me a plastic card, suggested I go on Monday to the office at the Downtown Crossing stop where they could transfer my month pass to the more durable card. Splendid, off I went, got to the Cathedral in time for their 10 am main service despite delays because of a fire someplace else on the line.

All was well until I was ready to return. I have at this point a bent Charlie card good until 5/31 if it were good at all, and a plastic Charlie card with no fare on it. There are kiosks where you can add value at every entrance, and no subway agent, so, since I think Boston is losing money on how much I use the monthly pass, I decided to spring for $5 on the new card to last till Monday. The machine did not want to read my Mastercard at all.

I never though of myself as having a magnetic personality, but I seem to be death on cards with magnetic stripes these days.

Outcome: there is an American Express office just off Harvard Square; with my American Express card, some ID, and a check, they’ll cash a check for free, so I’m back in coffee money. The newly-enhanced plastic Charlie card works and makes me feel I know what I’m doing. The Mastercard worked just fine at another kiosk. Nonetheless I went down to South Station to buy a return Amtrack ticket while my plastic funds are still working. The Unofficial Harvard Tour? maybe next weekend. You never know.

street ministry

another quick post in my remaining 5 minutes of time on the Boston Public Library free computer access. Hoping for better soon.

Yesterday I spent a couple hours with Steven talking to people on the street. When I got back to where I’m staying, I wrote 9 pages on it–won’t reproduce that here!

Some people clearly don’t want to be approached. Some are known to Steven. Some, we meet for the first time and are happy to talk at great and not always coherent length. We ask, How are you doing today? and let the conversation go from there. What do you need? Those who answer “money” don’t want to talk much. Some are working on getting housing, others don’t seem to be able to grasp that they could. Once started, they like to be listened to. How to respond when you’re not sure what they said, that’s more difficult.

One man was hustled off by Transit police as we were talking to him. Steven hurried after, got a name and badge number. The man clearly had been making trouble inside the station, earlier, but wasn’t then. And if he were sitting there illegally, why weren’t we equally so?

Blessed Pentecost to all; you may not hear more till Monday.

common art

This will be a quick post–I have 4:40 minutes left on a free terminal at the Boston Public Library.

Common art is way, way cool. A big open room, decent light, drop cloth on floor and on each of a lot of tables. All kinds of art supplies. A couple people who set up and offer help. Indefinite storage for any project any one is working on. Shows, a chance to sell your art. Acrylic, stained glass, charcoal, pencil, pastels. People eating (bagels, oranges 1/8th’d, juice, coffee, muffins, PB&J. People reading, people sleeping, people just hanging out. We’ve occasionally done this for kids for a short term; it is clearly very valued by the adults who come. Most, not all are homeless. They really don’t want their pictures taken, but they were happy to show me their work, talk about it a little, let me take pictures of it. Gives me furiously to think.

Next task for the day was writing out my goals for the ministry and why I wanted to do it. More later.

love having all your comments; thank you! time’s up.


It’s Tuesday, the sun is shining, there are boats out on the Charles River, which I can see from Debbie’s dining room and as I walk to the T (the subway). I can find that reliably, and a couple places to get coffee or a simple meal. Groceries–that’s another T stop beyond Harvard Square. I’m not buying much. Debbie runs a sparse kitchen, so I am trying to be tidy and honor that. I haven’t seen her yet (she’s out of town) but am enjoying her elegant, wood-floored apartment with a wonderful kitchen, my little room and bath off the kitchen, big formal dining room and living room. Off the entry hall (itself a generous space) are the main and second bedroom, and the master bath. I’m reading Debbie’s copy of Karen Armstrong’s The Spiral Staircase, perhaps an odd choice on a diaconal internship, but fascinating reading.

I bit the bullet and have paid for monthly access at Starbucks. Much cheaper than by the day, I hope. Pictures–still working on that, though I’ve taken lots of them. John used to quote Thoreau: beware any thing which requires new clothes. I think the current version should add “and/or new technology”.

Meanwhile, the sun is shining, it’s gorgeous out there. I’m going to take the laptop back to the apartment, leave my jacket there too, and head back to Boston. There’s a staff meeting this afternoon, and probably that will turn up opportunities to do more things.

More Sunday

apologies that this is out of chronological order. But maybe chronological order isn’t the point.

Three women from a congregation someplace brought a box full of home-made purses to give after the service. They were in bright fabrics, all lined, simple bags with a zipper closure and two loop handles. Yes, they wanted anyone who would like or could use one to have one; the women in their church made them for the people in this church. Yes, take one for a friend if you know someone who could use one. Much admiring discussion, and choosing of colors, and thanks. One of the young women in the congregation who took one was also asking about help getting any kind of household goods. She’d just become housed, and had very little. She likes it, but “it’s different, I’m alone now.”

After the service, Lauren — a spring term intern–led the bible study with (I think) Michael, Daniel, Bruce, and MaryAnn. We talked about the gospel (the only lesson read in a common cathedral service). Jesus says he has finished the work he was given to do. That should make us happy, because it means that we were given everything we need. What makes us happy? “Nothing makes me happy,” said one. We disagreed with her — carrying the cross makes her happy, and others pointed out that she’s always laughing. She agreed, there are good things. I wonder: maybe there’s something missing that the laughter covers; we don’t examine it. What makes Daniel happy? When things he thinks about “just happen.” Like what? Like things blowing up. Yesterday there’d been a report of four manhole covers “blowing up” in Cambridge [a failure of maintenance, not sabotage]. Daniel has people he hates, and he thinks when people get upset they do things, like shooting people if they get fired. Aren’t we supposed to love people, not loathe them? “No, it’s a typo.” We wander off for a bit to the psalms — even today’s wants enemies to “melt away like wax, blow away like smoke in the wind.”

I’m not sure we’re connecting with Daniel. Talking about God is love, and how hatred eats away at us and is an uncomfortable feeling: I don’t know that it has much reality for him. But he is here, and listening. I am trying to listen to him, but one challenge is understanding what he is saying, literally; the words are hard to discern. That’s going to be another challenge, simply understanding what people say, and a challenge prior to responding to them.

But I’ve managed some informal conversation before and after things — with Loring (about his father), Brenda (she’s out of jail, her fiancé will be soon), Kevin (who got a handsome sweater in the distribution, and educated me about the Celtics), and a couple others whose names I don’t remember yet. This takes time. I have a whole month.


Monday’s official activities are a free lunch at St. Paul’s Cathedral; a Eucharist and healing service; and a homeless AA meeting. Then I met with Kathy to talk about what I’ll do for the month.

The lunch is put on by a different parish each week; they serve soup, a hot sandwich, a vegetable, and cookies today. I helped with tea and coffee, made conversation. Ecclesia (the name for the whole program of homeless ministry, of which common cathedral is a part) serves as a pastoral presence. So I sat and ate cookies with Kevin and some others, and learned about good clothes at Goodwill, Boston sports, and was offered more cookies than I could eat.

The Eucharist was small. One woman left, because one of the men mentioned something in the news — something unpleasant — and she said that wasn’t proper to talk about before communion. Apparently it didn’t get dropped enough to make her comfortable, and in fact we didn’t bring it up in prayer when we had a chance, whether because in effect we already had, or because we’d forgotten. Like the Sunday service, there was offering burdens to God — whatever we find too heavy; there were prayer requests; and there was comment on the Gospel. The AA meeting eventually had about 8 men, Kathy, and me. It’s odd to be at an AA meeting when you are not exactly an alcoholic; that will take more thinking.

At the end of the day, Kathy and I went for coffee and to talk over my role and my goals. Like any intern, I should have learning objectives, perhaps just two since it would be a short time. I had one: to learn to be more comfortable going up to strangers and starting conversation, or letting it start. Kathy reminded me that without relationships, saying “come and let’s do church” is craziness. What about the second goal? She asked about my church background, my call, why with the homeless. I responded, dithered, got circumstantial. She looked at me and said, I think you need to learn to be in your heart instead of your head.

This is going to be difficult in ways I hadn’t thought of. And better.

I think Erasmus says somewhere, Sancta Socrates, ora pro nobis.

Oh, pictures will come; stand by for technical difficulties. For now, I’m trying to stay under a thousand words.

Sunday: Three Churches

I’m starting to find where I can connect so I can post. For now, to catch up, I’m going to do a few short pieces to cover the last few days.

It poured rain this morning as I walked to get coffee and a roll — couldn’t find the café where I had a large, good, inexpensive breakfast yesterday. It was still raining when I got to the monastery for 9:00 communion. The service was lovely, as always. Antiphons at every possible place; a choral piece while the congregation was asperged (I;m not sure we needed it, God had already done that), a set of Carl Daw words new to me to Sine Nomine. There was incense, votive candles, and the congregation and brothers were friendly in a slightly impersonal way.

Then on to Boston to St. Paul’s Cathedral, where I was to meet Steven (one of the priests with common cathedral).. I was there as they finished the 10:00 Choral Eucharist; lovely, big choir, congregation about 35 fewer, and smaller in their space than at SSJE. I was invited in for Eucharist, but declined and sat to listen. The person who invited me in is one of the regulars at common cathedral, catching strays at the back of the Cathedral service. It wouldn’t be fair to comment on the welcome; I didn’t give them a chance, just listened to the music.

Then I went to find Steven, the priest celebrating common cathedral today. He was there — young man with a collar — and started introducing me to people: MaryAnn, who always asks whether she should carry the cross; Chris, at a desk; Jim, the sexton; Lauren, the intern who’s almost finished; Bill, the musician; several others. All help set up; some are newcomers, like me. I repeated their names, shook hands, talked about weather and where I’d come from, but I don’t remember any more names. I recognized some as having been there when I visited in September. Steven showed me where common cathedral is given storage space to keep the rolling altar cart (it once held chairs) a second cart with urns used for juice and water, the musician’s chair and music stand.

Because of the rain, common cathedral will be held on the porch of St. Paul’s, at the top of a set of steps. We roll the supply cart up to street level on a long internal hallway ramp, then carry things up the steps. The altar cart has to go up an elevator to the main floor and out the front door of the cathedral to set up on the porch. Altar guild made simple: the frontal is folded and stored inside the altar. Then two clear plastic bottles of grape juice stand on the altar, as do two wooden plates with communion bread (it is bread). And the service book, sheets all in plastic sleeves against the weather. That’s it — no linens, no candles, no flowers. The priest’s stole is also stored in the altar.

During the common cathedral service (which starts with Kumbaya), the congregation participates: they hesitate, then someone steps forward to share a thanksgiving for a home, a request for prayer for someone’s mother, a story. Perhaps half of the circle steps forward to share each time. I don’t have the whole rhythm of it down, but there seem to be three such times in the service — the last of them, response to the sermon.

I am struck by the very different friendliness of this group. Anyone who comes forward and speaks is given praise, encouragement, empathy. Those who don’t are sought out and offered Eucharist, especially those who aren’t part of the circle but are standing beyond it, or moving in and out of it, or standing at a distance but present. The passing of the peace is a movement of the whole group. Some are tentative clasping a hand, but they mostly look at each other as they do so and most seem eager for the contact and the greeting.

Somehow the street church was the welcoming one. I was being introduced as here to spend the month with them, but other newcomers, other stories were more exclaimed over. What do they have that we don’t have, that this is something so difficult for us to do in a housed church?

arrrived safely

This is not going to include thought or insight, just gratitude to everyone who is responding and supporting me. Gratitude to Amtrack for a safe and easy trip with luggage arriving at the same time I did. Gratitude to Debbie for giving me a wonderful place to stay–it is indeed two doors down from SSJE (Society of St. John the Evangelist). I slept through services this morning (slower than expected recovery from 24 hours on the train) but am going to Evening Prayer.

Also that I’ve already bought a “charlie card”, found my way to Boston Common and back, and not gotten noticeably lost. Yet. Got a call from the common cathedral folks thia afternoon; I’ll meet them tomorrow and help set up the altar. And–until I find a free wifi spot, this will probably be it for a day or two.

ps it’s raining and chilly here, too. So I’ll find out where common cathedral meets in the rain. Photos to come.


I am planning for my month in Boston, realizing suddenly that I’ve never spent a whole month away from my house, in someone else’s house, since–well, since college. And that’s different. I’ve had people live in my house for anyplace from a school year to a few months, but I’ve never been the guest. I hope I’m a good guest; I don’t want the surprise for May to be to discover otherwise.

I think I can do that; I keep learning about myself and the kinds of rigidity and self-centeredness I have. And battling, I hope. I hope I can do the work of being with the people Common Cathedral serves in Boston and leave myself behind. I know ministry means the one ministering learns and gains more than anyone. I want to learn and grow and gain, but I hope I do enough good to be worth the time of those who are going to mentor me. I’ll hope for a good surprise.

And I have one good surprise to celebrate: I sang the Exultet for Easter Vigil this year. I didn’t sing it really well, but it wasn’t too bad, and I did the whole thing without stumbling or stopping (I didn’t say without any wrong notes). That’s not quite right–I almost did stop once. The Exultet has congregational responses, the first in the middle of the second page. I’d rehearsed with Andrew, our wonderfully patient and good music director, and some of the choir kindly provided a congregation so I could sing in front of more than 1 person once before Saturday night. So I’d heard the responses being sung back to me.

But then the whole congregation sang in response–our congregation sings. I almost stopped; it was like being hit with a wave of sound and warmth and spirit. How could it be possible to respond to something so awesome? The voice of the people is as the voice of God, a proverb before Hooker said it. But there is the next line to be sung, so I went on and sang it all, and the responses rose up each time.

Surprises waiting, new experiences waiting–I’ll pick up and keep going whatever happens, because there will be a next line to sing, a next person to listen to, a next task.

Book by Book

Or, Talking about the Book Sale — again

book sale in preparationAlice started it alljanuary552006.JPG

When I show up at the earlier services at my church, people expect I’m either going to ask for volunteers for the overflow or talk about the book sale. This week, it’s time to talk about the book sale.

Since 1998, we’ve run an annual used book sale at Trinity. The first year, it helped retire building debt. Since then, the proceeds have gone to projects outside the parish.

For the last several years, all that we raise has gone to the building fund for Shelter House, our only general use source of emergency shelter in the county, is woefully overcrowded in its present location. I like to say we’re building a new shelter book by book.

We raised over $4500 last year, book by book. We try to keep prices pretty low; we want people to have books who want them. Children’s books especially are low priced — a child ought to be able to choose a book, buy a book, own a book. We enjoy some bargaining with our customers, sometimes getting them to round up, or sometimes they get us to round down. We have raised about $15,000 toward the new building. I could go on telling you what a wonderful sale it is — and it is; we’ve heard it described as “the best ecumenical event in Iowa City.”

I could tell you how much fun it is to sort books — is Hemingway fiction (what you read) or literature (what you were assigned to read)? Pink cover, some gilt, man with long hair and muscle, must be a romance. Most of us have books we won’t re-read, or won’t read, and it’s easier (for me, anyway) to give them to this cause than any other I know. Enough: I really want to talk about what I’m learning from the book sale. Book by book.

I don’t have to control all of it or do all of it. My opinion doesn’t matter (even though it’s usually right: Hemingway is fiction, Faulkner probably literature). I don’t have to do it all. Meg has made far better signage than I could; the display poster a Shelter House volunteer designed is striking. The clients from the Shelter whom we hire every year to help with the heavy lifting are pleased to help, feel some ownership in the project. Ideas for what else we could do come up all the time, from everyone — in fact, the original idea for the book sale wasn’t mine, it was Alice’s.

The book sale isn’t a unique event. We wrote up How to Run a Book Sale (the link goes to a pdf), and other people have used ideas from it to run sales in their own communities. The book sale can be a self-sustaining event; we started offering “sponsorships” for $10 or more and people sponsored tables enough to cover all our overhead expenses (much of it goes to pay the Shelter House heavy lifters).

We don’t have to sell all the books that go out the door. We can give books to other causes (such as newly-established library in one of the state Juvenile Homes), or send them to Swaziland to help schools and seminaries. When we have a surplus, we can give cartonsful to sales for other causes some years.

The book sale is fun for a lot of people. Other churches are happy to help donate, sort, work, publicize, attend, and celebrate our success. The book sale isn’t really about raising money, it’s about building community. We build community with each other, community in support of Shelter House and its services for the homeless. Book by book.

That said, I’m still talking about the book sale. We have a schedule for when we’ll be sorting books — though call, if the weather’s bad; we may have enough sense to cancel any given night. As soon as they’re ready, we’ll have a link to the flyer and poster for this year. I’m still asking you to donate books, be a sponsor, tell your friends about the sale, come on March 1st from 10 am to 3 pm and support the building of a new shelter. Book by book.