The Common Good

Finding Church Amid An Endless Winter

It seems like an eternal winter here in Detroit. The Associated Press, citing a National Weather Service analysis, reports Detroit is experiencing the most extreme winter of any city in the country. I don't know about that, but this winter is "getting real up in here."

Courtesy Holy Redeemer Church
Courtesy Holy Redeemer Church

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At Holy Redeemer, the church just north of Detroit where I serve as pastor, the weather has impacted 9 of 12 Sundays since Dec. 15. It's hindered our ability to gather for worship, dented budgets, and made it hard to maintain community.

You can set your watch by the storms that arrive late on Saturday night and clear by Sunday afternoon.

Yet, time and again the congregation at Holy Redeemer manages to surpass my wildest expectations of faithfulness.

This past Sunday they preached a far more eloquent sermon than the one I'd prepared on the meaning of Transfiguration and the responsibility we have for what we have witnessed in Jesus Christ.

I drove across town this morning before church, in the storm, to pickup a homeless man from a shelter in Pontiac. When he got into the car at a dance hall that lets the shelter-less sleep at overnight, a young man leaned into the car and asked, with excitement, if he, too, could come to church.

He looked very rough and smelled worse. It's good for me to admit I hesitated a second, but found myself saying, "Of course, jump in."

I make no pretense to comfort with the uncomfortable, especially when I am taking a very real risk also on behalf of those I serve, but I do know it's more than my privilege to welcome in the name of Jesus Christ.

This particular young man came to Holy Redeemer once before in early January. At that time, he was cleaner — he had a regular place to rest his head at the time — and was a lot calmer. He's now living in an abandoned house with no heat and no hot water and big gaps between meals. I'd probably look and behave the same way under the same conditions for weeks on end in all of this bitter cold.

As the service progressed, it was obvious that this young man's pain, frustration, and illness were going to spill over into our worship.

One by one, the people of Holy Redeemer stepped up.

A woman went to his pew and held his hand.

As I preached, one man after another went to this young man and prayed with him, put their hands on his shoulders, allowed him to pour out his tortured soul.

No one in the congregation got visibly nervous, no one left, and everyone was respectful and prayerful through the outbursts and erratic movement.

The concrete love of these men and women spoke louder than my words. And others heard the message.

A woman who was visiting for the first time, someone I would not have expected to say so, remarked on the special spirit of the church and how so many reached out to the man and welcomed him — how everyone worshipped despite the hurdles.

I know Holy Redeemer is a special sanctuary — what the Celts called a "thin place," where the veil between the world that is passing away and the world that is coming meet — and that the people who gather at Holy Redeemer make it deeper still — a lot deeper.

The real sermon amid this eternal winter, on that cold and snow-covered Sunday, was that the Word was present Sunday at Holy Redeemer, was made flesh in his body gathered, and Jesus Christ was making all things new.

After a big pre-Lenten lunch, I dropped the men off in Pontiac. A column of homeless persons were making their way from the shelter where they sleep to the shelter where they eat, down the middle of a snow-treacherous road with the now-blinding sun on their backs, bundled against the cold, with all their possessions in brown paper bags, marching in single file.

They are sheep without a shepherd but not these two — not the two I let out of the car. They have a shepherd, embodied in the people at Holy Redeemer. Praise God.

The Rev. Kenneth Tanner is pastor of Church of the Holy Redeemer in Rochester Hills, Michigan.

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