The Cathedral of St. John the Divine is one of the most beautiful churches in New York City, a worldly structure in the Gothic tradition created more than one hundred years ago. People from all walks of life stop to gaze in wonder at the splendor of its architecture. It is the largest cathedral in the country, a church whose size and grandeur help us to know the meaning of the word “opulence.”
Thank god opulence isn't the only language spoken at this church. The deliberately meditative call from spirit to spirit is undeniable. Churches like this span whole city blocks as celestial sculptures, centering touchstones in a city whose inhabitants need grounding — desperately.
The heartbeat of the church should be a preferential option that favors the poor. Theologians of every race and creed have wrestled with clergy to make this so, and this church, as with many like it, does the good work of caring for those in need. What happens here each night is part of that.
One of the most meaningful ministries at the cathedral is with the regular gathering of homeless people, who call the doorsteps around the corner from the main entrance home. It is a ministry for which I'm sure they did not ask, and I’m not sure if they ever stand in line for the weekly or monthly offerings of help. But I see them as a holy inscription, living epistles with a clear message.
The geography of poverty and its proximity to such opulence is one of the oddities of the city. Juxtaposed against the seeming wealth of the church, a community has formed — they live, literally, on the margins of this great structure. The church allows it. That the city frowns upon it is another story.
By day, the people living on the doorsteps are shooed away by city officials trying to keep homeless people off the street. But at night, a walk along this path at sunset reveals the set-up for what will soon take place: They gather, a few at a time, just talking. They appear like passersby, striking up conversation, sharing information. As it gets darker, the three doorways along the corner of 110th Street and Amsterdam Avenue fill quietly with blankets and cardboard boxes. A shopping cart or a few large trash bags rest nearby. This space is occupied — private, even.
Nowhere do I see the presence of God more clearly. It is the daily bread of theophany, a revelation and witness of God moving in and on the earth. But this marginal grouping is essentially ignored. Balancing coffee cups and fresh bagels, our children and packages — zoned out on smartphones and head phones, on our way to wherever — we accept their presence as part of the landscape. An inner witness tells me that a daily pilgrimage past this gathering of organic intellectuals is an invitation to sit in the wisdom of their stories. I'm convinced the light of God shines within these stories, and I don't want to miss it. I don't want to miss the daily, sacred epiphanies. It is a word from God, never random but wholly intentional.
The gathering I see marks a very real Jesus in a very broken world and I wonder if we're missing it.
It is often in the things we don't want to see that we are faced with the most profound confrontation. God shows up looking like a homeless man and we turn away. He shows up as a person who looks or believes differently from us and we suddenly lose the ability to engage in healthy dialogue. We imagine a great gulf exists between us and them, that they should be more like us. Or worse — we don't see that at all.
Do you love me? Feed my sheep. Jesus came for the least of these, the broken these, the hurting these — Jesus is for the shunned these.
They’re here in the strength and vulnerability of the city, where questions of faith and justice force the wild rhythms of this world to align themselves with grace. Where invisible vigilantes curate hope on city sidewalks and keepers of the faith pray for enlightenment — eyes to notice, eyes to see.
Let's pray we don't miss it — the rich liturgical composition of chapter and verse on a human heart, the Holy Spirit sent to help us decipher its love letter.