August 24, 2011

Taking it to the Streets

Members of another urban congregation are picketing the second service of St. John’s in Columbus, Ohio.

The service is Street Church, where for the past five years, the Rev. Lee Anne Reat presides over a full Eucharist on a street corner in downtown Columbus. Attendance averages about 70 – a little more than the first service of the day, which is held in the church facility. The Street Church congregation has celebrated baptisms together and gathered for funerals.

“This is not an outreach program” says Reat. “The language we use to talk about what we do is so critical -- this is our second service. I don’t think we can really be the church if we separate out what we do in worship from what we do in the larger community. It is all of a piece.”

Over the past five years, “we’ve had some successes in getting people off the street,” says Reat. “But what’s most gratifying is the relationship aspect … to be part of a community that I envision looking a lot like the kingdom of God – that’s pretty awesome. From my upper middle class, privileged background, I would probably never come across some people who I now call my friends.”

Taking religion to the streets is nothing new. Throughout history, street preachers have urged people to repent, to turn or burn, to change their lives or face damnation. St. John’s is part of the nationwide Ecclesia Network, a loosely affiliated group of street churches that focus on worship and connection.

“Our emphasis is on being in relationship with the most vulnerable among us,” says Reat. “Our focus is on worship. We try to meet other needs if we can, referrals for housing, getting jobs, providing dry socks, coats, boots and tents. But the most important thing is being in a real mutual relationship.”

That’s why it was so gratifying when one of the Street Church parishioners invited some of the picketers to lunch. He offered them some of the sandwiches that the congregation eats after the worship service.

“They keep yelling at us to repent,” says Reat. “And we keep saying, let’s respond with love. Let’s love them.” And so the Street Church member showed them love, from one community of faith to another.

Reat begins a sabbatical this week and will spend three months traveling across the United States, worshipping with different street churches. One of her goals is to collect liturgical ideas and resources to create a street church prayer book.

You can follow her journey at And if you have ideas or practices for street churches, post them on the blog.

“I really see this as part of the fresh expressions of the church – it’s the church beyond walls. There’s so much potential for communities to do this,” Reat says. “The reason we go outside the church building is because there are people who feel like they can’t come inside the church, for whatever reason. I smell. I don’t have the right clothes. I’m drunk. I’m high. I wouldn’t know what to do.

“When you’re outside, all those barriers are broken down. People can come and just be who they are. There’s potential for that in every community.”