November 2013
Answering Jesus' Call

Cathedral in the Night

Around a folding altar table – and in winter, by florescent “walls of light” – close to 100 worshippers gather outside First Churches in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts to celebrate God’s abundance of bread and wine and the hot meal that follows. Each Sunday evening throughout the year, Cathedral in the Night practices radical welcome, offering an ecumenical worship service, a meal, and community. When asked, both longtime worshippers, as well as those who have just started coming, share that “you never know what’s going to happen” in this fluid spontaneous worship service.

Perhaps the best way to understand this Northampton, Massachusetts based ministry is to watch this short video.

Rather than being understood as parish “outreach” or “social justice ministry,” Cathedral in the Night is best understood as a community unto itself. Invoking the literal example of Jesus in first century Palestine, Cathedral in the Night strives toward the radical embrace that marked his wandering ministry. Noting the similarities of our time with Jesus’ own time: a powerful political empire, rampant poverty, and the need for religious renewal, Cathedral in the Night aspires to break down institutional barriers that divide God’s people.

Shared Leadership
In many ways, Cathedral in the Night appeals to a younger demographic, those who are resist institutional affiliation and are drawn by a sense of adventure. This has resulted in a successful college intern program for students from the many area colleges who wish to take on leadership in worship, engage in theological reflection, and help organize the worship services.

Critical to the success of Cathedral in the Night, are our partner parishes that bring the meal each week, along with part of the liturgy. Cathedral in the Night would not exist without the institutional church’s time and talent; we depend on our faithful network of thirty-five partner parishes. In what has become a miraculously synergistic relationship – whereby parishioners testify to new wisdom they bring back to their sanctuaries – the feeding of a hundred bears the potential to be the feeding of five thousand, and more, as the church learns in new ways what Jesus had in mind, and the very truth of the gospels.

A Different Approach
By virtue of going out into a world which is tragically divided – by class, and race, and the fractures of our overarching competitive life – Cathedral in the Night reveals how the church may be the single community that is able to reach out and unify creation in the God always intended. Thus it may be no accident that this “Cathedral” is ecumenical, having been founded by an Episcopal priest, and Lutheran and Congregational pastors. Nor may it be an accident God’s presence is heightened as we find ourselves worshipping with people from across the divisions found in our society: homeless and homed, rich and poor, young and old, and indeed, churched and unchurched.

In a time when buildings are frequently sapping the resources of the Church, the wisdom of Jesus’ building-less ministry is returning to the contemporary landscape. Cathedral in the Night is remarkably “cheap church,” especially when using a rota of lay leaders, student interns, and partner clergy to lead its Eucharistic worship. Equally important to its efficient economics is the Cathedral’s gift to parishes, which testify to the vitality and purpose found in their service with the poor.

A New Face for the Church
After almost three years, the community appears to have been truly borne by the Holy Spirit; and “blowing where it wills,” it continues to seek the will of God from everyone who is involved. From our first service in five-degree weather when the community gathered huddled together for warmth, it has been Cathedral’s aspiration to offer a creative, yet ancient ministry that chases human need as Jesus did. Rather than aspiring to supersede the existing institutional Church, Cathedral in the Night critically depends upon the faithful ministries of parishes. All people, homed and homeless, young and old, students, young adults, “churched” and those who’ve never gone “to church,” are welcomed to God’s table, to Cathedral in the Night, and to the community of God it has become.

It is the hope, in conjunction with other street communities, that Cathedral in the Night might offer a new face of the Church in this vastly changing time. The goal is to grow broader, but also to grow deeper by way of servant leadership: an exciting, proven way to enable Christians to reflect on new practices of being “the Church.” Thanks to grants from the Diocese of Western Massachusetts and The Episcopal Church as well as critical parish involvement, Cathedral in the Night is able to offer both pastoral ministry and theological education to those who gather regularly for worship services.

Learn More
Cathedral in the Night is part of the Clearstory Collective, a coalition of churches and spiritual communities throughout western Massachusetts intended for people who seek experiences outside conventional church worship, and for whom words like “denomination” no longer mean much. Clearstory Collective is an expression of the radically inclusive and creative ministry of Jesus, inviting people into local, authentically open communities in common pursuit of greater fulfillment.

From year-round outdoor street communities to farms of prayerful planting, from alternative worship in brew pubs to midnight breakfasts during college exams, from theological conversations in burger joints to contemplative candlelight services, Clearstory Collective is comprised of opportunities to explore oneself in the context of the something greater that many of us sense surrounds us. Unlike the institutional church of the last 1700 years, Clearstory Collective looks more like a loose confederation of “ecclesias” – literally, from the Greek, “assemblies” of people – for whom the truth springs forth from human interaction rather than from the walls of a building.

In the first three centuries before the institutionalization of the church, the memory of Jesus’ ministry in the streets, along the shore, out on the margins of his world, continued to inspire small communities of faith to simply be “the church”. If there is historical precedent for Clearstory Collective, maybe this is it: a collective of ecclesias comprised of diverse expressions of faith that enrich the world of God. We invite you to become part of one of these communities, or perhaps to start one of your own. In either case, for further information feel free to contact Chris Carlisle at

Christopher Carlisle is director of higher education and young adult ministry for the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. An Episcopal priest, his greatest passions are writing and chasing after his kids. Chris works closely with Cathedral in the Night co-founders Eric Fistler, a United Church of Christ minister and Stephanie Smith, a Lutheran (ELCA) pastor and director, Beyond Belief at Smith College and CITN College Internship Program.


This article is part of the November 2013 Vestry Papers issue on Answering Jesus' Call