We express Orthodox mission incarnationally. When the people you’re reaching out to, particularly when they are poor, you really have to get out of your head. You have to start with the body as St James says in his epistle, “if someone comes to you and says I’m hungry or I am cold, don’t say to them ‘God bless you’ or ‘the Lord loves you’. But begin by feeding them and clothing them.”
And this is what I mean by incarnationally.
You have to start with the body.
How do you welcome a person who is cold, hungry, anxious, angry, afraid? How does practical Orthodox theology express itself when it attempts to reach out in compassion? How do we evangelize without using words?
It would follow common sense that depending on a Church’s theology the manifestation of this Divine Philanthropy would look, touch, smell and taste different.
Over the years, it is in the physical expression of Orthodox theology that we have learned to appreciate the theology, the dogmas of the Church, of the Fathers, over and over again, the last twenty eight years, we learn that door is the most important ingredient to an Orthodox mission.
It wasn’t so long ago when I remember as a child knowing that Churches were always open. I remember the discomfort I felt when as a young boy I learned from my priest that because of insurance policies now the Church would be closed more of the time. It seemed sacrilegious, unthinkable for me as a young boy to imagine that the doors of a Church ever closed. Today no longer does this shock any of us, it is normal.
Is it coincidence, I have been thinking lately, that it was around this same time that in our society we started to see a dramatic decline in attendance.
The mission can’t be open twenty four hours, seven days a week, but we find that either through the bakery or because of different programmes, or liturgies are going on in the building, the mission is pretty close to being always open. One of my dreams is that it would never close.
But a door can be both a sign of welcome and a sign of exclusion. A door even be a way to be selective to who you let in. People know that when they walk into our door, they know that they will not be turned away. Sometimes for safety reasons this policy has been challenged. We can’t allow certain people for example who are inebriated or people who would be a danger to themselves as they came into the building.
So we learned to open the door in reverse. What I mean by this is in those cases we’ll extend the mission to the street. In some cases where a person has to be served a meal on the steps of the mission, we will do that, opening the door in reverse. Taking the food out to the person but also making sure that one of the mission people keeps company with the person so that they don’t eat by themselves.
Sometimes it’s not even possible for the person so close with other people, it is a danger to themselves and others to be in the mission and so we will open the door in reverse by meeting that person in a local coffee shop.
Not everyone can or is ready to walk through the doors of the Church, as we are referred to by the neighbours, they always refer to the mission as the Church. Even when someone comes in, some may not want to talk to anybody, others prefer to be left alone, some carry sorrows, others carry a lot of rage. And the door of the mission then becomes a physical expression that the Kingdom of God is truly among us and its doors, like the doors of Peter’s house in Capernaum, are open wide to receive the suffering of people.
I don’t recall anyone removing our roof yet to come inside like in Peter’s house. Although some have tried to come in through the window. But they were not looking for healing but for something to take home.
The doors being unconditionally open, what this means is that at anytime someone could come in and disturb, challenge or as is often the case, demand that you let them squeeze you with a bear hug. And all depending what you are doing at that moment it can be a very beautiful moment or also very frustrating.
There are actually three doors in the mission. The first one opens the street into the hall, or the trapezia. Another way to see it, it opens the doors of the street to the Church.
The second set of doors are guarded by angels that were painted by a man who was living in his car at the time parked permanently in front of the mission. These angelic doors lead into the Chapel, what could be referred to as the Nave.
And then there are a third set of doors referred to as the Beautiful Gates, which lead into the Altar area.
Each door potentially flows into the next. But each person has a particular journey. I have seen people sit outside the Chapel doors for over several decades until one day they took the step and walked into the Church.
Others almost without effort are led by an invisible hand to the very steps of the beautiful gates.
When a person enters through one of these doors, they’re no longer just entering a social service programme. Our Orthodox theology of the meaning of matter and of space, makes what happens within these consecrated walls, part of each person’s journey towards God.
Each room contains the presence of the Holy Spirit because in each room there is a table. Each of the doors opens to a table. In the hall, in the trapezia, the table of the poor is found. Where St John Chrysostom says “we can celebrate in the Sacrament of the brother.”
In the Chapel, there’s also a table, the Table of the Lord.
In both we are challenged by St Paul to discern the Body of Christ at the risk of our own condemnation. For it is not just the poor that are on this journey towards God, but also those who come to serve. We too must and need to learn to come and to see where God dwells.