Ad Clerum on Transformation

Letter to the Clergy from Interim Bishop Minns

Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect. (Romans 12:2)

Walking through Penn Station in mid-town Manhattan is not an experience for the faint-hearted. It is ugly, over-crowded, and confusing, and it is a far cry from the grand train station of an earlier era that it has replaced. I was walking quickly with my eyes down, in my best New Yorker mode, when I was confronted by a well-dressed African-American man carrying a briefcase – he was smiling and called me pastor. I stopped, still hesitant, and he continued: “It’s Michael – don’t you recognize me?” Truthfully, I had no clue who he was.

“I used to be part of the Sunday night congregation at All Angels,” he said, “and it changed my life. I’m no longer on the street. I’ve got a good job, and I’m married.”

I began to recall his story as he added, “I’m sorry that I didn’t come back to tell you how things worked out, but I really can’t go back there anymore. Too many old associations. You do understand?”

I nodded and then with another big smile he said, “Thanks for everything – gotta go!” And that was it. What a transformation!

It had been a number of years since I had served at All Angels Church on the Upper West Side, but now all of the memories started flooding back. After that first amazing stormy Sunday night, I realized that we had been given a wonderful opportunity for ministry but not much of an idea about how to do it. First, we needed to learn “the language of praise” for the homeless community, because clearly my rather traditional hymnody with a handful of 1980s choruses wouldn’t work. Ron, the music director, offered to talk with some of the music directors in the bigger churches in Harlem, and the adventure began. I quickly discovered that Gospel music is a far more complex and sophisticated musical genre than I had imagined. I realized that we all had a lot to learn.

Ron arranged for one of his friends on Broadway – a powerful woman vocalist, gifted in the Gospel repertoire – to come and teach us the next Sunday evening. It was an amazing experience as this rather disparate congregation of Upper Westsiders, a few with homes and jobs and most without, gathered together for worship. The singer wasn’t available for the following Sunday evening, so Ron asked another of his talented friends to continue our musical education. He repeated the pattern for the third week and then arranged for all three women to come back and lead us the fourth week. Each of the women added her own style to the service, and their gospel improvisations were breathtaking. In only a few weeks the congregation’s worship had been transformed – we even had the beginnings of a Gospel choir – and everyone began to look forward to Sunday evening. The following month Ron repeated the pattern but this time with saxophonists ... and the fourth week, all three came back and we had standing room only, with a line of people waiting to get into the service.

I realized that the liturgy itself needed some adjustments, too. In one of our early weeks I had announced in my usual Anglican style, “Would you all please kneel with me as we confess our sins to Almighty God?” To my surprise, several of the men took me quite literally and came and knelt next to me at the at the rail and then began to pour out their hearts. After listing quite a number of offences, they were astonished at the words of absolution. One of them questioned me: “Really?” And when I confirmed that their sins had been forgiven, they all shouted with joy! It gave new energy to that part of the service.

Intercessory prayer was another area of our regular practice that needed modifying. Instead of the usual pattern of a formal bidding prayer with a congregational response, I simply took a hand-held microphone and asked who needed prayer. When a hand was raised, I approached the person, held the microphone to them and asked how we could pray. One night a man asked for prayer for help with his crack addiction. I asked if others had the same struggle, and more hands were raised, and this became the focus of the prayer. A woman asked for prayer for her children who had been removed by Child Protective Services, and again this was a concern for a number of women and men for whom I offered prayer. I repeated this pattern for different prayer concerns each evening.

During these prayer times there were many remarkable transformations. One story that stands out is that of a woman whom I will call Elizabeth. She appeared one Sunday evening wearing military fatigues and carrying a large machete-type knife. She sat at the back and made murderous threats and loudly cursed everyone, including me! The word on the street was that she had killed two men and had just returned from “upstate” – one of the New York State Penitentiaries. I noticed that most of the men of the congregation gave her a wide berth. I found out that she had indeed spent time in prison, but that she had also been brutalized by her father and several other men.

As the weeks progressed, I noticed that Elizabeth cursed less – or at least more quietly! Her knife was less visible, and she began to move a little closer to the front of the church. And then one night she raised her hand in response to my question, “Who needs prayer?” I walked over to her, wondering what might come next. “Elizabeth, how can we pray for you?” I asked. Everyone, especially the men, went very quiet. She replied, “I want you pray for my heart to be less hard. I don’t like being angry all of the time. Please pray for me.” I was astonished by her vulnerability and self-awareness – especially in front of everyone. I prayed as she had asked and there was a vigorous and friendly “AMEN!” from everyone.

Later that evening I reflected on the transformation that we had witnessed. It was nothing for which any of us could claim credit. What we had seen was the power of the Holy Spirit ministering through the people of God gathered for worship in word and sacrament. It was repeated week after week, and the Sunday evening congregation became a community in which miracles happened to all sorts of people – including Michael, Elizabeth, and me!

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.”(Ezekiel 36:26)

Your Brother in Christ,