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Engaging in a new ministry: Ecclesia seeks and serves Christ in all persons

November 16, 2011

The Rev. Debbie Little, founder of Ecclesia Ministries, a Jubilee Ministry in Boston, likes to quote Edwin Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation, when talking about the struggle to create a new ministry: “There’s nothing so fragile as a new idea.”

The Rev. Debbie Little

“If it starts with a feeling of misery, that’s fairly classic,” said Little, who created the “Common Cathedral” street church model that has now spread nationwide. “Just try to hang with it.”

Little led a workshop at Everyone Everywhere for others who may be interested in launching new ministries, but are daunted at the prospects.

“When we create a new ministry, we expand the church’s understanding of itself,” she said.

Ministry on the streets of Boston

It was the summer of 1994 when Little first began meeting with homeless people on the streets of Boston, offering them sandwiches and friendship. But the idea for Ecclesia Ministries really began years before with “a haunting feeling I wasn’t yet doing what I was meant to be doing,” she said.

About the same time, she went back to church, and her priest told her he thought she might have a call to the priesthood. “I was horrified,” she said. “Then one day, I was walking along the street, just looking at the sidewalk, and something came into my head to just say yes, just for today, to whatever. As soon as I said ‘yes,’ my whole body relaxed, and I started thinking about what the possibilities were.”

It took a couple more years for her to realize that what she wanted to do was work with the homeless, and to bring the gifts of the church – community, prayer, relationship, continuity – out to people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t come in to receive them.

It was a long journey. Today, Common Cathedral – the heart of Ecclesia Ministries – brings worship every Sunday at 1 p.m. to the Boston Common. Roughly 100 people – mostly the homeless, but also an assortment of clergy, students, professionals and others – gather each week to sing, pray, reflect on Scripture and share a meal

This model has since been replicated in numerous places across the country, thanks in part to Little’s decision in 2001 to step away from her Boston ministry and concentrate on training others to create similar sorts of ministries.

Start with a (scary) vision

Her advice to those seeking to launch a new ministry is threefold. It starts with the vision – often a scary vision.

“At some point, if you can just bring yourself to say ‘yes,’ even if you don’t know what you’re saying yes to, you will begin to think beyond all the reasons you shouldn’t be thinking of this,” she said.

Next, find one person who believes in you, she said. “That person doesn’t have to know anything about what you’re thinking about. Tell that person you just need them to listen. You don’t need their advice or their pity. They just need to listen.”

Finally, start exploring. Look at your idea from all the angles. “I got to know every single person in Boston who was providing any homeless service, including Social Services and churches,” Little said. “But that’s just what I did. Gradually, you begin to gain a toehold. You get a feeling that you do know a little bit about this.”

One of the wisest things anyone told her along the way: “It’s not enough to be right.”

“That’s a hard truth, but a good truth,” she said. “Not everybody knows what your heart is telling you, and not everybody has the vision you have. People will look at your idea with their own attitudes and worries and concerns. So really, as you’re learning and understanding what your ministry is, you’re also teaching the world around you about what you’re learning. So bring as many people in on it as you can.”



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