"Gratitude is Not a Prerequisite for What We Do": Cathedral in the Night - Northampton, MA

"Gratitude is Not a Prerequisite for What We Do": Cathedral in the Night - Northampton, MA

In each month's Discipleship Matters newsletter, SNEUCC's Faith Formation team works to showcase the good works and best practices present throughout the Southern New England Conference of the UCC and beyond. If you're interested in having the work of your church/faith body or para-church organization showcased next month, please reach out to Faith Formation Program Support Associate Sean Amato for more details.

This month's Spotlight on Service is on Cathedral in the Night, an outdoor Christian missional community held weekly in downtown Northampton, MA. Coordinated by a team including Pastor Stephanie Smith and Dawn Orluske, Catheral in the Night is a vibrant non-traditional ministry in urban Western Massachusetts that serves the local community through the breaking of bread and the building of community. I had a chance to interview Dawn Orluske about her approach to ministry, her time with Cathedral in the Night, and the impact the CITN community has on the greater community in which it manifests.

Sean: Before we get into Cathedral in the Night, I'd like to ask - what brought you to ministry in the first place?

Dawn: I'm a Member in Discernment with the UCC so I'm interested in how ministry works in general, but it's a bit more than that. My home church is Haydenville Congregational; I spent about three years as the Director of Children and Family Ministries there, which was such an important spiritual practice for me! Kids are so participatory, and - for lack of a better term - not "jaded". That work coincided with my participation in seminary. I remember our minister at Haydenville telling the congregation that we - all of us - are ministers: that we're to minister to one another and our community., and to minister to ourselves. Eventually, I had to leave Haydenville to do my field education at Hampshire County Jail and House of Corrections in Northampton, MA. During that time I started to consider my skills, and the future possibility of chaplaincy or 'alternative' ministry, and who I'd be ministering to.

Sean: So that led you to Cathedral in the Night?

Dawn: Yes! In 2016, I began taking part in Cathedral - it's an ecumenical ministry of the UCC, the Lutheran Church, and the Episcopal Church. At first I started out on the board, but over time I realized that the position might not be the best place for my gifts. While I was in seminary, I was hired on as Pastor Stephanie's ministerial assistant. I feel as if this kind of work is truly my work - my calling. I jibe with people on the margins. I wanted to find an outlet that let me validate the humanity of other people, to acknowledge their worth and their gifts. And that led me here, yes.

Sean: Can you tell me a bit about the community around your ministry?

Dawn: Cathedral is diverse - and Northampton is interesting. The surrounding community in the Pioneer Valley has a lot of students, especially from the Five Colleges. We urge those students to participate, and we've ended up working with interns from places like Mt. Holyoke, Smith, and UMass. We've also made an effort to engage with the greater community on an interfaith level: "the student, the seeker, the non-believer", right? We've recently had some teens from the Jewish community take part in Cathedral, as well as a group of volunteers from Smith's al-Iman group. The local Tibetan community often contributes during their annual celebration of the Dalai Lama, too.

Northampton is known to be very friendly toward the LGBTQ+ community, too - it has a lot of the same qualities that brought me toward the UCC, actually. The town is artsy and welcoming, and humane: there's community supports available through the Manna Community Kitchen, for instance, which provides meals on the days that Cathedral in the Night doesn't. In the community, we do engage with people who struggle with issues related to mental health and addiction - and due to the welcoming nature of the community, there's a notable population of unhoused young queer people who find their way to Cathedral. We're not trying to convert anybody, and they figure that out. They come to share a meal, break bread with people. When people are struggling, they're looking for people to sit with them. And that's what we do.

During our events, Pastor Stephanie will preach outdoors on the steps of First Churches. I'll also preach, and so do members of the community. People will get up to the microphone and talk about God's love, talk about things that are hard or not working in the community. Cathedral is a kind of pressure valve for people who have been "brushed off" by society, where they can have a public voice. Then we'll eat. The food will be served and provided by a partner church or organization, and their volunteers will break bread with the rest of us. All this is outdoors, right downtown.

We try to be a really welcoming community grounded in how Jesus really "did" his ministry. He was at the lakeside, at the well, turning over tables in the market amongst everyone else in the community. We're grounded in the radical hospitality of Jesus: come as you are, and know you're beloved as you are. If you're feeling destitute in spirit or have nowhere to do, we will embrace you. We'll try to help you with resources - I had no idea how social service-y this work would be! - and we'll extend the love of God to you.

Sean: What does Cathedral 'do' for its participants?

Dawn: It's an opportunity to be loved - to have someone be there on your dark days with you, and also a chance for us to be there with them. A lot of people have been hurt by institutional religion, so we try to present a different experience. People take part in Cathedral alongside people who are different from them, and people who are like them - if they're young and unhoused, or housed and in poverty. Being outdoors helps to make people comfortable, as well: when people have had bad experiences with institutions, being outside is a little freedom. A reminder that they can walk away, or they can stick around. For everybody involved, too, we're working to break down barriers regarding mental health and addiction: we make an effort to be a community and to worship together, no matter the stigma or barriers.

Sean: How do you keep Cathedral moving, and afloat?

Dawn: We don't ask our participants for anything more than their presence. We don't ask them for money, meaning that we have to fundraise outside of our immediate community. Many of those folks who come to us looking for support end up participating and serving food, or asking how they can otherwise personally engage to support Cathedral non-financially. We have some gracious donors who have been an incredible support, especially during the pandemic, and our partner churches often help: they bring meals and hold coat drives, even though they're not obligated to do so. Since we're a non-traditional ministry, we can also apply for unorthodox grants: food injustice grants, social injustice grants, and so on are all within reason. It's a little tricky, but we're doing it.

Sean: What effects has your ministry had upon those community members who participate - your partnered churches, or those local volunteer groups?

Dawn: Edwards UCC is our biggest support; they helped supply a grant for me to work with the Manna Center. They partner with us six times per year: they bring the meal, sandwiches to-go, and supplies free to take. They do more than any other church with whom we work. Their congregants and staff know the names of our participants. The same goes for my home church, Haydenville: over time, they come to know the folks at Cathedral as somebody other than "the guy who sits on the corner of the street". With the youth and other groups who have participated, there's a natural urge to push past those barriers that separate groups of people. Cathedral creates a space in which people can really come together and recognize one another.

Over time, volunteers - and our staff - feel really protective of our people. And they are our people. Everyone who takes part is invited to acknowledge that there's an element of Cathedral that requires being trauma-informed, and that we all have to respect boundaries and act responsibly in that space. We want people to come with open hearts and open minds, but to also realize that this is peoples' everyday lives - that as a volunteer, you're stepping into a ministry that serves unhoused people, low-income people, people who might not have eaten that day, or people who were evicted just that morning. We ask that people come with an open heart, and to learn with us by walking on the footsteps of our teacher Jesus. It's a chance for growth and destigmatization.

Sean: Do you have a message for folks in Southern New England who do faith formation work?

Dawn: There's a quote I remember from St. Francis; recently, it was read aloud at a funeral of two Cathedral participants who passed away. "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." Living the life of a disciple is so much more our actions than what we say. As best you can, just show up for people. At Cathedral, we've only missed one Sunday in eleven years. At the same time, do what you have to do to prepare for the work you need to do, in whatever way you have to. Do what you have to do in order to be a constant for people - as close to a non-anxious, loving presence as you can be. Know, though, that ministry takes a lot of grounding - but for us to make the kingdom a real thing, and to involve everybody, we have to try.

Sean: One last question - do you have any advice for people interested in taking part in non-traditional ministries?

Dawn: Visit non-traditional ministries, and ministry in non-traditional settings! I'm so grateful that I did my field education in the county jail. For some people, being in a pub and talking about scripture might represent the best and lowest barrier for looking at and assessing faith, for thinking about the Spirit. There's a lot of non-traditional options out there. Outdoor activities that aren't traditionally even ministry are opportunities to be ministry. Think, too, about how you like to commune with God. I have a reverend friend in Vermont that leads Forest Meditation services at her church each Saturday; I've visited and taken part, and loved it so much. It was restorative, and sacred. Have an open mind about how and where the Spirit manifests.

The Faith Formation team would like to extend hearty thanks and congratulations to Dawn Orluske and the participants of Cathedral in the Night for their good works and ready engagement with their faith. How is your church putting faith into action? Share your stories with Program Support Associate Sean Amato, and you may just be spotlit in the next issue of Discipleship Matters!
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