by Anna Wadsworth
In the prophetic tradition of Hebrew Scripture, God shows us “what is good” and what is required of us: “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly” with our God (Micah 6:8).
This tradition continues in the New Testament wherein Jesus’ first followers ask, “‘Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? When did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee? And Jesus answered, ‘Truly I say to you as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me’” (Matt. 25:37–40).
The Episcopal Baptismal Covenant requires that we “seek and serve Christ in all persons,” loving our neighbors as ourselves; and that we “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 305).
Episcopal theology encompasses God’s preferential option for the poor. “Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:5).
Faith in Action (FIA) was established at Saint John’s in 2015 to help parishioners at the Cathedral “seek and serve Christ in all persons”—particularly through ministries of service, advocacy, and education. Related to Faith in Action, the Mustard Seed Network includes members of 100+ parishioners on the FIA mailing list. Members of the Network receive regular alerts about opportunities for service, education, and advocacy both at the Cathedral and throughout Metro Denver. The Network takes its name from the weekly “Mustard Seed” blog. Published each Friday, “Mustard Seed” posts are written by parishioners active in service to the poor. You can read more about the history of outreach at the Cathedral below.
A Priority of The Episcopal Church
The Most Reverend Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop, envisions The Episcopal Church as a branch of the Jesus Movement (a term scholars use to describe the early Church).
Referring to the Jesus Movement chart (above), he explained: “What we’re talking about is a community of people who are committed by their baptism, as baptized disciples of Jesus Christ, to live the way of Jesus.” He defines the movement, in part, as “our witness though public service and public advocacy.”(1)
The Right Reverend Robert O’Neill, Bishop of Colorado, has observed to Saint John’s that “a key marker” of a healthy parish is engagement in ministry to the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. He has challenged us to consider how we, as a parish community, might take up that call more fully and creatively.
An Abbreviated History of Outreach at Saint John’s
Outreach has been at the heart of our mission from the earliest days of Saint John’s Church in the Wilderness. Members of Saint John’s not only founded and funded Saint Luke’s Hospital (est. 1881), but parishioners also cared for those who were ill, injured, or dying. In 1887, working with Denver’s religious leaders, Saint John’s helped to form an early chapter of The United Way, called Charity Organizations Society.(2) Saint John’s parishioners supported integration during the Civil Rights movement; the head of the NAACP was a parishioner. The Cathedral has been a key supporter of Metro Caring, Denver’s preeminent hunger-relief nonprofit, since it was established in the 1970s. After the Saint Francis Center was founded in 1983, members of the congregation helped to support this Diocesan Institution to serve people who are homeless.
Urban & Social Concerns Committee
Early in the 1980s, Anna Wadsworth and Ethel Blanz co-founded the Saint John’s Social Concerns Committee, later the Urban & Social Concerns Committee (USCC). They served as the first co-chairs. As the committee developed, its stated mission became, “to seek to be Christ’s agents of reconciliation using our gifts and talents in a caring ministry to our neighbors throughout the city and the world.” For more than three decades, the committee developed relationships with key community partners, acting as the outreach entity of Saint John’s and the conduit for charitable giving to these organizations. Equally important, the USCC worked to educate and motivate the congregation about the urban and social concerns of the neighborhood, to emphasize hands-on ministry to strengthen outreach and mission, and to focus on a few issues where Saint John’s resources could make a difference. In recent years, other new ministries began to develop outside the purview of the USCC.
At an Outreach Summit held on November 23, 2013, parishioners reached a consensus that outreach at Saint John’s should be reconstituted. Following the Outreach Summit, which emphasized a relational, transformational model—of being-with rather than doing-for,(3) a committee of former USCC members and other lay leaders was commissioned to identify a new framework and come up with fresh language for outreach. The group recommended that the USCC be disbanded. A Grants Committee was formed to continue awarding charitable gifts from Cathedral funds.
In February 2015, a second committee was created. Given the name “Faith in Action,” it absorbed the Cathedral’s outreach ministries, adding the tagline, “Together in service, education, and advocacy,” (4) anticipating the vow Saint John’s would take when it became a Jubilee Ministry of The Episcopal Church.
Renewal Works Survey, 2013–2014
Preceding the work of this committee, a team of lay leaders and clergy staff led the parish through an inventory of its spiritual practices, using a survey called RenewalWorks.(5) In a summary report, The Spiritual Life Story of St. John’s Cathedral, our parish rated the importance of the following “best practices”:
Provides opportunities to serve those in need (great urgency).
Promotes strong serving culture that is widely recognized by the local community (concern but not great urgency).
Provides training in how to integrate my faith with service to those in need (great urgency).
Church leaders are a recognized voice on important local community issues (great urgency).
Encourages my participation in faith-based political advocacy (not much of a concern).
According to the survey, the “congregation expresses lower than average agreement with core Christian principles [and] relatively infrequent attempts to put their faith into action.”(6)
Saint John’s Cathedral: A Jubilee Ministry
On the Fourth Sunday of Easter 2015, The Episcopal Church commissioned the Cathedral as a Jubilee Ministry, making the congregation part of a network of 600 ministries across the United States committed to a “ministry of joint discipleship in Christ with poor and oppressed people wherever they are found, to meet basic human needs and to build a just society” (Executive Council Resolution EXC021983).
As a Jubilee Ministry, we “must include several programs, including at least one human-service program and one human-rights advocacy program” (Executive Council Resolution EXC021983).
At the commissioning ceremony, representatives of the Cathedral’s Jubilee Ministries, among them Sue Abbott (Women’s Homeless Initiative), Meg Parish (Advocacy), and Kris Stoever (Cathedral Co-operative of Gardeners), vowed to:
Engage in programs among and with poor and oppressed people.
Offer human-rights advocacy, human services, and empowerment programs to the community.
Reflect theologically on what we learn in our ministry.
Demonstrate the operation of our programs to others as models.
Act as a resource center for other Jubilee Ministries.
The Reverend Rebecca Jones, then the Jubilee Officer for the Office of the Bishop, asked the congregation to stand, asking, “Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support Saint John’s mission to serve those in need?” The congregation replied, “We will.”
Continuing Commitment to Faith-in-Action Ministries
Reflecting its commitments as a Jubilee Ministry, Saint John’s Cathedral continues to support a number of Faith-in-Action Ministries either directly or in partnership with other organizations. Prominent among these is the Women’s Homeless Initiative through which Saint John’s, in collaboration with the Saint Francis Center and other area churches, provides safe overnight shelter and warm meals for 25 homeless women on Monday nights every other month in Dagwell Hall.
As part of St. John’s commitment to serving the community, the Housing Committee had long worked to find a way to develop affordable housing on the land north of 14th Avenue, owned by the Cathedral through its subsidiary Clarkson Corporation. In 2015, a decision was made to begin a joint project with the Saint Francis Center. In June 2016, ground was broken on construction of the 50-unit Saint Francis Apartments at Cathedral Square. The apartments will provide permanent housing for currently homeless households, along with the supportive services necessary to overcome chronic homelessness. As an outward and visible sign of its commitment to Faith-in-Action, Saint John’s Cathedral granted a long-term lease of the land on which the apartments will be located for $1 per year. Members of the Saint John’s congregation contributed more than $100,000 in order to furnish these apartments. The entire project provides an extraordinary opportunity for the Saint John’s congregation to become more directly and intimately engaged in service to the homeless populations of our community.
What Is the “Mustard Seed” Faith-in-Action Network at Work at Saint Johns?
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field; it is the smallest of all the seeds, but when it has grown it is the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree, so that the birds of the air come and make nests in its branches.” (Matt. 13:31–32)
The “Mustard Seed” network has its origins in Ed Watson’s ministry as the Cathedral’s missioner-in-residence from July 2015 to June 2016. Working on the streets of Denver, he deepened the Cathedral’s direct relationship with the poor, the homeless, and the neglected. He strengthened the Cathedral’s connections with partner organizations serving these populations (Saint Francis Center and Network Coffee House, among others).
In contrast to outreach driven primarily by clergy, Ed’s work stressed the building of informal, bottom-up initiatives led by lay members of the congregation as the Body of Christ. Ed originated the “Mustard Seed” blog, writing and soliciting articles from parishioners. It became a forum for those engaged directly in serving the poor and for compelling testimony to the need for Faith-in-Action. “Mustard Seed” soon attracted a nationwide readership, with contributors from as far away as Maine.
Ed addressed deficits in the congregation’s spiritual practice, indicated in the RenewalWorks survey. To nurture an informal network of committed lay leaders, he established a book study group that explored the theological foundations for Faith-in-Action. This group met twice monthly for dinner at a member’s home. On alternate weeks, several members of the group met at the Network Coffee House to strengthen their knowledge, skills, and confidence in being with those in need. While five or six consistently participated, other parishioners who had become deeply engaged in Faith-in-Action joined in the conversation as their schedules permitted.
The format of the conversation followed a common pattern of prayer, reading, and reflection of the assigned book. Readings included Thomas à Kempis The Imitation of Christ, a commentary on the Rule of Saint Benedict, and the Book of Ecclesiastes. Following each session, Ed wrote a summary and reflection on the conversation, shared via email.
The core group continued to meet regularly, exploring questions for discernment:
How can our parish become, as Bishop O’Neill has urged, a place where “one in four” parishioners is engaged in direct ministry for and with the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed?
How can we follow the prophetic tradition of the Old and New Testaments, speaking out against injustices already articulated by leaders of The Episcopal Church? How can we speak up for racial, economic, and environmental justice, empowering those who are marginalized and even targeted for exclusion?
As Ed’s departure neared, this core group, which named itself the Mustard Seeds Network, increasingly focused on how to sustain the momentum of his work. Mother Elizabeth Marie Melchionna, then Canon for Discipleship and Parish Life, met with the group shortly before her departure to share thoughts about the future. She explained that with Ed’s departure the group needed to move Faith-in-Action from Ed’s guerrilla-style grass-roots approach to the mainstream of Cathedral work.
Prior to leaving, Ed secured agreement of the clergy to schedule Dean’s Forums during the summer months on critical policy issues such as Colorado Care, a proposed constitutional amendment. The Mustard Seed group assumed responsibility for organizing these sessions.
The Transition, 2016–17
As the fall of 2016 loomed without the Cathedral’s normal complement of senior clergy and staff teachers, Anna Wadsworth and Marilyn Stranske, with the support of the Interim Dean, organized and taught a course exploring how scripture and Episcopal theology might cast light on issues of public policy. The 8-week course attracted a loyal group of 15 to 20 regulars, and written course evaluations were unanimously positive. They indicated a desire for Christian education that builds our capacity to effect change for the common good, in line with our faith and values.
Over the past few months, with Meg Parish’s leadership, the Mustard Seed group has held a number of well-attended Sunday Faith-in-Action coffees in the Library. What began as the work of a small book group has evolved into an ever-growing Mustard Seed Network of parishioners engaged in, or interested in becoming engaged in, Faith-in-Action. The Mustard Seed Network is largely a lay-driven, bottom-up network. It includes a database for Faith-in-Action opportunities, networks with partner organizations engaged in direct service and advocacy, and occasions for education/formation in coordination with the Cathedral’s adult education program.
(1) Executive Council, Presiding Bishop’s Opening Remarks, Episcopal News Service, October 22, 2016. Also, “Put Jesus Up Front,’ Presiding Bishop Urges,” Episcopal News Service, June 29, 2015. See http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/ens/2016/10/22/executive-council-presiding-bishops-opening-remarks-/2
(2) In 1887 a Denver woman (the founder of National Jewish Health), a Congregationalist pastor, a Roman Catholic monsignor, the dean of Saint John’s Cathedral, and a rabbi together:
. . . recognized the need for cooperative action to address their city’s welfare problems. Frances Wisebart Jacobs, the Rev. Myron W. Reed, Msgr. William J. O’Ryan, Dean H. Martyn Hart, and Rabbi William S. Friedman put their heads together to plan the first united campaign for ten health and welfare agencies. They created an organization to serve as an agent to collect funds for local charities, as well as to coordinate relief services, counsel and refer clients to cooperating agencies, and make emergency assistance grants in cases which could not be referred. That year, Denver raised $21,700 and created a movement that would spread throughout the country to become the United Way.
See Robert Irving Woodward, Saint John’s Church in the Wilderness: A History of Saint John’s Cathedral in Denver, Colorado, 1860–2000. Denver: Prairie, 2001. Also “History,” United Way, https://secure.unitedway.org/pages/history
(3) Mother Liz Costello, “Faith in Action: Together in Service, Education, and Advocacy,” Open Door, April–May 2015, pp. 7–9. See http://www.sjcathedral.org/portals/0/Open_Door_AprilMay2015.pdf
(4) Coined in 2008 by the late social justice advocate Roger Ward, who was a theologian, anthropologist, teacher, and advocate at Trinity Episcopal in New Orleans, “Faith in Action” is used to describe outreach ministries by a number of churches, including New York’s Trinity Wall Street. See Costello, “Faith in Action,” p. 8.
(5) The RenewalWorks team of 2013–14 comprised Andrew Britton (chair), Chris Alexander, Joan Barker, David Barr, Ashley Bracken, Megan Bradley, Sophia Burris, John Chenier, Amy Davis, Jack Denman, Everett Engstrom, David Grey, Leigh Grinstead, Jennifer Harrelson, Heidi Harris, Seth Kent, John Lake, Eric Lazzari, Leah Lazzari, Tyler Mahan, Carolyn McCormick, Mike Orr, Brian O’Shea, Eileen Rizzo, and Sue Sweeny.
(6) The RenewalWorks inventory assesses church scores of spiritual vitality (SVI) based on the factors “most highly correlated with spiritual growth.” These catalysts for growth fall into three categories: the Church’s Role, Personal Spiritual Practices, and Faith in Action.” SVI scores of less than 70 fall below the 50th percentile. The SVI score for Saint John’s was assessed at 52. The Spiritual Life Story of Saint John’s Cathedral, February 2014—A PowerPoint Presentation, RenewalWorks, pp. 47–48.