For 100 years, St Benedict the Moor has affirmed and welcomed a rich variety of persons, especially the disenfranchised of our society. This welcoming of the unwelcomed permeates our diversity of ministries.
In 1908 St Benedict' s primary purpose was establishing a mission to serve the growing number of African Americans living in Milwaukee. Through the years a variety of services have been offered at St Benedict's. These included a parish committed to serving the spiritual needs of African American Catholics; a boarding elementary and high school, providing education and academic excellence to young African Americans; a community meal, supplying food on a daily basis to the homeless and hungry of Milwaukee; a clinic, furnishing quality health care to the homeless and uninsured population; and jail chaplaincy, meeting the physical, spiritual and psychological needs of Milwaukee County inmates.
The one constant over the years that permeates these ministries has been the affirmation given to all gathering at what is affectionately called St Ben's. People outside the mainstream of society are welcomed daily to some rest and a little bit of home.
I can definitely attest to the "rich variety of persons" there. The parishioners ranged from the NPR-crowd to students to African-American families to homeless or mentally ill folks that I recognized from volunteering at Open Door Café. The amazing thing about St. Ben's, and what I now understand to be why some of the more hippie-dippy campus ministry folks at MU loved it so, is that it truly does embrace all walks of life into its community.
I don't think I've ever been to a Catholic church like it. It reminded me of some of the evangelical churches I've been to with friends or relatives on occasion. They introduced/welcomed new members and visitors before mass started (I hid in the back), the Sign of the Peace lasted about 10 minutes (and you really couldn't hide, there were people with nametags that came around and wished peace to EVERYONE--one gentleman added "have a great week" onto the traditional "peace," why thank you I will!), they passed a mike around for the Prayers of the Faithful to anyone who raised their hand and it was mandatory to hold hands during the Our Father. If you are lost and trying to seek IMMEDIATE connection with a community I would very much encourage you to go to St. Ben's. You kinda can't walk out of their feeling unloved by your fellow "brothers and sisters"--yup, that's what they referred to their fellow parishioners as. I swear, this was a Catholic service!
And then there was "Captain." He got up (to use the restroom?) early into mass, returned to his seat, responded back during the homily and offered a lenghty and somewhat indecipherable prayer during the POTF (my hearing was shoddy during the service as I was next to a toddler and a very loud radiator). I believe I've seen this gentleman around town, perhaps even ranting and raving. He seems to be a fixture in the Church, but the way the pastor and other parishioners responded to his outbursts really showed me what a tolerant and welcoming place this was. During the SOP one of the nametag people genuinely hugged him and audibly said "I love you so much!" As a one-service observer, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if we all hugged and loved the marginalized members of our society -- I mean isn't that Christ's message at the very base? Shoot, even on a global level -- don't you think Mahmoud Ahmadinejad might just need a hug?
Granted "Captain" made himself part of the service, but the church's diversity shone in the servers and readers participating in the service. Instead of the white, community-theatre dropouts who typically read at most parishes, both of the readers were Latino immigrants (and we blessed them before the service!) who delivered the readings in accents. One of the servers during the Eucharist I recognized as someone I've served volunteering -- today she proudly held the plate of the Body of Christ (which at St. Ben's is a full pita-bread that the priest breaks apart -- literally breaking bread! -- versus the typical wafer, unfortunately a big chunk of Jesus fell off into my cowl neck sweater and I had to subtly fish Him out before taking the Blood of Christ) for the pastor. Anyone want to explain to me if there is a difference? I could theorize that the pita bread is more filling, and perhaps an extension of their social ministry? I mean that not to sound ignorant or blasphemous, just thinking out loud.
As if the community acceptance hadn't hit home yet, during the POTF, a gentleman (very NPR-looking) who volunteers for the Jail Ministry read a prayer offered from an inmate incarcerated across the street (St. Ben's is situated between the county jail and another correctional facility). The prayer was simple, elegant, unselfish and moving and actually stirred up an involuntarily reflex to pray for this person behind the proxy. One final thing that struck me about the POTF, was the response. Generally I have always heard "Lord, hear our prayer." At St. Ben's it was very noticeably "God, hear our prayer." Any scholars out there want to explain this to me as well?
The interior of the church was extremely simple. It had clearly been renovated/gutted recently, as there were no fixed pews, but instead modern chairs and benches were situated to face the center of the church, so it was more like a town hall meeting than mass (surprise! more community!). Unlike the ornate decorations at Old Saint Mary Parish, the decoration was quite simple. The walls were all white, but that made the mural and statue at the altar stand out quite prominently, which of course was St. Benedict the Moor and his black followers. There were several simple stained glass windows (I ended up under St. Theresa of Avila and Bl. Kateri Tekakwitha (who is a very interesting pre-saint -- I encourage you to read the Wikipedia link), which were lovely on a sunny day like today -- letting in lots of natural light. The tile floor (much nicer than OSM's blue carpet) also helped keep it bright and cheerful.
The readings for today were Genesis 9:8-15 (establishing the covenant with Noah) and 1 Peter 3:18-22 (prefigured baptism of those who died in Noah's flood -- I didn't even know this passage existed!). The Gospel was Mark 1:12-15 (wherein Jesus heads to the desert for 40 days -- hmmm, sounds familiar). Brother Jerry's homily compared the flood to today's troubled economic times (he did not hesitate in saying this is the Great Depression Part II) and focused on the importance of bonding together as a community to help those less fortunate keep hope through the flood. The Lenten takeaway was to use these 40 days to come to peace with one's self through self-reflection so that we will be strong enough to help others.
Although I expect to eventually run into parishes where I disagree with the homily, I can't say I've disagreed with anything I've heard so far in this experiment.
One thing that had been missing at Old St. Mary's (although it could've been due to the midweek, quickie mass) was music. St. Ben's obviously has a group of dedicated musicians (they even post for a Folk Music Sing-A-Long in the bulletin), including a pianist and a cellist. They have a huge organ in the back, but that was unused (at least today), but the cello was definitley unique.
I also observed that A LOT of self-reflection time was built into the service. There was time during the prayers at the beginning of the service and then a good chunk of time after communion. It was kind of nice and I felt I got a lot of quality one-on-one time in with the big guy. Boy, am I really grateful for all that I have! Honestly! Also, because of the modern design there were no kneelers, so I could really get lost in my prayer and not worry about stabbing pain in my knees.
The most impressive thing about this parish is it's dedication to community activism. The weekly bulletin is chock full of vigils and protests. The church is a member of MICAH (Milwaukee Inner City Congregations Allied for Help) and is also apparently the base for the Pax Christi movement in Milwaukee. I didn't even know we had one (I read a bunch about this group in Fr. Dear's book). If I wasn't doing the church hop, St. Ben's is definitely a parish I'd consider going to regularly.
Again, I only got some pictures of the outside of the church. I really need a "church buddy" so I don't feel like a weirdo taking photos after mass. Has anyone ever done a project like this before? Any suggestions?
I also skipped out on going to coffee after church (another reason the "buddy system" would be great). As I'm sure you can surmise, I would've been welcomed, but I'm not sure I'm at the point yet to publicly talk about this sociotheological experiment yet with strangers. Your thoughts?
NEXT SUNDAY: St. Casimir at 9:30 AM prior to heading to the Rockabilly Chili event.