Open Doors Save a Parish
  • Monday, June 9, 2014

By G. Jeffrey MacDonald

The end seemed near in the early 2000s for Church of the Good Shepherd, an Anglo-Catholic congregation in economically depressed East Chicago, Indiana. The only ones in church on an average weekend were about 20 white, aging suburbanites who heard the Benediction as their cue to leave the city. When those loyalists passed on, it seemed, the church would close.

Now those faithful worshipers are mostly gone, but Good Shepherd is far from finished. Weekend attendance has climbed 500 percent to about 100. Weekdays bring in several dozen, too, for Morning and Evening Prayer (except on Mondays). And most stay for lunch, too — another daily ministry of the church that will not quit.

These days, the congregation has a whole new profile. Worshipers come from the immediate neighborhood, and from the far corners of the earth. They’re African Americans, Africans, Hispanics, and whites; most have relocated from Chicago in search of less expensive living. They’re proving that dyed-in-the-wool Anglophiles aren’t the only ones who cherish high-church liturgy, or who find in it a grace-filled grounding that anchors their often-tumultuous lives. Every day brings someone new through the door.

“Some of the people actually are homeless and come in when you open the door,” said the rector, the Rev. Canon Cecil Phelps, who has been at Good Shepherd for more than 30 years. “Others come because they like going to church.”

“Everybody is wringing their hands these days about the collapse of organized religion,” he said. “But the uneducated classes especially, and poorer people, love religion. When they get the chance to come, they come. It’s always been true for the Church: if it pays attention to the needy, it finds the treasures.”

At 75, Canon Phelps has seen up close how the congregation has evolved. One contributing factor: he officially retired 10 years ago, though he did not leave the rectory or the ministry. Since then, he’s become busier than ever, he said, as he now focuses his energy on a larger Good Shepherd.

Something else changed, too. When the city brought urban renewal to a neighborhood where Good Shepherd ran a storefront mission outreach, the church relocated the mission closer to home — a lot closer. In fact, the rectory has been renamed the “mission house” because it’s not just where Phelps lives. It’s also where the daily feeding ministry and other types of assistance happen.

“We moved some of the energy from the old storefront mission over here” to offer material assistance at the rector’s home, Phelps said. “And once we started opening the door of the church, there was just no stopping it.”

His kitchen is now the midday gathering spot for 50 or more hungry people, including a couple of homeless men who sleep each night on his couches. After Morning Prayer at 10, worshipers and others turn to meal preparation. Everyone has a role to play in setting up. They eat food that’s donated, sometimes from churches or other donors, or whatever parishioners can rustle up.

“It’s an integrated approach, where the people they’re serving are also people who’re worshiping with them,” said Jon Adamson, the Diocese of Northern Indiana’s administrator. “They’re not just people you’re giving handouts to. They’re genuine brothers and sisters.”

With the mission now integrated into parish life, many who need a meal or other help arrive early for Morning Prayer. The needs they bring are continuous. As Phelps talks with a reporter, he pauses every few minutes to consult on a problem, to hush his friendly dog, Kosmo, to hand out aspirin for a toothache, to give a dollar to a child whose family has no food at home.

“You want a dollar for bread?” he asked the child. “He’s a fourth-grade boy. He has nobody to take him to school. Parting with a dollar won’t hurt us here. Here you go, Bradley.”

Those who gather for worship might be alert, or not, when they “drift in,” as Phelps describes it. Some are disabled, mentally ill, or drug-addicted and choose simply to listen during worship. Others have memorized prayers and recite them aloud. No one is ever turned away due to attire that might test boundaries in other churches, like a baseball cap or pants that sag at the buttocks.

“I don’t try to correct that,” Phelps said, “because they’re here morning and night every day. They’re worshiping God, and I’m not going to interfere with that. If they want to worship God with their pants sagging down, well, that’s doing better than a lot of other people.”

Behavior, however, is another matter. Aggression is not tolerated. Nor may anyone chat inside the sanctuary. Those who break the rule get rebuked.

“I do tell people, ‘This is a church where you talk to God, and you can go downstairs if you want to talk to somebody else,’” Phelps said.

Maintaining the sanctity of worship space reflects Good Shepherd’s sensibility to preserve tradition and honor its breadth. Rite I at Good Shepherd includes Anglo-Catholic flourishes, such as praying the Angelus (a liturgical recounting of the annunciation and Incarnation, interspersed with Hail Marys). Evening Prayer includes a catechetical call and response from the Book of Common Prayer (1979), which helps worshipers memorize doctrine. And there is, of course, lots of incense.

“We have a couple of other parishes [in the diocese] that sort of fancy themselves Anglo-Catholic or bill themselves that way,” Adamson said, “but Good Shepherd is the real deal, definitely.”

Maintaining Anglo-Catholic tradition means laypeople are entrusted with many specific duties. A service might include as many as four teenage acolytes from the neighborhood. Laypeople make sure specific tasks are done properly, and taking the roles seriously enables a redeeming sense of commitment and purpose.

That’s what happened for Anthony Singleton, a 38-year-old former drug dealer who is HIV-positive. His schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and drug addictions led to homelessness in 2006, when Phelps gave him a couch to sleep on. As weeks went by, Phelps gave Singleton responsibilities, starting with mowing the church lawn. Later he became an altar assistant. During this time, when his life felt largely hopeless and chaotic, Singleton felt he was both welcomed and needed in God’s house.

“The most important thing is that it’s tradition: It’s set. It’s routine,” Singleton said. “I needed that. I needed something solid, easy to grasp onto and participate in.”

The church experience helped Singleton turn his life around, he said. Though he still struggles with addictions, he’s no longer homeless. He’s had a one-bedroom apartment for the past five years. And he still honors his commitments in worship, where he embraces the responsibility every time he dons the requisite black shoes and cassock.

“Here, at the church, it’s like I’m somebody,” he said. “I’m somebody. People in the neighborhood look up to me. They respect me and ask for my advice. I’ve become somebody because of those traditions.”

While lives such as Singleton’s have changed dramatically, Phelps has lived his vocation with remarkable consistence in accord with the Benedictine value of stability. Since his days as a student at General Theological Seminary in the early 1960s, he’s felt called, as did many of his classmates, to live alongside the poor in an urban witness to the gospel.

Phelps maintains a life of celibacy. He belongs to the Society of the Holy Cross, a fraternity of Anglo-Catholic priests who share a vision for “a disciplined priestly life fashioned after a definite spiritual rule.” And he does not feel much need to keep up with changing times. He still produces his newsletters on a typewriter.

Phelps’s example has become legendary in the region, where other congregations support Good Shepherd’s work. Christ Church in Winnetka, Illinois, sends money, which helps keep the lights on and the pantry stocked. St. Paul’s Church in Munster, Indiana, collects clothing, shoes, and toiletries for Good Shepherd to distribute. Once a month, St. Paul’s also cooks dinner for 50, and a volunteer delivers it to East Chicago.

Visitors find the setting can be transformational for them, too. St. Paul’s member Jeff Norris works as a gas-pump inspector for the Illinois Department of Agriculture, but his life increasingly centers on worshiping and serving meals Friday through Sunday at Good Shepherd. After about six months of being mentored in this ministry by Phelps, he felt called to commit his life to serving with the poor.

“This has absolutely changed my life,” Norris said. “It’s made me a lot more patient. … It’s made me want to join a Franciscan community.”

Phelps’s model is not exactly what denominations encourage for 21st-century ministerial boundaries. He answers the door whenever someone knocks, even late at night, sometimes telling people to return the next day.

“Yes, I live in the middle of all this,” he said. “I’m always here, never going anywhere.”

Yet blurred lines between ministry and personal life have not made him any less honored among his colleagues. Priests of the diocese hold him in high esteem, Adamson said. They admire his holiness. They love being associated with his work.

“He’s just kind of all-in, all the time,” Adamson said, “and that’s really engaging and compelling. He’s very hospitable and really embodies that Benedictine notion of welcoming the guest, and all people who show up, as Christ. It’s contagious.”

Phelps has no plans to slow down. His calling has not changed, he said, and neither has the church’s mission.

“This little church has suffered in poverty for 100 years, never having had enough,” he said with a chuckle. “But once we began to give away, it turns out we have enough. We can pay our bills, and we can afford to be generous. It’s the hand of God.”

TLC Correspondent G. Jeffrey MacDonald is an independent journalist and author of Thieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul.


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Good Shepherd East Chicago


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