Sharing the Blessings on Manhattan’s Streets

Adrian Dannhauser and her book

By Retta Blaney

Rush-hour traffic streams north on Madison Avenue, and people hurry along the sidewalk on their way to work. Similar scenes are unfolding all over midtown Manhattan, but at 35th Street, with buses stopping noisily just feet away, a priest in white alb and green stole stands quietly waiting in front of the church on the corner.

Few people notice, and even fewer stop. But those who pause and venture over have an encounter unlike that of any other morning commuter. They meet the Rev. Adrian Dannhauser, and to meet her is to feel God’s presence.

“The tradition of my childhood was so much focused on testimony, witness, and evangelism,” says this former Southern Baptist. “That evangelical view is part of what I am. It’s why I’m out there. My evangelism is not proselytizing. It’s just sharing God’s love.”

Dannhauser, 44, who was recently designated as the Church of the Incarnation’s priest in charge, has been out there on the sidewalk every Tuesday morning from 9 to 9:30 for more than five years. With the 158-year-old neo-Gothic Episcopal church behind her and an A-frame sign with the chalked message “Ask Me for a Blessing. God knows you need one” beside her, she is a pastoral presence for people she may never see again, as well as for those who return weekly.

“It always feels like a little trinity when someone stops to speak with me: the person, me, and the Holy Spirit swirling around us.”

The stories of these spiritual encounters can now be widely appreciated through the publication of Dannhauser’s book Ask Me for a Blessing (You Know You Need One), with a title slightly modified from her sign at the suggestion of her editor at Broadleaf Books. In a foreword, Presiding Bishop Michael B. Curry compares Dannhauser to Jesus, who started his ministry in a house of worship before taking it to the streets: “The stories she relates are sometimes humorous and often poignant, and throughout all of them is the thread of human need, heartfelt connection, and divine love.”

Sidewalk ministry brings with it the unexpected, like the time Dannhauser had an unusual request for a blessing. A man looked at her and asked, “Why does everyone want to have sex with me?” This would leave many priests floundering for a way to respond, but Dannhauser discerned the hurt behind the question and recognized the need for healing.

“Tell me more about that,” she said, which led to a discussion of his feelings of being objectified. “We had a pretty fruitful conversation about dignity and worth. My pastoral skills definitely kicked in.”

Those skills kicked in a half-dozen times on the last Tuesday in July. At first most people either didn’t notice her or glanced at the sign and kept going. After about five minutes, a man in his 40s who said he had seen her there before made that the day to briefly discuss family matters. Not wanting the encounter to be too much too soon, Dannhauser blessed him with an air cross rather than on his forehead.

“You just kind of have to feel it out,” she said after he left. “It was more of a conversational prayer.”

Lenore Ritter, a member of the vestry, arrived next for her weekly blessing, followed by Nelson Rosa, who works in insurance across the street and stops whenever he sees Dannhauser there.

“You get peace of mind,” he said. “Anything you can do in this crazy world. It’s like Mom telling you it will be OK, but she’s not here.”

Another man was on a call but asked Dannhauser when she would be there again and said he’d be back.

In contrast, the next encounter was a long one. A Jewish man in his 70s asked, “Is this a special holiday?” before questioning her about Christianity and sharing his concern that the number of Jews was diminishing. Her blessing for him was a prayer that more people would find God through Judaism. He expressed surprise that she didn’t try to convert him.

“He was a talker,” she said later. “That happens. I don’t usually take that long, but when I get to talk about Christianity I will.”

Her final petitioner was a woman who hesitated before putting on her mask and waiting for the Jewish man to leave. She said she needed “God all over in everything.” Dannhauser prayed that the power of Jesus would be in her life, that whatever she touched would flourish, and that God would make her a blessing.

In between these up-close encounters, a bus driver slowed and waved and Dannhauser made the sign of the cross for him.

The evangelical side of Dannhauser that inspires her sidewalk ministry is part of the reason the Rev. J. Douglas Ousley hired her as his associate rector in 2015.

“We both had an evangelical background,” said Ousley, who retired in December 2019 after 34 years as Incarnation’s rector. “I felt that gave her an enthusiasm for the gospel, yet she had a modern perspective on social justice. She just had a personality that bubbled over with joy and enthusiasm.”

Ousley admits he was skeptical about the blessings but gave his approval because they could be a way to combine “both religion and direct action, and we could pray for people.”

Although he says this ministry should have “a strong, outgoing person,” the introverted rector filled in a few times. His favorite memory is from one morning when he was with a person while another waited.

“When New Yorkers see a line, they think there’s something important.” The line began to grow. When people reached Ousley and found out he was offering a blessing, some left but others stayed. “People told me amazing personal things and asked for prayers.”

The evangelical background that Ousley appreciated in Dannhauser almost kept her from becoming a priest. The diocese’s Commission on Ministry turned down her candidacy for ordination because she was considered too evangelical. Bishop Mark S. Sisk overrode the commission, and she was ordained in 2013. She now sits on the commission that rejected her.

Being a priest in charge of a Manhattan Episcopal church was never on Dannhauser’s radar growing up in Newton, Mississippi, which had only one Episcopal church. Her mother told her, “Those are the smart people.”

She “bounced around” the Methodist and Presbyterian traditions in her 20s while at Duke University and Vanderbilt University Law School. When she moved to New York in 2003, with the intention of practicing bankruptcy and financial restructuring law for two years before settling in North Carolina with a small firm, she worshiped at a nondenominational church in Times Square, where she loved the praise band but “would suffer through the sermons.” Her boyfriend, a non-practicing Catholic, suggested she try Trinity Wall Street, which was near where she lived and worked.

“I had never even looked at it,” she said.

As it turns out, her first experience of an Episcopal liturgy wasn’t the usual Sunday service. It was the day in April 2004 that the Rev. Dr. James H. Cooper was being installed as Trinity’s 17th rector.

“It was Handel’s Messiah and all the bells and whistles.” As she sat reading the prayer book, “I had tears streaming down my face.” She was touched by the theology and “how social justice was woven into the fabric at Trinity Church.”

What ultimately tipped her into the Episcopal Church was the 2003 consecration of Gene Robinson, an openly gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire.

“I thought, ‘How amazing that you can be gay and that’s not a problem for God.’ That’s probably what drew me in the most.”

Confirmation, which she told her mother was “like a Pentecostal experience,” followed, leading ultimately to Berkley Divinity School at Yale, where she helped start the Episcopal Evangelism Network and began praying for people on the streets of Stamford, Connecticut, with a fellow seminarian. Her intention was to be a professor of religion and law, but “the call to ordination started to creep in” and she entered discernment.

Among the ways she meets her social-justice call now is as chair of the diocese’s Task Force Against Human Trafficking. This busy life also includes her husband, Jess, the commissioner of the city’s Administration for Children’s Services, and their 13-year-old daughter, Callaway.

All of this has been grist for the mill of Dannhauser’s book, which she calls “a mishmash of anecdotes, biography, and sermons.”

She offers several definitions of blessing, one of which is God reaching through us to touch another person.

“This is what my ministry is all about,” she writes, “and why I am blessed in it. It always feels like a little trinity when someone stops to speak with me: the person, me, and the Holy Spirit swirling around us.”

She also turns personal stories into theological reflection. An example is the story of an afternoon when she was walking her daughter home from preschool and Callaway said she would carry her backpack if her mother would carry her. “Funny how she thought if she carried her backpack, it would lighten my load.”

Dannhauser relates this to God’s love for us. “God is the one who carries us while we carry our backpacks. God doesn’t wear the backpack for us, removing hardship or erasing workload. But God helps us carry those things because God carries us. Christ’s yoke is easy, and his burden is light, as Matthew 11:30 reminds us, no matter how many children with backpacks are in his arms.”

Watch a WABC report on Dannhauser’s ministry:

Retta Blaney has won nine journalism awards and is the author of Working on the Inside: The Spiritual Life Through the Eyes of Actors, which features interviews with Kristin Chenoweth, Ann Dowd, Edward Herrmann, Liam Neeson, Phylicia Rashad, Vanessa Williams, and many more.


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