Hampshire Hope: Replacing shame with love

  • “In helping others to heal, I found that I was being healed. In serving others, I found that I was being served,” writes the author, who began attending the outdoor services in 2013. Derek Fowles Photography

  • If you’ve ever passed by the corner of Main and Center streets in Northampton on a Sunday evening, you likely witnessed Cathedral in the Night, an outdoor worship service followed by a free meal. Derek Fowles Photography

  •  “This is our offering where we don’t offer money but something greater – a part of ourselves we want to give back,” says Pastor Steph. Submitted photo

Published: 6/24/2019 12:34:18 PM

My first time at Cathedral in the Night was in April of 2013. I tried very hard to not be noticed. I was filled with shame.

I had a bachelor’s degree and here I was at a free meal. After that, despite my best efforts to not be seen, every week someone from the center of the crowd made their way to the edge to welcome me. Over time, I moved closer and closer to the center of the crowd. I let the community embrace me. 

If you’ve ever passed by the corner of Main and Center streets in Northampton on a Sunday evening, you likely witnessed Cathedral in the Night. This outdoor ministry takes place on the front lawn and front steps of First Churches on Sundays at 5 p.m.

Regardless of the weather, Cathedral in the Night offers an ecumenical Christian worship service, followed by a free meal. Attending the service is not a requirement to have a meal; some people choose to do one or the other. Some show up for both.

Cathedral was started in January of 2011 by Lutheran, Episcopal and United Church of Christ (UCC) ministers and is supported with funds from the three churches, individual donations and grants. The Rev. Steph Smith (referred to as simply Pastor Steph) a Lutheran minister, the Rev. Christopher Carlisle, former longtime Episcopal chaplain at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and United Church of Christ Minister Eric Fistler joined together to found what they referred to as a street ministry.

“We started Cathedral in the Night because we knew so many people were unable to connect to a faith community,” said Pastor Steph. “We wanted to create a safe place for people to feel welcomed just as they were — a place to find community, acceptance and know God’s love and forgiveness. We also wanted to break down barriers to being together, a diverse group where relationships were built.”

Cathedral in the Night is now run by Pastor Steph and Minister Dawn Orluske as well as countless volunteers and peer chaplains. Every week we see many returning members but lots of new people too. Often, people who happen to be walking by stop to watch, their curiosity piqued. Some of these visitors then wind up returning in later weeks.

People struggling with addiction of all kinds often find themselves isolated and alone. A sense of community and stronger connections can save lives.

“We know it’s relationships that change and enhance our lives,” said Pastor Steph.

My own struggle with addiction did indeed lead me to isolation. In 2005, living in Orange, I attempted to take my life. I had become homeless, and I was terrified. I finally managed to accept that I was addicted to alcohol and opioids. Once I accepted that I had a problem, I was able to start working on a solution. It wasn’t easy and I couldn’t do it alone. 

I went from living in a homeless shelter in Leeds to a recovery house in Northampton to eventually getting my own place by 2007. Recovery was not an overnight process.

In April 2013 while looking for free meals, I learned about a meal served outside, which led me to  Cathedral in the Night. I went only for the food, unaware that my life would be transformed. 

It wasn't long before I started volunteering. I helped set up and served meals. I also prayed and sang. I became the person who went out to the edge to welcome people. I became so in love with what Cathedral in the Night was doing that I started coming early, just to hang out. And that’s when something truly special happened, in the simplest way. 

I would just sit on the stone wall in front of First Churches. People would come and sit with me. They’d tell me how they were doing. And I’d listen. This continued week after week. By this point, I had a bit of recovery time. Sometimes, I’d be asked how I did it, and I’d share my experiences. 

What I came to realize was that when I sat with someone, hearing them, I was letting them know that they matter. I was letting them know they are loved.

I came to believe that everyone mattered and that everyone was loved. I came to realize that even I mattered and that I was loved. In helping others to heal, I found that I was being healed. In serving others, I found that I was being served. 

Not long after that, Pastor Steph created the peer chaplaincy training. One of the most important ways Cathedral in the Night works with those struggling with addiction is through the peer chaplaincy team.

Peer chaplains have themselves overcome struggles related to homelessness, addiction, mental health. They are available Sundays from 4 to 7 p.m. and at various times throughout the week to offer pastoral care and walk with those still struggling. Peer chaplains strengthen their own recovery by reaching out to others.

Currently, three peer chaplains serve as volunteers within the community. Upon completing the three-month training, for the first time, I began to shed the self-doubt and recognize that I have something to offer.

I went on to the School of Lay Ministry, a two-year program run by the New England Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. This school focuses on theology and biblical studies. I hope to be able to now support others to experience inner change where fear and anger are replaced by love and compassion. 

Serving at Cathedral in the Night can be heartbreaking. I go to too many memorial services each year for community members lost, most often to opioid overdose. But for every member lost and mourned, I see someone find housing, sobriety and meaning in life.

Cathedral in the Night is a reminder that everyone matters. Everyone is loved. Cathedral supports people in triumphs and tragedies. It is a very simple thing, and yet, so powerful. It changes lives. It changed my life. 

To learn more about Cathedral in the Night, visit cathedralinthenight.org/getinvolved

Robyn Wronski lives in Northampton and volunteers for Cathedral in the Night, which is part of the Hampshire HOPE opioid prevention coalition run out of the city of Northampton’s Health Department. Hampshire HOPE members contribute to this monthly column about local efforts addressing the opioid epidemic.




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