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Stephanie Smith on Raising Lay Leaders from the Margins

Those who experience homelessness, poverty, physical or mental illness, or addiction understand things that more privileged people may never know. Raising up peer chaplains from within this group can lead to renewal in both outdoor and building-based Christian communities.

Stephanie Smith is an ordained minister in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. She pastors Cathedral in the Night, a Christian community that worships outdoors in downtown Northampton, Massachusetts. In this edited conversation, Smith talks about a 2016 Vital Worship Grant from Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to train peer chaplains.

What is peer chaplaincy and why did you want to do it?

The term “peer chaplaincy” comes from Alexia Salvatierra, a Lutheran pastor and faith-rooted organizer. In the Philippines she met women in an urban squatters community who learned how to provide emotional and spiritual support for their neighbors. This inspired her to develop a peer chaplains program for people experiencing homelessness in Berkeley, California. This model has been replicated in several communities.

When two other pastors and I started Cathedral in the Night in January 2011, it took time to build trust with the people who came to share worship and a meal with us. Gradually, as is normal in many congregations, people began to bring their problems to us. However, as much as I care about deepening relationships, I am in a way an outsider in our community because I haven’t faced the challenges they have.

We wanted to live out the mutuality expressed by Jesus at the Last Supper and in John 21, so we began to invite lay members to lead parts of the service. We also wanted to offer them more support to minister to each other, but we didn’t have a clear path to or definition of leadership. People didn’t know whether they had the gifts to lead and shape worship.

How is peer chaplaincy different from lay leadership programs in more traditional churches?

People in most churches believe they have gifts and expect to discuss things in small groups. But the idea of having a close community was a new experience for our people. People in poverty and homelessness are often very isolated. It can take a long time to build trust and ease into being vulnerable—but it’s totally worth the wait.

Also, our people have been labeled by the world around them as worthless “takers.” At our first peer chaplaincy meetings, everyone was panicking, asking, “Why am I here? I have nothing to offer.” We’d remind them of how they were already blessing Cathedral. By the end of the training, they could articulate for themselves that they have specific gifts to share.

What format did you follow?

Our training didn’t require lots of reading, although literacy wasn’t a barrier. We agreed to meet ninety minutes a week, attend Sunday worship, and go on two two-day retreats. Alexia Salvatierra says it’s important to go away so that everyone can feel like “retreat people” together, not just “homeless people.” Most of our peer leaders had never been on a retreat and were excited to be invited.

Most church curriculum is geared around a middle-class model that requires people to sit and be lectured to. That academic style wouldn’t work for us. Rather than listen to a three-point lecture about listening, we make it more experiential. We actually listen to each other and then ask, “How did that go for you?”

Who joined the first round of peer chaplaincy training?

We started with eight people who’d already been demonstrating leadership by attending church regularly, helping with setup and cleanup, volunteering to lead part of the service, or taking care of and listening to one another. Several people didn’t make it through the first round of training, whether because they moved, had health issues, or needed to focus on something else.

We realized that asking for a commitment longer than two months was too much. Some of the curriculum is emotionally intense. We have to move more slowly through content because trauma comes up so often. There is so much brokenness in our community. Homelessness is traumatizing, and many of our people also have other life traumas. Oppression, abuse, and neglect push people to self-medicate, which can lead to addiction. Listening to them takes precedence, so we have to deal with shame and trauma before moving on to the next lesson.

Have you modified the program since then?

When we offered peer chaplaincy training the second time, we simplified it and made it a shorter commitment. Alexia Salvatierra created peer chaplaincy training primarily for people experiencing homelessness, so they had time to check in daily and do three-hour training sessions each week. Our leaders are more diverse and don’t have as much freedom in their schedules. So we learned to do most of the training during our retreats. We use the weekly meetings for people to check in on how they’re doing with the training, as well as get support and feedback in the work they’re doing in the community.

We’re thinking of adapting the training into smaller, half-day retreats that anyone in the community can attend instead of the set groups we did before. We could not have imagined the fruit that would come of training, supporting, and healing a few members for the good of the whole community.

What have been highlights of raising up peer chaplains?

I remember one peer chaplain telling another, “When you feel frustrated, you isolate. And when you don’t come, I feel hurt.” The other said, “Really? I didn’t think anyone cared.” And the first one insisted, “No, you really matter.”

Inviting more people and voices builds more and deeper relationships. Through peer chaplaincy training, people learn how to listen to one another. They resonate with each other’s experiences in a deeper way than I can. Some have found more stable housing or were able to heal from some trauma. Two people now preach every other month. Two leaders from the first round of training helped us improve and support our second round of training.

The most amazing result is the growing sense of hope and mutual support. People are now hearing leaders who look like them, have been in similar places, and are being raised up as leaders and drawing others to join them. Our peer chaplains helped us find a better way to welcome all into leadership. Asking for commitments ahead of time can be difficult for our people. So we say that whoever shows up that week is a leader. The peer chaplains lead a meeting right before the weekly service. We go over any concerns and assign the various roles we have defined for worship.

What else have you learned about developing lay leadership among people experiencing poverty and homelessness?

In trying to define lay leadership, we try not to use labels, titles, or T-shirts. The key for us is that each person who grows into their own leadership invites others to embrace their strengths. Cathedral doesn’t have committees. We lead more by consensus. At our weekly Tuesday coffee hour, anyone from the community can come, but it’s usually five to ten people there. Anyone can share their highs and lows. We pray together. Then we open up conversation.

We meet at a bagel shop and get little grants to help pay for what people order. It would be cheaper to put on a coffee pot inside a church. Moneyed people have plenty of choices. At soup kitchens, you eat what’s offered. So it’s powerful to ask, “What would you like to drink today?”

Also, I love when churches do more in public. We pray in public. Sometimes people at the next table aren’t thrilled about it. Other times they chip in with suggestions or comments or join in the prayer. The more we can have a public witness and make Christianity part of our everyday lives, the better. It helps counter all the people who stand on boxes and speak in public about whom God hates, not whom God loves.


Watch a four-minute video about Cathedral in the Night. See Cathedral’s grant poster about training lay leaders. Read Faith-Rooted Organizing: Mobilizing the Church in Service to the World by Alexia Salvatierra and Peter Heitzel. Learn about the Vital Worship Grants Program.