“Can you give me a blessing?” “Would you pray for my brother in Argentina? He is dying and I’m out running for him today.” “I am a Muslim and I think it is so wonderful that you are out here with us this morning.” “Thank you for doing this! Other than the finish line, this is my favourite part of the run.” These are just some of the words directed to me from some of the 4,200 participants in the Burlington, Ontario Chilly Half Marathon as I joined Pastor Colin Cameron and members of Holy Cross Burlington to cheer on the runners and distribute orange and banana slices to them as they passed us.
Holy Cross has been a part of this event for ten years now. Their pastor offers a prayer and a blessing to the runners at the start of the course at city hall and then we dash back to church for Holy Communion. Once the benediction is over we dash out, fully vested, to join the other Holy Cross folks who have been distributing fruit while we prayed. We don’t head back in until the last runner has passed our station, right in front of the church on Lakeshore Road.
What could have been perceived to be an irritant has become a point of blessing. You see, Lakeshore Road gets shut down the morning of the Chilly Half Marathon. People couldn’t get to church. But rather than harrumphing and fuming, and in spite of the mayor’s offer to have the race begin at 5:00am rather than 10, the folks at Holy Cross saw an opportunity. They have to come to church a little bit earlier and stay a bit later; but in between they go out and share gifts of blessing with the thousand who quite literally pass right by their door. It’s public church. It’s wonderful. And our neighbours take delight in it!
Some years ago, I had a similar experience while helping to promote a Back to Church Sunday initiative where the Anglican bishops in the Diocese of Toronto – and I – were posted at public transit stations to invite folks to church and offer blessings. Fred Hiltz, the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, and I, along with local clerics from our churches, were at the Brampton Go Station during the morning rush hour. I will admit to feeling anxious as we vested in the parking lot.
That anxiety evaporated quickly once we assumed our positions and started to actually encounter these busy commuters. Their kind and generous responses to our simple words of greeting and blessing were, frankly, a surprise to me. I feared hostility. What I received was gratitude. “Thanks for doing this.” “I sure needed that!” “What a great way to start the day!”
I have learned most people are much more receptive to a publicly engaged church than many of us would assume. But you can only learn that, of course, by actually going public – by takin’ it to the streets. Identify something good in your community; bless it and stick with it! Holy Cross has found a way to do that in their context. How might you do so in yours?