Wednesday, July 16, 2014

"Come By Here": Rev. Judy Lee and the Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community

"This is the story of becoming one church with the homeless and poor in a small city on the West Coast of Florida. When asked "What is church?" one homeless man replied simply, "It is friends." A woman almost whispered, "Be a family for us and love us, that is church." Another answered thoughfully, "Church is the power of people together." A man replied using church as a verb and not a noun, "to bring the 'haves and have-nots' together and the blacks and the whites -- it's the way it's supposed to be."...Church and pastoral ministry starts with people in relation to one another not with abstract thoughts and theories/theologies..."

Thus begins Rev. Dr. Judith Lee's book, Come By Here: Church With the Poor (America Star Books, 2010), which has just been translated into Spanish as Ven AquĆ­: La Iglesia de Los Pobres (America Star Books, 2014).

Come By Here chronicles the Brooklyn-born former social worker's journey to the Roman Catholic priesthood and the ministry she now shares in Fort Myers, Florida, with her partner, Rev. Judy Beaumont, ARCWP. It tells the story of a church that began as a ministry to the homeless -- the "Church in the Park" -- and evolved into the Good Shepherd Inclusive Catholic Community, a house church in a poor, predominantly African American area of downtown Fort Myers.

The book also highlights Lee's concept of church, vastly different from the top-down paradigm promoted by the official Roman Catholic Church from which she has been excommunicated by virtue of her ARCWP ordination, an excommunication she does not accept saying that no one can cut her and her fellow Roman Catholic women priests off from Christ and the church. Says Lee: "We return to the teachings of Jesus and the structures of the early church. None of the worship or service described here takes place in an institutional church building. It takes place where the people are, in a city park, in the woods and streets, hospitals and eventually in a 'house church' where the other side of the house is a guest home for those moving out of homelessness...This is a story of a discipleship of equals finding out what that means together. The people served are the elders and prophets of this new church and the pastor/priest is the servant-leader, a guide and to that extent a shepherd..."

As we listen to Pope Francis describe how much he yearns for a "poor Church and for the poor", Rev. Lee's book throws down a challenge to the institutional Roman Catholic Church to do more than just that -- to become a church not just for but with the poor. Describing her ministry, she says "it is emerging church and church that has emerged from the ashes of dying institutional churches that fail to make church with the poor and outcast even while they may set aside alms for them, or serve food to them in a soupl kitchen." And, quoting Dorothy Day, she concludes that there is "plenty of charity but too little justice."

Finally, for those who want to follow the ongoing story of Rev. Lee and her Good Shepherd community beyond this book, Lee maintains her own blog, judyablfollowingSheWhoIs, where she shares her reflections on both her own ministry and that of the Roman Catholic women priests in Colombia whom she mentors for the Association of Roman Catholic Women Priests.

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