When African drums began to sound this weekend on the New Haven Green, some primal instinct drew together a crowd of hitherto disconnected individuals. And within 10 minutes, over 50 people could not help but join the singing congregation.
On Sunday afternoon, in spite of the near-freezing temperature, people — both homeless and housed — gathered on the New Haven Green outside Trinity Episcopal Church for Connecticut’s first-ever outdoor church service. Unlike city-funded homeless shelters that rely on ever-dwindling funding, Chapel on the Green is sponsored by local churches with support from other organizations, such as the Columbus House homeless shelter and the University Church, which will share responsibilities to ensure the program has resources each week.
Alex Dyer, rector at Trinity Church and one of Chapel on the Green’s organizers, said that the idea for the service was inspired by the ministry of Common Cathedral in Boston, where the Rev. Deborah Little began ministering to the homeless on an individual basis in the early ’90s. By 1996, the program grew into Ecclesia Ministries, which now holds weekly services on Boston’s green.
Since then, similar programs have been launched in over 60 other cities around the world, including New York, Rio de Janeiro and Liverpool. But New Haven’s Chapel on the Green program is the first of its kind in Connecticut.
“You’re making history by being here with us today,” Dyer told his outdoors-congregation on Sunday.
Cutbacks in New Haven’s budget for homeless programs have little impact on Chapel on the Green, which is not run or associated with the city. Instead, the individual churches and outside groups provide lunches and social services.
Associate University Chaplain Callista Isabelle said in an interview that the University Church will be providing food for next Sunday’s service. She also said the church’s student deacons were enthusiastic about helping Chapel on the Green.
Alison Cunningham, director of Columbus House homeless shelter, said her organization plans on sending at least one social worker to the services every week.
Dyer said that although Trinity Church is the main organizer of the service, he hopes to bring in more outside groups as well.
But Dyer emphasized that the group does not want to duplicate services already provided by other organizations in New Haven.
“We’re not out to solve homelessness,” Dyer said. “That’s a bit ambitious.”
The Rev. Carol Archer, one of Chapel’s co-organizers, emphasized that in her mind the goal of the program is to provide a place of worship for those who may not feel comfortable in a traditional church building, be that from mental illnesses, anxiety issues or a mere dislike of tradition.
“This [service] is extreme thinking outside of this box,” Archer said, gesticulating toward the surrounding church walls.
Dyer said he wants the service to bring together groups that normally would not interact, namely the city’s homeless and housed communities. Both he and Archer said they felt that goal was met at yesterday’s service, during which all participants sung impromptu hymns while shaking homemade rattles.
Chapel on the Green services, which run between 30 and 45 minutes every Sunday at 2 p.m., are expected to continue throughout the year, regardless of weather or temperature.