The Outdoor Church is an ecumenical Christian church for homeless and street-involved men and women in Cambridge, MA. It takes the gifts of church out onto the street to those who, for whatever reason, cannot or will not come inside to receive them.
The Outdoor Church holds two outdoor worship services each Sunday. The first service is at 9:00 AM in front of the Porter Square T station. The second service is held at 1:00 PM on the Cambridge Common, near the tall Civil War monument and directly across from Christ Church Cambridge on Garden Street. Since 2012, the Outdoor Church has also held a service of Compline each Thursday at 6:30 PM at the CASPAR Emergency Services Center located at 240 Albany Street in Cambridge.
The Outdoor Church’s worship services are based on the Book of Common Prayer and incorporate other prayers that have particular meaning to its congregants. Services can range in length from 20 to 40 minutes.
The most notable difference between Outdoor Church services and most other worship services is that, in place of a sermon, the congregation is invited to share their own responses to the day’s scripture reading. All viewpoints are welcome and are thought to contribute to a fuller, richer understanding of the text. Likewise, congregants are welcome to participate in Outdoor Church services as they feel comfortable: to take communion or not, to say a prayer or not, to sit or stand or keep some distance from the altar.
After the benediction, there is a time of fellowship. Congregants are offered sandwiches, socks, and toiletries. At the Sunday morning service, congregants also enjoy hot coffee and donuts.
Street outreach is one of the hallmarks of the Outdoor Church’s ministry. Several times throughout the week the Outdoor Church's ministry team hits the streets of Cambridge to meet and engage with homeless folks, offering them spiritual and material support.
On Saturdays and Sundays, the team carries various combinations of sandwiches, juice boxes, snacks, socks, and toiletry kits to offer to people. Other days, Outdoor Church ministers simply offer conversation and a pastoral presence. Communion and prayer are always available to those who request it. Because its walking routes are the same each week, the Outdoor Church's ministers and parishioners know when and where to find each other.
The Outdoor Church's program of street outreach has a simple agenda: to meet homeless men and women exactly they are – physically, emotionally, and spiritually – and offer them spiritual and material support.
Each week, the Outdoor Church's ministry team visits local soup kitchens and the largest homeless shelter in Cambridge to offer guests conversation and pastoral care. As needed, Outdoor Church ministers visit parishioners when they find themselves in hospitals, prisons, or other institutions.
The Outdoor Church gives parishioners bright red wristbands with its contact information on it so that they, and the social workers, chaplains and nurses who care for them, can reach the church in the event of an emergency.
The circumstances surrounding the deaths of Outdoor Church parishioners are often quite tragic. To assuage their loss, the Outdoor Church offers memorial services for friends and families of the deceased. Sometimes these services are held at a local homeless shelter; other times they are held at Christ Church Cambridge.
The Outdoor Church is a field education site of the Harvard Divinity School. The education and training of seminarians has been an important part of the work of the Outdoor Church since its founding. To date, the church has trained 16 ministerial interns who have gone on to diverse professional practices, including parish ministry, chaplaincy, nonprofit administration, journalism, teaching, and medicine.
In the fall of 2014, Outdoor Church founder Rev. Jedediah Mannis began teaching a course on street ministry at the Boston University School of Theology. Titled "Toward a Theology of the Street", this course combines traditional theological study in the classroom with practical experience as participants in and observers of the Outdoor Church's ministry.
The Outdoor Church is supported by a number of churches, organizations, and foundations throughout New England. In addition to regular financial and in-kind donations, these churches also provide essential volunteer support to the Outdoor Church's ministry.
On a rotating basis, several Greater Boston Area churches make and contribute the 150 sandwiches or so that the Outdoor Church distributes each Sunday afternoon. Several Cambridge churches also make and distribute sandwiches on Saturday evenings.
The Outdoor Church is modeled on Ecclesia Ministries’ Common Cathedral, an outdoor church for homeless men and women in Boston that has held outdoor worship services since 1998. Outdoor Church founder Jedediah Mannis was a lawyer in downtown Boston when he began offering pro bono legal services to homeless congregants at Common Cathedral. In 2003, he enrolled at Harvard Divinity School. Within a year, he and the Rev. Pat Zifcak started the Outdoor Church in Cambridge, supported initially by the Harvard Square Clergy Association.
A more detailed history of the Outdoor Church, Joseph Tuckerman and the Outdoor Church by Jedediah Mannis, examines the relationship between the Outdoor Church and the Rev. Joseph Tuckerman, a Unitarian minister who created and led a street ministry in Boston, Massachusetts, between 1826 and 1839 at the behest of his friend and college roommate, William Ellery Channing. Because of Tuckerman's innovative approach to engaging and helping the poor people he met near the Boston wharves, he is considered the father of American social work as well as a prescient, dedicated, and socially active minister whose work led directly to the Social Gospel Movement. The book examines and interprets Tuckerman's theology and ministry of outreach in light of the ministries of the Outdoor Church. Joseph Tuckerman and the Outdoor Church is a unique look at a radically innovative nineteenth-century minister through the prism of the actual application of his thinking and his example to an ongoing ministry to the chronically homeless men and women of Cambridge.
The Outdoor Church has three ordained ministers on its ministry team: the Rev. Jedediah Mannis, a minister in the United Church of Christ, the Rev. Pat Zifcak, Archdeacon for Formation and Pastoral Care in the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, and the Rev. Thomas Hathaway, also a minister in the United Church of Christ.