The Meaning of Congregation [Re]defined

Published: July 23, 2014

Part of our continued Summer Blog Series, you will read experiences from students who are participating in summer internships. This week you’ll hear from a student who is interning at Greensboro Urban Ministry. Throughout its forty-five year history, Greensboro Urban Ministry has worked with the community to meet the needs of our most vulnerable and oft-forgotten citizens.  Today, Urban Ministry continues its mission to express the love of God to people in need through practical action in the Greater Greensboro area by offering emergency financial assistance, food assistance, emergency and transitional shelter, and rapid re-housing.

I began my time at divinity school with an eye on continuing my spiritual formation while also intentionally preparing for chaplaincy—and, very decidedly, not for congregational ministry. Chaplaincy just seemed to be what I needed and was called to do. From the reconciliation work I do with trans* individuals and groups, to other small group ministries I engage, to the broader work with LGBT (particularly, trans-identified) individuals, chaplaincy had seemed—without question—the thing most suited to me and I to it. Additionally, it seemed the best merging of ministry and all the training, education, and practice as a professional counselor that occupied over 20 years of my life. So, I came to divinity school clear that my old profession and the one I am preparing for are quite different. And, I focused the past two years on the goals of becoming educated regarding the tools, ways and means of the craft, deepening my formation and discernment, and learning the specific ways that my old trade and the new are different.

And, somewhere along the way, things became a little less certain. It seems that formational work and deepening discernment have a way of blurring some edges before the image sharpens. At least it has been that way for me. I entered my summer chaplaincy internship at Greensboro Urban Ministry after completing 10 weeks of CPE and almost a year of congregational internship (just to be sure). In my work at GUM, I worked in the soup kitchen, carrying trays full of lunch plates out to tables where the guests are seated—waiting, hungry and generally grateful. Daily, I worshiped, prayed, and sang (poorly) with those who joined us. Some were regulars; some were not. Each Thursday night, I attended the men’s support group with the residents of the shelter. Some were regulars; some were not.

Through these encounters, I met and interacted with individuals struggling with issues familiar to me: addiction, conditions we tend to refer to as mental illness, and combinations of these. There was, however, a marvelous difference. Free from the responsibilities of diagnoses and treatment plans, I was able to simply be with people, their stories, and their spiritual concerns—and to do so during some of the most difficult circumstances they have faced. And somewhere in the process, I began to question and rethink how I define congregation.

You see, in the shelter, in the soup kitchen, and in small worship one encounters a congregation. It is a congregation in a broader sense of the word—a kind of congregation of the world. It is a place where the people of God gather around the most basic and essential aspects of life: food, shelter, safety, purpose and meaning in life, and some sense of the Holy. In this context, I am becoming more and more curious about the ways that chaplaincy and congregational ministry intersect. I go into my final year carrying questions about these intersections and the possible implications for a me as a person so drawn to the people on the fringes, the outcast and discounted, the least of the least of these.

Li Hooper
Third Year

Li is a rising third-year student pursuing ordination through the United Church of Christ. Li is actively engaged in LGBTQ ministries, trans* ministries, and all manner of social justice bell-ringing and rabble rousing. Li is also the founder of GRASP (Gender Re-visioning and Sexuality Pathways), a poor and needy non-profit serving the trans* community through advocacy, support, workshops/seminars, and public education.

Photos provided by Greensboro Urban Ministry.