City Gates Ministries in Olympia, Washington is like none other that we have visited. At 7:00 each Thursday night, two large vans, one smaller one, and various other vehicles pull onto a parking lot in the middle of the city, just across the street from a major transit center. Out come tables, canopies, and a sound system. The Rev. Phil Prietto takes the microphone and for the next hour preaches and invites the testimony of the group.
The ministry has been growing since 1995. Their mission — “to show the love of Jesus Christ by helping people in need”. Their uniqueness is their size and that phrase “unifying the Church”. Approximately 14 congregations, mostly non-denominational and evangelical, come together, not because they sign up to do specific tasks, but because they are acting as the Church in the world. They are acting not as separate congregations, but as one Church with the sole purpose of walking with others on whatever journey they happen to be on.
The size of the ministry is impressive. The trucks and vans are packed full of blankets, clothing, baby supplies, and hygiene items. A simple meal of sandwiches and coffee or hot chocolate is served to about 150 people. A photographer takes pictures that are ready the following week for people to take with them. A woman explained, “Every time you look at the picture, you see Christ looking back at you.” There is a children’s area with activities and toys or books for children to take with them. And there is a massage table to relieve the stress of life on the streets.
And there is PRAYER. At every opportunity, prayer is offered — as people wait in line for various items and as people tell their stories to “ministry leaders”. It is clear in written guidelines that prayer is offered, not required, but I didn’t see anyone refuse the offer. The prayers are typically offered by small groups of people surrounding and laying hands on the one being prayed for. As uptight Episcopalians it was a bit unnerving for John and me to be drawn into so much spontaneous prayer, but it became clear that our discomfort was our problem, not theirs. The prayers are not isolated from the further offer of other help — a place to sleep, drug/alcohol treatment options, assistance with social service agencies. And love and support were not contingent on the person’s response to offers of help — spiritual or otherwise. Pastor Phil was clear that relationships come first and foremost.
As the evening was wrapping up at about 10:00 pm, a young man came up to greet us. He had his two month old daughter with him. He shared his story of coming to City Gates for five years arguing that God didn’t even exist. But he kept coming and is now a believer. He has a home and a job and a family. He has a community of people, a Church, that he can rely on for continued support and encouragement. And now he feels that it’s his turn to give back as he reaches out to others who share his struggles.
Prayer. We (I) need to get over our (my) reluctance to pray freely and openly with others and to believe, really believe, in the transformative power of prayer. The words we use don’t really matter. What matters is that we trust God enough to imagine our lives and the lives of others as whole and holy, renewed and recreated by God.