“Some of these projects may crash and burn and that’s OK. But it’s important that we get out into these communities to do some work. I guess you could say that this is at the heart of evangelization. We have an opportunity to do some amazing things.”
— Rev. Meredyth Wessman Ward
There are a lot of Episcopal churches in the Worcester area, including All Saints, St. Michael’s-on-the-Heights, St. Luke’s and St. Matthew’s, among others.
Some of the church buildings are majestic, with their distinctive old-style bell towers and steeples. Others are more low-key, snugly blending into the comfy landscape of suburban Central Massachusetts.
And then, there’s the “church” that’s run by the Rev. Meredyth Wessman Ward.
It has no nave, no kneelers, no spires, no altar.
In fact, an individual could pass by it without knowing that it is a house of God.
You see, Rev. Ward is an Episcopal “urban missioner” and her church sits smack in the middle of gritty Main South, just a stone’s throw from the YMCA’s Central Community Branch on Main Street.
It’s located near a lot where a homeless man, a few years back, was found frozen to death in a car he sought refuge in.
Rev. Ward’s ministry, Walking Together, is housed in a good-sized storefront where standard, utilitarian chairs — the kind that you can find in any assembly hall — serve as pews.
It is easy for curious passersby to glimpse in, as they frequently do, because the windows are clear glass. No stained glass panels of saints here.
There is a little plastic playset inside where kids can amuse themselves while their parents seek spiritual guidance and other advice. A kitchen, in the back, stands readily available to provide a quick snack or a quenching drink on a hot spring day.
Rev. Ward’s mission church is markedly different from other Episcopal congregations, yet, it’s also an anomaly in the financially struggling neighborhood where it is located. That’s because most of the other area ministries cater to evangelicals or born-again Christians.
Clad in her white ministerial collar, Rev. Ward, an energetic, grey-haired, upper-middle-aged clergywoman, also seems out of place. This neighborhood has few white faces and the locals are mostly Latinos, many of them immigrants who do not speak English.
“Yes, I think you can say we’re a little different,” Rev. Ward said with a smile.
Still, the Episcopal priest is becoming a familiar face in the area, making new friends during her frequent walks along Main Street to University Park. People, she said, are beginning to understand that she is here to help the marginalized, particularly families impacted by drug and alcohol abuse.
Rev. Ward and Walking Together are not the stereotypical impressions that people have of the Episcopal Church.
Rev. Ward, along with many others in the church, believes that some soap suds, bleach and maybe a slice of pizza can be as useful as a Bible and a prayer card in spiritually helping individuals.
More on this a bit later.
The church transforms
Generally, the national church, over the last few years, has made it a priority to reach out to the poor, the homeless, and those in some kind of need. Bishop Douglas Fisher, the prelate of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts, which includes the Worcester area, has embraced this focus. As one official said, there’s an effort “to plant the Episcopal Church in new ways.”
Walking Together is funded by the national church with a matching grant from the diocese.
Back in 2013, the church set aside $2 million at its General Convention for new initiatives, including Mission Enterprise Zones, one of which is now located in Main South.
In an interview with the Episcopal News Service, Anne Watkins, who served as chair of the Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Local Mission and the Missionary Committee, said the projects are “calling us to be transformed fundamentally because we do have to start looking at things and talking and speaking in ways and behaving in ways that are radically different from what we are accustomed to.”
The zones are located in areas or among congregations that target “under-represented groups,” such as youth, minorities, the poor, the working class, the uneducated, and people with little or no involvement with a church.
According to materials provided to Worcester Sun by Vicki Ix, a spokesman for the Western Diocese, the zones are run by individuals trained in anti-racism, ministry development, evangelism, and “cross-cultural community development.”
Church grants range up to $20,000 for a mission enterprise zone and up to $100,000 for a new church start. Local dioceses have to provide an equal amount of money to jumpstart a project.
At least 40 projects have been funded. They range from “Warriors for the Dream,” a community enrichment initiative in the Harlem section of New York City, to “the Abbey” in Birmingham, Alabama, whose motto is “sinners, saints, coffee.” In a handful of the projects, church organizers have partnered with other denominations.
Rev. Ward received a $100,000 grant for her project and the Western Diocese contributed a match, with the money coming from the sale assets of St. John’s Church, which was closed a few years ago.
“This work is a sort of resurrection for St. John’s and its former members,” said Rev. Ward. “It’s a legacy.”
On a mission
In Worcester, Rev. Ward’s storefront at 799 Main St. officially opened for business in April.
She had been working out of her car for about a year and a half.
Rev. Ward is from Wilbraham and has lived in Worcester for about 25 years. She came here after her husband, Matthew, was offered a job as a computer science professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.
Rev. Ward has been an ordained priest for about 15 years and has been involved mostly in parish ministry, including a stint in 2014 as interim rector at St. Michael’s-on-the-Heights. She said she’s had a long-time calling to aid the marginalized.
She said that she can relate to individuals coping with substance abuse in their families because she is a recovering alcoholic.
“I’ve been especially dreaming about helping families impacted by alcoholism and drugs,” said Rev. Ward. “I know what it’s like and all the deceptions that come about.”
She said she sat down with Bishop Fisher and explained to him what she hoped to accomplish.
“The bishop has a heart for this kind of thing,” she said, noting that her recent ministry is also helping her cope with the loss of her husband to cancer in 2014. “Basically, I wanted to be assigned to this neighborhood to see if I could help the people who live here.”
Rev. Ward said church leaders are taking a chance in committing such a substantial amount of money to the street missions.
“Some of these projects may crash and burn and that’s OK,” she said. “But it’s important that we get out into these communities to do some work. I guess you could say that this is at the heart of evangelization. We have an opportunity to do some amazing things.”
As she was starting out on her spiritual endeavor here, Rev. Ward thought of ways to make contact with the folks she was trying to help.
She knew these people were barely making it financially, day to day, and she looked for avenues where she could lend a hand with a few bucks.
A clean start
Using a model developed on the West Coast she decided one of the best ways was to help people clean their clothes. So, on the second Thursday of the month, she stops by Suds Up, a laundromat on Southbridge Street and hands out quarters to people who might run out of change in doing their laundry.
Pizza, snacks and drinks are also provided.
“What better way to help out?” Rev. Ward said. “It’s not cheap to do a family wash. Just think, it costs a couple quarters for a decent spin in the dryer.”
As individuals wash and fold their clothes, they swap stories and Rev. Ward, assisted by volunteers from area Episcopal churches, said she learns a little more about those she is trying to help. As many as 60 households have participated in the monthly program.
At the event last Thursday, so many people attended the large, well-lighted laundromat that there was a wait for available machines.
Information about “Laundry Love” is posted at food pantries, shelters, and other places where people seek assistance.
Rev. Ward has also set up meetings at 799 Main St. to help those coping with addiction. Child care is provided.
She’s also hoping to launch English classes for the various immigrant groups living in the area.
“We want to draw in people who have some desperate needs,” Rev. Ward said, noting that she’s brushing up on her Spanish and that there’s a lot of “Spangalese” conversation at the storefront.
Overall, Rev. Ward, who has also begun fundraising efforts, said Walking Together is based on the “messy church” concept where needy families get together to share a meal, seek advice and spiritual counsel, pray, and partake in crafts and other activities.
“This place should be a community,” she said, emphasizing that her efforts would not be possible without the help of her volunteers. “It’s a way of affirming the dignity of all people, including those who have so little.”
Part of the neighborhood
Rev. Ward admits that it’s “a bit” unusual to see a white clergywoman walking about Main South seeking to provide outreach to poor, non-English-speaking ethnic populations. She’s also aware that the neighborhood has more than its share of troubled individuals, including drug dealers and users, prostitutes, hustlers of all sorts, the mentally unstable, and gang members.
“But aren’t these the people that we’re supposed to help?” she asked.
Rev. Ward usually takes a companion along with her on her walks.
“I try to make some eye contact, and, if I get a response, then I talk about the programs that are available,” she said.
Rev. Ward said she is beginning to become a familiar figure in the area and has been welcomed by local crime watch groups and the beat police officers.
“People are getting used to us,” she said. “They might stop in for a coffee or to use the bathroom and that gives us an opportunity to let them know that we are here for them.”
Like her mother, Rev. Ward grew up as a Roman Catholic. Her father was a Congregationalist.
She said she began to feel the call to some sort of ministry while she was in high school.
Rev. Ward attended the College of the Holy Cross and was a member of only the second class to accept women.
After graduation, she studied at the Jesuit School of Theology in Chicago and worked as an administrator and in pastoral ministry for Catholic churches in rural Minnesota.
After living for a while in New Jersey, the Wards moved to Massachusetts.
She left the Catholic Church and considered becoming a Lutheran before joining the Episcopal community, where she became a priest.
Rev. Ward has two sons, Nathan, 27, and Andrew, 21.
“I’m where I want to be,” she said.