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The cross gets in the way

Crossby Violet Cucciniello Little

Like Moses leading the Israelites out of the desert and into the promised land, Drew led me to the spot in the park that would become our sacred place of worship for the next several years. "Here it is," he said, pointing to a circular formation of concrete benches. "And that's where I stay," he continued, singling out one bench.

The following Sunday, The Welcome Church—a church without walls whose congregation is primarily made up of people living on the streets of Philadelphia—held its first worship service on that same spot. A card table found in a church basement served as our communion altar.

Drew, was our lector at that first service, decided not to read the lectionary texts as I had suggested, but rather chose to read ones he had practiced reading because he liked them better. Drew always carried an extra Bible in his backpack in case anyone forgot to bring theirs. More often than not, that person turned out to be me. That's why I became concerned one Sunday when the bench on which Drew slept showed no signs of his presence. Later I would find Drew's worn blue blanket stuffed into a nearby trash can.

At the park

In spite of my attempts to find Drew, it was not until a month after his disappearance that he returned to the parkway, this time appearing in the middle of worship, after the reading of the Gospel. I acknowledged his presence and after a brief reflection on the text I opened up the sermon to the community for comment. Drew charged into the middle of the worship circle, excited to speak.

"I have a testimony," he said. Not knowing what to expect, I encouraged him to go on. Drew began unbuttoning his shirt, and I began to sweat a little. Before I could say anything, Drew revealed a large scar on the left side of his chest. Around his neck hung the bronze cross distributed and worn by many in the Welcome Church community.

"Four weeks ago, I was stabbed," he said, pointing to the scar with one hand and holding the cross with the other. "It was this cross that saved my life.

"The doctor said the knife had missed going through my heart by a fraction of an inch, but..." Drew paused, smiling: "The cross got in the way!"

Drew’s words and testimony on the street nearly seven years ago seemed to describe my own experience of God showing up in ways I could never imagine, let alone expect.  The cross got in the way, redirecting me to places that were definitely not planned stops on the itinerary of my life's journey.

By the bus stop

Growing up female in a strong Italian Catholic family, the call to ordained ministry in the Lutheran Church was one call the good sisters of St. Patrick's School who taught me in the late 50’s and early 60’s would definitely have blocked, but the cross got in the way. One day, while waiting for a trolley with my kids, while exploring the neighborhood where we’d just bought a house, I saw I was standing in front of a seminary.  After asking another person who was waiting for the bus if he knew anything about that seminary, he walked me to the registrar’s door, saying he worked at the seminary. I registered on the spot for a class as a non-matriculating student. The man who had walked me and my boys into that office was never seen again nor recognized by anyone. Most believe he was a patient coming from the mental health center next to the seminary. Since at the time I registered it had been at least a decade since I’d set foot inside a church, I believe it was God who showed up at that bus stop.

I remember telling my husband later evening that I had finally signed up for a graduate class. “Social work?" he asked. (I’d been working in the field of social services and mental health up until that point.)

"No," I replied.

Before I could go any further, he guessed, "Law school—I knew it,” excited by the thought that one of us might finally be making some money.

"No," I said again.

He looked confused.

"I signed up for a seminary class," I said, stunned by my own words.

Willie was quiet.

"Say something," I said, wondering if he had actually heard me.

Finally, he looked at me. "But you don't even go to church! What happened?"

I didn't have the words to express it then, but now I know: The cross got in the way.

Eight years after taking that first class as a non-matriculating student at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, I graduated with a Masters of Divinity. In 1992, I was called and ordained to a congregation only blocks from my home and the bus stop where I stumbled on that life-changing cross. But the cross did not stop getting in the way of my life.

The Rev. Violet Cucciniello Little, child of God, serves as pastor and mission developer of The Welcome Church in Philadelphia. She is also a psychotherapist and trainer for Women of the ELCA’s racial justice ministries.

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