Friday, October 1, 2010

Tailgate Eucharist

The Rev. Canon Dan Webster, canon for evangelism and ministry development in the Diocese of Maryland, talks about his experience of setting up a Eucharist for football fans in the parking lot of the Baltimore Raven before a home game.
It had been sometime since I had visited a parking lot before a National Football League game. In my previous career, and even during seminary, I followed television camera crews into special parking lots and flashed press passes at the media gates. So I guess you could say I had never "tailgated" at a Charger game in my hometown of San Diego or, for that matter, anywhere else.

I saw something called a Ravenswalk at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, filled with bands, merchants, contests, games, food and fans. Lots of fans. It was the Baltimore Ravens' home opener and we at the Diocese of Maryland thought we should offer Holy Eucharist in the parking lot for Episcopalians who have to choose between church or football on the handful of Sundays the Ravens are in town.

One of our parishes had done this three seasons ago. The rector then, the Rev. Scott Slater, is now the canon to the ordinary. He encouraged us as we had plans in the works when he joined the staff this summer. It was actually our communications director, Sharon Tillman, who was the catalyst behind this. Not surprisingly she and her family are Ravens fans.

So we looked for an Episcopalian who has season parking passes in a lot near the stadium. We actually found Liz Diffenderfer from the Cathedral of the Incarnation. She has season tickets and knows folks in the Ravens front office. She tried to find us a location that would be semi-permanent so we could tell folks where we would be each Sunday where we might set up a portable tent and table to distribute tracts about the Episcopal Church.

That didn't work. We settled for whatever parking space Liz could find in Lot C just north of the main entrance to the stadium. We set up a portable table that Liz brought underneath her van's hatchback to protect against the rain. Sharon invited those around us to join if they wished. It reminded me of the parable of the kingdom in Matthew (22:2-10). "Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet." (22:9)

It was the 18th Sunday after Pentecost and the gospel reading (Luke 16:19-31) was about the rich man and Lazarus. The reading brought a chuckle when the rich man was described as "dressed in purple and fine linen." The Ravens' predominant color is purple. But it also was an opportunity to discuss being aware of the invisible people in our lives.

We weren't the only religious folks there that day. A local Chabad House of Lubavitcher Jews was celebrating Sukkot, the Feast of Booths. They had rented a pickup truck and built a sukkah in the truck bed. They asked people at random if they were Jewish and if so then invited them into the sukkah to pray.

Our prayers follow the form on pages 400-401 of The Book of Common Prayer. It is similar to a Eucharist you might experience at an Episcopal camp but without the music. There was plenty of music coming from the stage at the Ravenswalk. Some of that music seemed to be particularly meaningful to those faithful gathered in the rain to break bread and pray before kickoff.

We can now tell our congregations where we will be on Sunday mornings when the Ravens are at home so their parishioners may join us. We can also have brochures available for those curious about who we are and what we are doing. By our example we might attract some who have never been to church and don't know why it's important.

The medieval cathedral was the gathering place of the community. It was the focus of art, music, dance and debate. It was clear to me on that Sunday after Pentecost that many in our culture see the football stadium as a modern cathedral. We can let it be that way and leave it to its own liturgy or we can add our own. I prefer to "go into the main streets and invite everyone."
This makes me think: what with Sunday mornings becoming more and more the time when local sports, kids soccer, school sports take place, what if more of us set up "tailgate Eucharists" in the places where people gather? Thoughts?