[Episcopal News Service] On the first Sunday of Advent, backpacks were piled at the foot of the altar and stacked on a table in the front of the nave of the Cathedral Church of Holy Trinity, better known as the American Cathedral in Paris.
During the second half of the Dec. 3 service, right before Holy Communion, the Very Rev. James R. Harlan blessed the backpacks along with knitted hats, scarves and gloves, also meant for distribution to people in need.
“Lord Jesus, you teach us, remind us and encourage us to know that whenever we care for one of the least of your children, we are caring for you. So, we thank you for all the gifts that have come together, the gifts of time, the gifts of money and resources and the generous hearts that have come together to assemble these backpacks, to knit these scarves and hats and mittens to keep people warm in this cold weather,” Harlan said in his blessing during the service. “We ask you to bless all the people who contributed to this effort. We ask you to bless backpacks, these daily reminders, that they would be signs and reminders of love and compassion and that they would inspire us.”
The blessing, Harlan told Episcopal News Service after worship, “[enables us] to entrust the whole ministry to God’s love and care.” The backpacks and their contents and the knitted goods “[are] going to meet material needs, and in doing so it’s building beloved community around us. The prayer, the blessing enables all of us to ground this in that call to become beloved community in all that we do and say.”
Outreach coordinators and volunteers distributed empty backpacks to worshippers with instructions for filling them following services on Nov. 19 and 26 and held a community drive during coffee hour to collect supplies. With the blessing, the backpacks were ready for distribution.
For over 20 years, the cathedral’s mission and outreach program has provided toys, makeup, personal items and other practical gifts to children and young mothers in need during Advent. Formerly known as “Love in a Box,” this year it’s changed to “Love in a Backpack.”
“The backpack itself is a gift,” said Kim Powell, the cathedral’s chair of mission and outreach and a vestry member. “The children who are going to receive these gifts are really what you would classify as poor. This is really all they’re gonna get.”
Rather than partner with larger charities like the Salvation Army, this year the cathedral chose to work with six organizations serving women and children fleeing domestic violence, young single mothers and their babies and refugee families in Paris; and in northern France, refugee families “living rough,” or rather unhoused and in the woods.
“Even if there was only an apple in the bag, you’re changing someone’s life … because they understand that someone cared. Someone took a moment, and for that moment they can find peace and feel like they’re loved,” Powell said. “As a community, we’re called to do this work, to be the hands and feet of Christ and take care of the community and see people as ourselves.”
Love in a Backpack is just one of the cathedral’s outreach ministries. Each week, volunteers make sandwiches to give to food-insecure people, distributed from the steps of the cathedral on Avenue George V.
“This is a community that takes seriously our call to welcome everyone, and when one does that… one starts seeing needs and compassion is stirred up,” Harlan said.
It’s necessary, he said, even in France where the state has a strong safety net.
“When the assumption is so pervasive that the state does it all, it’s easy to miss the people who fall through the cracks. We’re trying very hard to pay attention, to lift up those people,” he said.
The Cathedral Church of the Holy Trinity was consecrated in March 1923 and became the seat of the bishop-in-charge of the Episcopal Churches in Europe. The consecration came more than three-quarters of a century after the then-Holy Trinity Church formed as the first Episcopal church outside the United States. Earlier this year, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry traveled to Paris to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the consecration.
-Lynette Wilson is a reporter and managing editor of Episcopal News Service.