In the 1930s, a remarkable woman took the name of the ancient ascetic Mary of Egypt, who had passed from prostitution to the life of a desert hermit. Rue de Lourmel in Paris, Mother Maria installed a house intended to be a service center for those around her who need it. This house – and others it helped found – became centers of Nazi resistance during WWII, as Mother Maria and her companions smuggled Jewish refugees out of the city. Eventually, Mother Maria was arrested by the Gestapo and died in a gas chamber.
It may be surprising that one of the legacies of Mother Maria’s work can be found in Kansas City, Missouri. A Serbian Orthodox priest was inspired by his example and founded a parish there, dedicated to the practice of hospitality in the manner of Mother Maria.
David Altschul was a financial services salesman when he felt called to become an Orthodox priest. He became Father Alexii, and along with his wife, Thelma, found an empty four-story commercial building on Troost Avenue, the historic dividing line between the city’s black and white communities. They transformed the building to accommodate a plethora of services: an a la carte restaurant, social and mental health services, a foster grandparent program, a leadership development program and many other services focused on the district.
For Mother Maria, the work of preparing meals, sheltering the homeless and creating a feeling of welcome and belonging was closely linked to the liturgy, celebrated daily in a small chapel in the house. She called the service âliturgy after liturgyâ and linked the bread and soup served at the ordinary house table with the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This additional liturgy involved collecting food from the market, preparing meals for all who came to the house, listening to troubled people, and providing them with medical care and a place to sleep. She called those who joined her at this table âliving iconsâ, and she insisted that loving our neighbors is the central work of our faith.
Father Alexii took hold of this vision and saw how it could be easily applied in his Kansas City neighborhood. Eventually, he passed it on to a priest named Justin Mathews, who succeeded Father Alexii when he retired.
The services offered at the Troost Avenue building are numerous. Under an umbrella called Reconciliation Services, volunteers provide more than 90,000 hours of service per year. Each year, they help clients obtain nearly 2,000 pieces of identification and birth certificates, help nearly 500 people with medical and dental supplies and services, and provide rent and utility assistance to at least 800 clients. Social and mental health services are received by 3,000 people.
But the heart of the work is at Thelma’s Kitchen, where people come together for a meal and a conversation. As Mother Maria imagined, it is an extension of the Eucharist. Thelma’s Kitchen serves over 25,000 meals a year, but it’s more than a restaurant. Its tables bring people together; it is a door for people to the rest of what Reconciliation Services has to offer. At Thelma, each table is a place where guests gather and, around a meal, a drink and a sharing, become friends of God and of one another.
The Thelma’s Kitchen table is an extension of the Eucharist table.
One of the ways Father Justin understands Reconciliation Services’ relationship with the church is as âpara-sacramentalâ. John Chrysostom wrote on the continuation of the Eucharistic liturgy, begun on the altar of the church, in the heart of our neighbor. This link between liturgy and life, what Mother Maria also called âthe liturgy outside the churchâ, is at the heart of the relationship between the two great commandments. Mother Maria insisted that these are not two separate commandments: the faithful practice of each teaches us to practice the other.
In her writings, Mother Maria consistently opposed critics who thought her homes of hospitality were a choice of social activism rather than âthe only thing neededâ – divine office, Eucharistic liturgy and prayer. She followed the integrity of the love of God and neighbor through the mothers and fathers of the desert, also noting that Eastern saints such as Basil the Great, Nilus of Sora, Joseph of Volokolamsk, Juliana the Merciful and Sergius of Radonezh saw the love of God. and the neighbor as essential to each other.
All over the ancient world, through all kinds of social changes, there were diaconal centers – centers of service – which extended the church to the world, the liturgy to life. Basil the Great created one, known as the Basilad, in Caesarea in Asia Minor, now Kayseri, in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Diaconal centers contained homes for the homeless, hospitals for the sick, hospices for the dying, soup kitchens, pantries and even schools. They were also places of liturgical gathering on Sundays and feasts, places where the Eucharist was celebrated.
Mother Maria did not use the term para-sacramental. It’s a contemporary term, and open to confusion and misunderstanding, given the rigorous views that there are only two or seven sacraments, depending on who’s counting. At the same time, we must remember how fluid this understanding of the sacrament has been in the Christian tradition, both in the East and in the West. A medieval theologian identified 30 sacraments. For Mother Maria, the question was not so much how many sacraments were included, but what tangible things people were doing to accomplish diakonia– loving service to his neighbor. When she emphasized the relationship between the liturgy and life, between the bread and the cup and the table set to feed the hungry, she echoed what we read of Jesus’ ministry in the Gospels. She has argued extensively in her writings that love of neighbor must include “concrete and practical acts”. We cannot perform the second commandment in the abstract.
This is how Father Alexii and Father Justin proceeded. Through the work of the Reconciliation Services, they seek to see their neighbors as living icons, to extend the love of God through concrete actions, and thus to participate in the diakonia to which they are called by Christ.
When a man named Terrance relapsed after months of abstinence, he found a connection at Reconciliation Services that allowed him to start over. Over time, he earned a master’s degree in social work and now offers counseling to those struggling to recover as he did. When Cassandra was released from prison, she found a support group for women at Reconciliation Services. She found a way to choose a path of healing and hope. When Nora found support for her post-traumatic stress disorder, when Paul was able to stabilize his health, when Pamela started cooking at Thelma’s Kitchen, each of them served as a living icon for the whole community.
That kind of sturdy diakonia is not easy to keep alive in any parish, and in the Orthodox community of Kansas City, it is not easier. In almost any church setting, there are always forces that want to expand and forces that want to withdraw. Generosity rivals self-preservation. But Mother Maria showed the elasticity of the church, the ways in which the conventional model of a parish could extend to the neighbor, in whose face we always see Christ.
Perhaps this is a lesson for the local church in the 21st century. When congregations shrink in membership and budgets shrink, churches can fall back on a survival mode. Resources are set aside to keep the roof repaired and the heating on. But the example of Reconciliation Services on Troost Avenue offers a path that is both innovative and old.
The liturgy after the liturgy continues throughout the week. Just like in Mother Maria’s homes and now on Troost Avenue, every table is a holy table. Conversation, tears and laughter during a meal are truly a liturgy, the Eucharist extended in the life of all of God’s people.
A version of this article appears in the print edition under the title “holy tables, living icons”.