Yesterday morning I received a text from my wife asking whether I’d heard whether Gipp Forster had died.
I never got to meet Gipp. Until recently, I’d never heard his name.
It was a Saturday evening about a month ago I went down to the Mustard Seed Street Church here in Victoria to volunteer with the drop-in supper there. Our host for the evening, Chris Pollock, a staffer at Mustard Seed, introduced us all to Gipp’s legacy as Mustard Seed’s founder.
Chris painted a vivid image of a large man sitting behind a desk in a Government Street Thrift Shop in the mid-to-late 1970’s – a Diet Coke in one hand and a cigarette in the other - a man of rough edges who didn’t mince words. As one friend of Gipp’s put it: Gipp was “a man of the street who was for the people of the street.”
In the middle of the stage at the Mustard Seed that evening sat a small tattered prayer bench – perhaps a cast off kneeler from a church of wealth and power – that somehow showed up at Gipp’s shop back in 1975. It was put in a closet at the back of the store which became a prayer closet for folks off the street who wandered in and gravitated toward Gipp as a natural street pastor. That closet became the first home to the Mustard Seed. That prayer bench has been an ‘icon’ in the street-involved community since that time.
Without wanting to sugar-coat it too much, I wonder if it’s not at places like the Mustard Seed where we might actually learn a little bit about what it means to really ‘be church’. There is little pretense or artifice in such a place. Like their not-too-distant-cousins Alcoholics Anonymous, so-called ‘street churches’ don’t have a lot of room for the kind of masks that are too-often part of our Sunday-morning religious institutions.
In his book What’s So Amazing About Grace author Philip Yancey talks about AA:
…If only the church could realize, that in some of the most important lessons of spirituality, members of [AA] were our masters. They began with radical honesty and ended with radical dependence. Athirst, they came as ‘jolly beggars’ every week because AA was the one place that offered grace on tap.
Yancey could very well be talking about how ‘normal’ churches might see themselves in relation to a place like the Mustard Seed.
And God knows that whether we’re street-involved or whether we’re making six-figures, we are all ‘jolly beggars’ who need that grace on tap. How different would our churches be if we focused our lives together on ‘radical honesty’ and ‘radical dependence’?
It’s ‘saints’ like Gipp – and others like him who remind us of that reality. They remind us that when churches use the word ‘outreach’ we’ve got it all wrong – for there is no privileged ‘us’ reaching out to ‘them’ in the Kingdom of God – and if anything, God’s Kingdom is the opposite – it’s more about those in the margins reaching out to the so-called ‘haves’.
Before we went out to serve that night, another staffer read one of Gipp's reflections – known as his ‘ramblings’. It was a prophetic and cutting-edge reflection about life on the street from the viewpoint of a street person – and what it feels like to not be looked at in the eyes as people walked by. That reflection has changed every interaction I’ve had with someone sitting on a sidewalk who has asked me for money since that evening.
After the reading, we stood in a circle, held hands, prayed and went out to serve – and to be served.
As the evening went on – I realized just how much I needed this place. I realized how I wasn’t all that much different than anyone else I encountered here. That evening I experienced a bit of the Kingdom of God – a bit of ‘grace on tap’
Gipp, I regret that I never got to meet you. Thank you for your faithfulness and your legacy. May your mustard seed vision of God’s Reign continue to break into being here in Victoria.
R.I.P. Gipp Forster – April 15, 1937 to April 15, 2013.
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