Night Ministry adds experience to student's theological studies
If Hilary Copp were 10 years younger, she might be called upon to write a statement about what she did last summer. It probably would not mirror the common student's experience.
Copp is a third-year student in the University's Divinity School. As part of her second year of studies, she participated in the Urban Clinical Pastoral Education program sponsored by the Association of Chicago Theological Schools.
For 10 weeks, Copp shared her pastoral skills with people in need through The Night Ministry, a non-denominational, faith-centered organization that provides support for homeless people. A total of 11 students from Chicago-area schools participated in the Urban Clinical Pastoral Education program, choosing to work for various organizations in Chicago, including Michael Reese Hospital, Cook County Jail and Bonaventure House.
During the Clinical Pastoral Education program, students learned about pastoral care and also received it. Weekly, 60-minute meetings with two supervisors gave them an opportunity to present case studies, share theological reflections and process their experiences-in a word, debrief.
Although the hours of the meetings disrupted any possibility of a regular sleep schedule, Copp appreciated the chance to relay her experiences at The Night Ministry, which illuminated any previous perceptions she had about social work. "I was both disheartened and astounded at the same time," Copp said of her work with The Night Ministry.
She said she approached the summer internship in a clinical fashion. "I went into it wanting to know everything," which she said is a theme in her life. "I wanted to know all the information and phone numbers for halfway houses, detox centers and homeless shelters. I figured out quickly that this is a big city. Resources are endless and changing everyday. Everyone who has been on the streets for more than a week already knows how to find numbers," she said.
However, she found that she had previously undervalued the gift of presence. "My talking with someone for 15 minutes was significant to them. That's what most astounded me," she said. "I stopped memorizing programs and phone numbers and realized that presence was enough."
During her time out on the streets, she had a deep political discussion with a homeless man, an analytical conversation with prostitutes andtheoretical debates with a gentleman who suffers from a mental illness. "I've always been into long conversations," Copp said. She said she believes her education at the Divinity School has enhanced and fine-tuned that natural skill.
Copp worked in two programs offered by The Night Ministry. Three nights per week, she helped the Outreach Health Ministry, which provides health care, counseling and fellowship. Administered by aminister, nurses and volunteers, this group traveled to its destinations in a renovated bus.
She also traversed the streets once a week as a street minister in the Lakeview neighborhood. These ministers wear clerical collars to identify themselves as being with The Night Ministry. Some ministers organize Bible study groups in single occupancy residences while others try to be with the people in bars and on the street.
While Copp believes "every human being deserves love and respect," The Night Ministry experience changed her mind about pursuing a career in social work. In addition to having the opportunity to work for social causes, she experienced the pitfalls-an overwhelming caseload, government-requiredpaperwork and endless referrals.
Instead of social work, she is now considering counseling and diversity training in the private sector. "There's not enough time to sit and just be," she said of the demands of social work.
The twilight hours as a night minister allowed her that opportunity. During those nights, she worked alone she said, a fact that she slowly revealed to her parents. Yet, she said she never felt scared.
Wearing the clerical collar made her feel both secure and uncomfortable. Secure because it gave her a measure of safety. The people on the streets automatically treated her with respect and protected her from people who were not a part of the community, she said. It also lent a level of trust. Those she met on the street knew she would not try to hustle them, she said. Because she does not subscribe to a particular religion, she felt somewhat uneasy, too. "I didn't feel comfortable being a representative of the church," she said.
"Working at The Night Ministry has changed my outlook on everyday life. I can't walk by a person selling StreetWise and say I can't do anything. Even 10 minutes of just talking with someone is more precious than I thought. That conversation is worth more than the dollar.
"It was a privilege, a blessing, to meet people who gave me more than I ever gave them," she said.