The Haywood Street Congregation: A Welcoming Table

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Relationships blossom at Haywood Street. Photo courtesy of the Haywood Street Congregation.

The Haywood Street Congregation
297 Haywood Street
Asheville, NC 28801
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Ministry Overview

“Our Mission is to be a transformative, open community of Christ, led by the Holy Spirit, creating opportunities to serve and be served so that all who participate are empowered to claim their identity as a child of God.”

At the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, NC, various core programs provide a platform for the “ministry of relationship,” which Haywood Street defines simply as the act of “being with.” It contrasts with “doing for” and forms the basis for Haywood Street’s “unique and transformative companion ministry.” These core programs include:

  • The Downtown Welcome Table serves a free sit down, family style luncheon for up to 400 people each Wednesday, with cloth napkins, flowers on the table, and china plates. Through partnerships with some of the very best local restaurants and chefs, referred to as Chefs at The Downtown Welcome Table, once a month the Downtown Welcome Table becomes a gourmet affair. Free haircuts are available to those waiting to be seated for lunch.
  • A radically welcoming mid-day, mid-week worship service draws in hundreds of worshippers.
  • God’s Outfitters Clothing Closet is a free store that serves about 150 people on Wednesdays.
  • The ‘Love & Fishes Bountiful Garden’ produces fresh, organic produce, grown by and for the community.
  • The Haywood Street Respite, a transitional living and healing space, accommodates up to eight adults in need of a home-like place to rest and recover after being discharged from inpatient hospital stays.

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A blessing at the Downtown Welcome Table. Photo courtesy of the Haywood Street Congregation.

A Welcoming Table

We began in 2009 in the soup line, under the bridge, staying overnight at the shelter, and loitering downtown with our ear bent towards the cracks of poverty, listening for the voice of Jesus among the disinherited. And what He said was offer me a congregation of absurd grace, a meal of scandalous abundance, a kingdom glance of heaven on earth.”

At Haywood Street, “Table” is the central metaphor. Those who eat and worship together at the church are individuals carrying all their worldly possessions in ragged backpacks as well as privileged professionals, stay-at-home moms, students and the working poor.

Through the biblical welcome of Haywood Street’s many tables–altar table, dinner table, meeting table, or picnic table–relationships blossom that allow a diverse congregation to gather as one. Haywood Street practices a form of radical hospitality that welcomes everyone, regardless of their status or economic situation, and invites them to share their gifts with the community.

Founded in 2009 by the Rev. Brian Combs, a United Methodist Pastor “responding to a call to reach out to men and women living on the margins with a message of acceptance and belonging,” the Haywood Street Congregation is a mission congregation of the Western North Carolina Conference and the Blue Ridge District of The United Methodist Church.

Haywood Street is located in a stately old United Methodist church in downtown Asheville. In 2009, when an existing congregation had dwindled to a handful of faithful long-time members, Rev. Brian Combs was invited by the District and Conference to follow the Spirit into a new creation.

After Pastor Brian had walked the streets and embraced the “houseless” of Asheville, Haywood Street began offering a community lunch on Wednesdays. All were welcome to join this meal, “without having to prove their need or worth.”

“Never intending to be a soup kitchen or a feeding line,” lunch on Wednesday was intended to be “a crossroads of diverse community, a gathering of disparate folks, a fork and spoon invitation to prince and pauper alike.”

Soon a Wednesday afternoon worship service was introduced. “Friends were free to join in the worship service that followed lunch—or not.”

The midday Wednesday worship service began after a man on the street suggested it to Pastor Brian: “He said ‘I need something during the middle of the day because that’s when I struggle with crack, marijuana and alcohol, and if you had a worship service I’d much rather be doing that than getting high.’”

By March 2013, a reporter from the Asheville-Times observed that the “tiny ministry [Pastor Brian] founded in 2009 with fewer than a dozen curious seekers has grown into a jubilant spectacle that begins with a home-cooked meal for 200-300 people who span the socio-economic spectrum, ends with a rousing service upstairs in the dog-friendly sanctuary, and features a clothing closet, lending library, community garden, acupuncture, haircuts and other special events in between.”

Since then, according to Haywood Street’s 2015 Annual Report, “The ministry has continued to grow and today between 400 and 500 gather each Wednesday for table fellowship and worship.”

Jesus broke bread with social outcasts and religious leaders alike. In the same way, Haywood Street encourages relationships to develop at table, across social boundaries, in a context that Pastor Brian dubs “holy chaos,” a space that embraces vulnerability and allows room for the spontaneity of the Holy Spirit and the building of transformational relationships.

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Friends at the table. Photo courtesy of the Haywood Street Congregation.

Companions Ministering with Friends (and Vice Versa)

Haywood Street is “not a ministry where ‘the haves’ help ‘the have nots’.” Haywood Street describes itself as “a ministry that acknowledges each of us as privileged and each of us as being in need. . . . If you are accustomed to only serving others, you’ll be invited to be served.  If your gifts have been overlooked or dismissed, you’ll be put to work.”

At Haywood Street, volunteers are known as Companions, and those who accept services are known as Friends, not clients.  Companions are invited to take a “deeper step into relationship and also an intentional move away from the notion that some people are givers and others simply receivers.”

There are over 200 Companions at Haywood Street, and they are “not just people of privilege, but people struggling in poverty, including many still on the streets or in shelters.”

“It’s a joyful and often chaotic ministry.  One that requires openness, vulnerability, and flexibility.  You’ll make new friends and experience a joy only authenticity can uncover.”

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Intentional community in the Respite dining room. Photo courtesy of the Haywood Street Congregation.

Accompaniment

In what Pastor Brian calls “incarnational ministry,” he and Companions at Haywood Street walk with—accompany—those on the margins, as Jesus did in his own day.

A Haywood Street ministry that conspicuously embodies accompaniment is the Respite care program. The Respite welcomes up to eight adults who lack a stable home environment in which to recover upon being discharged from inpatient hospital stays. While at the Respite, folks “don’t have to worry about where they will sleep, eat, or use the restroom;” they can spend their time in rest and recovery.

Unlike your usual respite center, Haywood Street is an “intentional community”—a place to find home, not just to recover as in a clinical setting. As Michael Platz, director of the Respite, says, “it’s all about relationships.”

One Friend who lived at the Respite, Rob Sampson, stayed there while in recovery from cancer. He had come to Asheville as a day-laborer but had lost his home. In order to keep his doctor, he had to stay in North Carolina. He found companionship and accompaniment at the Respite: “Haywood Street Respite companions drove Rob to chemo once a week and picked him up five or six hours later.” As Rob explains, “Dickie [Dick LeDuc, who often drove him] made me feel comfortable. It was like we were old buddies.”

While at the Respite, Rob practiced intentional community by becoming a leader (and Companion) in his own right, by vacuuming, mopping, washing dishes and clothes and, “on mornings when he felt well enough,” cooking breakfast.

Rob not only found a space to recover at Haywood Street, he found a new home: “I would probably move some place if I could take the church with me … There is nothing fake here.”

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Communion at Haywood Street. Photo courtesy of the Haywood Street Congregation.

“The First Shall Be Last and the Last Shall Be First”

At Haywood Street, you will find “homeless folks preparing and serving the meal,” or folks in “3 piece suits and hospital scrubs coming only to eat”–or vice versa. This practice, which respects that all people have gifts and talents (and all are broken in some respects) turns the usual approach of traditional ministries on its head.

In keeping with that theology, Pastor Brian doesn’t dress like a typical pastor, but more like many of the people he welcomes. Dressing this way—and more importantly, acting this way—is intentional. As the Asheville Citizen Times explained in a profile of Combs, the pastor “traverses imaginary bridges to place himself on equal footing with every human he encounters, but particularly those who live on the edges and in the dark corners of the city.”

Laura Kirby, the Executive Director of Haywood Street, reflects on the role reversal that she often encounters at the church. She tells the story of greeting and welcoming a group that was visiting Haywood Street’s Wednesday service for the first time. The expectation, as usual, was “that I would give an introduction and some information, maybe a tour, all to help them understand what Haywood St. is all about.”

But Kirby just wasn’t feeling inspired on that day. Instead of leading the newcomers in a tour, she asked them to explore the church on their own and meet back up in a circle after worship. What she experienced then was a dramatic reversal of roles–the newcomers became the ones to give her the inspiring speech about what Haywood Street is all about:

“Julio talked about sitting at the picnic tables with folks who thought he was new and homeless in town. They wanted to make sure he knew where to find the best meal or a safe place to sleep.

Pam held back tears as she talked about being ministered to by a 57-year old man who was currently living in a tent and faithfully living out his call to share God’s love with others.

Others talked about their experience at the table, the friendly demeanor of folks they had previously encountered only on city sidewalks with empty faces.”

Kirby concludes by explaining how it was “such a blessing to me to sit among these new friends and have them offer examples of grace and love and community … They were the tour guides and I was the guest.”

At Haywood Street, part of radical welcome is taking a step back, making room for those on the margins to take up leadership roles that are waiting for them as children of God with their own unique gifts, talents, and dreams.

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Pastor Brian Combs and the congregation during worship. Photo courtesy of the Haywood Street Congregation.

Seeing is Believing

Global Ministries plays a role in inspiring, equipping and resourcing the denomination to engage in Transformational Ministries with, instead of to or for, people and communities living in conditions of poverty. This article introduced some of the ways in which the Haywood Street Congregation acts as one of these Transformational Ministries.

But actions speak louder than words. The easiest way for any of us to grasp the features of Ministry With and apply these principles to our own context is to see them in action. An excellent way to do that is to participate in a Regional Ministry with the Poor Experiential Training.

In May 2016, the Haywood Street Congregation will host a Ministry with the Poor Experiential Training for 25-30 people. This intimate, hands-on training will provide an opportunity to experience first-hand the transformational ministry and worship that occurs within an organizational structure that provides order and yet allows room for the Spirit to move.

The workshop will begin on Sunday, May 1 at 4 P.M., with dinner at the Downtown Welcome Table, followed by an evening worship service. The program will end Tuesday, May 3 at 5 P.M.    A shorter training, beginning on Monday morning, will be available for folks who live in the region.

More Information on Haywood Street:

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