Experiencing the Downtown Welcome Table: Ministry with the Poor Training at the Haywood Street Congregation

The Haywood Street Congregation was formed seven years ago, after long-time members of the dwindling congregation at that location heard God’s call to try a new way. The old Haywood Street UMC was merged into Asheville’s much larger and well-financed Central UMC, with a commitment to populate the church with “mission-oriented activity.” Eventually, the new Haywood Street mission would be led by a young pastor, Rev. Brian Combs. Pastor Brian was sure he was being called by God to be in ministry with the unsheltered. The Western North Carolina Conference of the UMC, the Blue Ridge District and Central UMC facilitated and supported the new mission. Central UMC’s pastor, Rev. Rob Blackburn, gave Brian the keys to the Haywood Street building. As Blue Ridge District Superintendent, Rev. John Boggs, explains, “We had that vision moment … we tried to figure out how to be Incarnational.” For more information about the history of the Haywood Street Congregation, read our piece on the church here at Transformational Ministries.

Churchyard art at the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, NC. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
Churchyard art at the Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville, NC. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

Several dozen clergy, lay people, and activists from the United Methodist Church and beyond got a first-hand taste of the Haywood Street Congregation, a radically welcoming church of and with the poor in Asheville, NC. We were participants in the Haywood Street Congregation’s first Ministry with the Poor Experiential Training held at the Asheville Congregation on May 1-3, 2016. This was the first of at least five Ministry with the Poor experiential trainings that will be held across the country this year.

Instead of beginning the training with organized panels and discussions or a structured tour, we were thrust right into the church community, without preconceived expectations or agendas. That experience allowed me to see how the Holy Spirit guides the church’s “holy chaos” into a living example of the gospel witness.

“None are undeserving, none need fixing—all are undeserving, all need grace.” (Deaconess Jody Halstead)

At the beginning of the training on May 1, Jody Halstead, the original director of the Respite Care facility at Haywood Street, invited us to reflect upon the experience we were about to undergo.

Jody explained that Haywood Street encourages volunteers (known as “Companions”) to accompany, to be present with those “Friends” who are vulnerable, marginalized or broken, instead of trying to “fix them.” Jody challenged us to “ponder what it means to change the world without trying to fix it. Try to just be with”—be in relationship with each other rather than try to change each other.

“For us, it will always come back to relationship.” (Emily Bentley, Companion Coordinator)

“Being with” at Haywood Street, and living into its biblical theology, is a communal practice.

Attendees take notes during panel discussions. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
Attendees take notes during panel discussions. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

Folks at the church explained that the congregation grew out of Pastor Brian’s sheer presence and accompaniment with the street people of the city. One man explained that when he met Combs, Brian was just sitting quietly in the corner of the local mission where the houseless would congregate. He explained, “Brian didn’t say anything. He was just sitting there. I think that’s what Jesus would have done.”

Later in the training, Pastor Brian explained that the church’s job is “to make sure Jesus’ voice is heard” in the voices of the poor and unhoused.  “If Jesus shows up and I say I’m going to fix you, then I am not accepting Jesus as he is.”

Role Reversals

We witnessed that role reversal is something of a religious practice at Haywood Street, just as Jesus practiced crossing boundaries. For example, Haywood Street makes every effort to transcend the traditional donor-recipient model. As a result many who come to Haywood Street as Friends begin serving regularly as Companions. One man shared with us that he had come to Haywood Street because “they treated me like a friend. [Now] I get to serve.”

Another role reversal:  Immediately after Jody’s opening reflection on May 1, Executive Director Laura Kirby told us it was time to tour the property. But she explained that rather than providing a guided tour, each of us would explore the church grounds on our own and experience the Haywood Street community for ourselves. Although nervous about wandering the church campus with no direction, we embarked on the journey . . .

The sanctuary is a living room parlor, the garden is a backyard, and the coffee hour is a gourmet family meal.

Departing the Sanctuary and exiting the church through the back door, I first encountered the church’s garden, where the congregation grows vegetables and herbs to be used by its Downtown Welcome Table—a community meal that has grown from serving hotdogs to a handful of folks, to a sit-down, family style meal serving hundreds of people.

One of the furry Friends at Haywood Street. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
One of the furry Friends at Haywood Street. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

I walked up a path and found the goats who live in a pen above the garden, and watched the hens roam around their adjacent coop. The woman who takes care of the animals was petting the goat. A bit awkwardly, I asked her, “What are the goats used for? Do you milk them?”

She countered, “We don’t use animals. We just love ‘em.”

Feeling both enlightened and chastened, I went inside the church and discovered a small prayer room adjoining the main meeting room. This is a place where anyone can go to pray, reflect, or share a quiet conversation. I found myself surrounded by people who were willing to offer a prayer for my concerns, who shared vulnerable stories about themselves and their own lives and made me feel safe sharing my own.

It seemed that at least two of the people in the prayer room at that time were folks who live out on the street and call Haywood Street their home. But it was hard to differentiate who was a “Friend” of the church, who was a “Companion,” who merely attended the church, and who was a visitor to the training. Status simply was not a factor in our group prayers.

Some of the people with whom I shared my story remembered my name throughout the weekend and continued to pray for me even after I had left the room. Though I had been at Haywood Street only a short while, I already felt welcomed into the community and started developing relationships with folks who had been going to the church for many years.

Everyone Speaks the Theology

Worship at the Haywood Street Congregation. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
Worship at the Haywood Street Congregation. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

Whether an older middle class woman, a man living on the streets of Asheville, or an ordained pastor, the demographically, racially, and economically diverse members of the Haywood Street community speak and live a grassroots, Jesus-centered theology that embraces vulnerability, authentic relationships, and radical inclusivity—key features of vibrant Ministry with the Poor.

One of the men in the prayer room gave an impromptu sermon about trusting in God and living in the present moment; he was about to embark on a move to California to be with his ailing mother. He said: “Don’t always share the woes. Relish God, share the joys, and ask the Lord to ride with you.” During the worship service later that evening, he gave a short but powerful reflection during the offertory. His “God talk” stuck with me just as much as Pastor Brian’s sermon.

It was amazing to see how the relationship-driven environment of trust and acceptance at Haywood Street encourages leadership-development and discipleship.

Preaching with and from the Margins

The people's theology at Haywood Street. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
The people’s theology at Haywood Street. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

Haywood Street’s grassroots theology requires a certain ceding of power and control from the pastors to the people of the church. As a result, Pastor Brian’s sermons are both interactive and influenced by give-and-take with people in the pews, who aren’t afraid to share what they think about the day’s gospel text.

Laura Kirby, the executive director, explained that the culture at the church “is that everyone feels sincerely welcome to say what they believe with no fear of being shut down.”

This openness and vulnerability could be challenging for some pastors, especially at a place like Haywood Street, where unpredictable things can and do happen.

The Invisible Box

On the second day of the training, we explored the “invisible box” around Asheville—the daily street path trod by the homeless of the city to receive services. The tour I was on was led by a Haywood Street Companion who used to make the journey himself every day. As we walked around the “invisible box,” our tour guide continued to offer small impromptu sermons, little outpourings of the Holy Spirit, on the love of God in everyday moments.

In contrast to the bureaucratic maize for receiving services through the organizations situated within the “invisible box”—where people are made to feel “like projects, not persons”—Haywood Street accepts all people, especially the marginalized, as the presence of Jesus Christ. During one panel on Ministry With, Pastor Brian explained that the church “isn’t here to be Jesus.” Instead, “God is going to show up here” in the poor and homeless, and “what we want to do is welcome him.”

At the Table

The Downtown Welcome Table at Haywood Street. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
The Downtown Welcome Table at Haywood Street. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

Hospitality and welcome are certainly the hallmark of the Downtown Welcome Table, a central feature of our Haywood Street experience. Haywood Street is the only church in town that engages in worship after dinner, rather than before—signaling that anyone is welcome to eat at the church without being pressured into worship.

In fact, the meals at the church are themselves a form of worship. As Pastor Brian explains, “If we take seriously that all meals are Eucharist, then there’s no one who can say, ‘I don’t need to eat right now.’” Jesus is present at Haywood Street’s communal tables in the dining room just as much as he is present in worship.

Holy Chaos

Holy chaos: a church always in the process of evolving. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.
Holy chaos: a church always in the process of evolving. Photo credit: Nicholas Laccetti.

On the second and third days of the training, we heard from several panels on topics such as Haywood Street’s history, its partnerships with local organizations, and security and mission at the church. We also had a chance to participate in our choice of Haywood Street’s many core ministries (I helped fold clothes in the free Clothing Closet). These talks and experiences were inspiring and helpful in understanding the church’s mission, operations, funding, and the organizational structure that provides order yet allows room for the Spirit to move.

Yet, as one of the panelists remarked during the second day’s roundtable dialogue, it was less the formal training and more the small moments of connection and relationship that really made the training a glimpse of the Holy Spirit at work in a community: “I don’t really have expectations anymore,” he said. “When you have expectations, you start making judgments.”

The next Ministry with the Poor Experiential Trainings will be held on

For more information, visit the events page at MinistryWith.org.

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