Where do you see God?
Many people see God in nature. Others notice God in family, friends and loved ones. Still more hear God sung in songs.
Brian Combs was surprised by where he saw God. He witnessed the presence of God while sitting in a park in Atlanta. Brian was a student in seminary, training to be a pastor. He had heard a wild claim from Howard Thurman: “Of all the ways God could choose to be among us, God shows up as a derelict. Jesus is a pauper, not a prince.”
“God goes out of the way to be in relationship with people who are disinherited everywhere else,” notes Brian.
“Hearing that God cares most about the stranger, the widow, the orphan — that God showed up in a homeless man — that was simply revolutionary to me. I felt motivated to encounter that God — the God who hides in plain sight of addiction and poverty.” On a park bench in a park in Atlanta, Brian witnessed the presence of God in a different way. “I watched people shoot up and turn tricks and do drug deals. Those folks became brothers and sisters and with them, I met a God I’d never met before.”
Brian had also seen God in the mountains surrounding Asheville, North Carolina. “I grew up a Methodist kid, going to camp and taking trips [there]. To me, it was like a spiritual home. I knew I was going to go back.”
We are all broken and have need. We are all requiring grace we can’t give to ourselves.
Asheville is a curious city. It’s a historically therapeutic town. In the early 20th century people came to Asheville to seek healing and wholeness. The mountain air and scenery are cathartic. The local economy suffered for decades after the Great Depression, but began a resurgence in the late 1990s, based mostly around tourism.
Today, nearly 30,000 people visit the Asheville area each day.
“You go down the list of superlatives,” says Brian. “We’re in this strange place where we keep winning ‘best place’ awards.” Asheville features a high concentration of micro-breweries. It’s been named a “happiest town.” It hosts a bohemian atmosphere of inclusiveness.
The good vibes have brought many new residents. Housing prices are on the rise. “Homes go on the market and there’s five bids by lunchtime,” Brian notes.
The real estate market is booming, and that is wonderful in many respects. There is a flipside to that booming market, though. For area natives, taxes and the cost of living have gone up. Tourist jobs have replaced manufacturing jobs. “It’s getting harder and harder to be middle-class or lower-class,” Brian offers.
“And then Asheville has the national reputation of having over a dozen nonprofits working through poverty in this tiny town,” he continues. “So Asheville also has a reputation with the busker community and transient community of being a place of welcome.”
Asheville is an intersection. It is home for an up-and-coming community, or a second home of respite for many. It is also home for those struggling to meet basic needs … or a temporary home for those looking to get enough money to move on.
At the epicenter of the intersection of these two worlds — where the million-dollar condos and hotels face the corner shelter and public housing — sits Haywood Street Church. This is where the Rev. Brian Combs witnesses a holy intersection: where a family doctor shares a meal with someone who is fighting addiction while living on the streets.
The message to each is the same: “We are all broken and have need,” says Brian. “We are all requiring grace we can’t give to ourselves.”
Many people who have never been trusted with anything, they lead the church.
As pastor of this church at the intersection, Brian strives to relay the same message to everyone, whether they are housed and privileged or homeless and destitute: “Everyone is here open-handed to receive.”
The sense of equality is witnessed in Haywood Street’s worship services, where everyone has a role. “Many people who have never been trusted with anything, they lead the church,” notes Brian. There are no prerequisites on reading Scripture, or serving Communion, or leading prayer. Those who wish to serve this way are encouraged to serve and lead. Even the sermons are egalitarian, consisting mostly of an open sharing time instead of being communicated in a lecture format.
The church worships at an unconventional time: 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays. The time came about because one parishioner admitted that afternoons are when he struggles most with drug addiction. “I’d rather be here in worship than somewhere else getting high,” he offered.
Everyone who is part of Haywood Street Congregation is offered grace, and offered it abundantly. The church’s biggest expense is its weekly meals, which are often offered by partner restaurants and feature six courses. Guests are permitted to eat all they want, because “grace has no conditions.” The meals are open to anyone, but those wishing to be servers at the weekly meals must first come and be participants at the weekly meals — because everyone comes open-handed.
Grace has no boundaries, so Haywood Street practices a “scandalous” generosity. In the clothing closet ministry, customers are allowed to take as much as they need. The congregation cultivates a free community garden. Their transitional housing spaces boast leather recliners and flat-screen TVs.
Brian Combs answers the question with more questions: “Does someone feel like their sacred worth is acknowledged? Does someone feel like they had a sense of belonging? Did they experience unconditional love? Did they know, even in the briefest glimpse, that they are nothing less than a child of God?”
It means that many people who have been told “no” over and over again are being told “yes” in incredible ways. Yes, they are free to receive. Yes, they have a community to belong with. Yes, they have worth and a role to play. In saying “yes,” Haywood Street Congregation has become a fellowship desiring a connection with those who society has deemed undesirable.
It’s that desire which Brian felt while sitting on a park bench in Atlanta. It’s God’s desire, too. And it’s why Haywood Street Congregation see God in their intersection.
Ryan Dunn is the author. Ryan is the Minister of Online Engagement for Rethink Church.
[August 22, 2017]