A unique Asheville congregation offers a place where those with homes and those without can worship, eat side-by-side

Worshippers, including Bill Paap, left, who is homeless and lives in the woods, and Laura Kirby, right, a co-chair of the Haywood Street Congregation, join hands in prayer on a recent Wednesday service. Volunteers and those in need eat together, work together and worship together at Haywood Street Congregation, in downtown Asheville. Photo by Matt Rose.

In a tight traffic circle outside the church that houses the Haywood Street Congregation stands a tall tree whose thick, shady branches shelter people whose lives can be as harsh as the sun.

On Wednesdays, before the downtown Asheville church has its come-as-you-are lunch and church service, Raven Gladys Rap is often among the homeless people waiting to eat. Lying on the grass among many others recently, she stares up through the leaves, thinking how much she loves that tree. She’s been homeless half of her 32 years; most recently she’s camping on a mountain near downtown Asheville.

“It would be cool if money grew on trees, wouldn’t it?” she asked. Though it doesn’t, she feels blessed anyway, she said, by the acceptance she finds among members of the church. At Haywood Street Congregation, she can nap on the couch in the basement and, when she needs to, take as many items of clothing she needs from the ministry’s clothes closet.

[The congregation will hold “A Walk of Awareness” on Sunday, Sept. 11, to raise money for its programs while showing participants the common routes Asheville’s homeless take as they seek food, clothing and shelter. See below for more details, or go here for more information on how to register.]

“There are no restrictions here,” the pastor of the congregation, Brian Combs, said as he stood inside the clothes closet recently. “Grace doesn’t have rules to follow, papers to fill out,” he said.

Haywood Street Congregation, located in the century-old Central United Methodist Church building on the western fringe of downtown Asheville, is there to help, not to restrict.

Created two years ago to provide a mid-week lunch and service for the city’s homeless (though all are welcome), the church is the only one in Asheville whose targeted members sleep in shelters and camps hidden in and around the city.

The congregation’s minister, Rev. Brian Combs, a young man with a tangle of hair and beard that grows just as wild, welcomes all, in whatever state they show up.

Coming to Asheville from a street ministry in Atlanta, Combs hung out with prostitutes and people dying of AIDS, many of whom were amazed that he, unlike others, wouldn’t shun them. Combs said he felt called to be among his “brothers” and “sisters,” terms he still uses for those he serves.

Pastor Brian Combs, left, comforts Janet DeLude, whose husband recently passed away. Combs says his ministry is inspired by those in need, especially those without homes. Photo by Matt Rose. Click to view full-size image.

“I can’t follow Jesus if I’m not breaking bread with the guys sleeping under the bridge,” he said.

Every Wednesday, Haywood Street Congregation has a service after the free lunch it offers at The Welcome Table, a kitchen in the church’s basement. Other agencies may have the church service first, but Combs says he believes it’s coercive to force someone to stay through a service in order to get food. On Aug. 24, the church fed 325 people, and about 75 stayed for the service, Combs said.

Combs changed a lot of area food kitchen practices in ways he hopes restores dignity to those who eat at places such as the congregation’s Wednesday meal. The need to serve the homeless is so great in Asheville, he said.

Buncombe County’s homeless: A tangle of needs

One January night each year, agencies serving the homeless throughout North Carolina conduct a “point-in-time” count of the homeless. On Jan. 26, 2011, volunteers counted 12,908 homeless people around the state; 498 of them were in Buncombe County, living in emergency, seasonal and transitional shelters, as well as in cars, parks, abandoned buildings or on sidewalks and the street.

The census also offers a clue into the lives and situations facing the county’s homeless, and the challenges facing organizations serving them.

According to the count in Buncombe County, 165 people had serious mental illnesses, 192 adults had a diagnosable substance abuse disorder, three people were living with HIV/AIDS, 82 were victims of domestic violence and 209 were veterans. Within 30 days of the count, 29 had been discharged from hospitals, 45 from jails and prisons and 68 from mental health hospitals and substance abuse treatment programs, according to the report compiled by the Asheville-Buncombe Homeless Initiative, a group formed in 1994 to deal locally with the fallout of the deinstitutionalization of the nation’s mental health care system in the 1970s and 1980s.

The numbers could be increasing, considering what’s happening across the nation.

Each year, Congress directs the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to prepare a homeless assessment report. The 2010 report, based on the accumulation of all the January point-in-time census-taking across the country revealed that the number of people experiencing homelessness on a single night increased 1.1 percent over the previous year, to 649,917 in January 2010 from 643,067 in January 2009.

The number of people not staying in shelters – people living on the streets, that is – increased by 2.8 percent. One-third of the nearly 650,000 people counted in January 2010 were families or households who had no other place to go.

“What we’re seeing is … folks are losing their jobs, their homes are being foreclosed (on), they’re being evicted from their rentals,” Robin Merrell, a member of the initiative’s advisory committee, recently told host Tank Spencer during an interview on WWNC News Radio 570 AM.

“So many people think ‘homelessness can’t happen to me.’ And that’s the greatest myth about homelessness,” Merrell said. “It could really happen to any of us, with job loss, foreclosure, eviction, disability. Those sorts of things come up on people very suddenly.”

On any given day in Asheville, there are 500 to 600 homeless people, said Amy Sawyer, initiative coordinator.

Every year, some two-dozen homeless people die in the Asheville area before finding permanent housing, Sawyer said. The mean age among them is 55 years old, she said, or 20 years younger than people with housing. The homeless are more likely to be the victims of crime and less likely to receive the kind of care that can prevent serious illness.

“Then there is just the general experience of stress, poor nutrition, loss of sleep stability, nutrition – these difficulties affect people’s lifespans and their ability to face everyday challenges that we all have to face,” Sawyer said. “And on a less scientific level, being disenfranchised is very isolating. There are a lot of things that being connected to community can help you with – employment, a sense that you fit in, being able to ask for help if you need it.”

‘The tables where we eat are all round.’

Anyone — those with homes or those without — can come to the Haywood Street Congregation for a meal, says Rev. Brian Combs, adding that the tables are round for a reason. Photo by Matt Rose. Click to view full-size image.

The homeless are all around us, but many of us choose not to see them, said Combs, who spends much of his time visiting them in their camps and wherever else they stay.

Two years ago, hoping to move from a Methodist pastorship in Waynesville he didn’t like, Combs talked with a homeless man on Patton Avenue who said his options during the middle of the day were limited to getting high and being asked to leave wherever he was. He told Combs he’d much rather go to church.

So Combs, who then already had a year of experience pastoring the homeless in Atlanta, decided to open a church with a mid-day service on Wednesdays. He successfully pitched the idea of a church catering to the homeless to Central United Methodist Church, which owns the church on Haywood Street.

“As a minister, my most important job is to listen,” Combs said recently in his office at the church, sitting across from an old couch. Because of his penchant for working too much, he spends more nights there than he cares to admit. “In a sense, people on the streets are the pastor of this church, not me, because they know best what a church should be doing.”

Though other faith-based organizations and churches provide lunch and other services to the homeless, Haywood Street Congregation appears to be the only congregation in Western North Carolina that targets its ministry to the homeless. Some, like the Haywood Street Congregation ministry, approach their work as helping people, not as helping “homeless” people.

“If there’s one thing the church is supposed to do, it’s to treat people as humans, as equals,” Combs said. “The tables where we eat are all round. Literally, you see a millionaire from Biltmore Forest breaking bread with people that live under bridges.”

Combs calls the church’s approach “radical integration” because it challenges people to accept each other, even the homeless who see, at lunch and at prayer, people with money and homes.

“Asheville’s a weird-enough town for people to try holding hands with someone they never thought they’d be touching,” Combs said, a mischievous smile breaking over his handsome face.

‘Who else do you have to count on?’

Combs is inspired by the New Testament story of Zacchaeus, the tax collector who wanted to see Jesus so badly that he climbed a sycamore tree to get above the crowd that had formed. Jesus called him down and said he would be staying with Zacchaeus that night, which prompted Zacchaeus, a rich and hated man, to promise to give money to the poor.

The story inspires Combs because it demonstrates Jesus’ love for the despised. But he also likes the part about the tree because it reminds him of the tree outside of the church, where many people waiting for lunch of Wednesdays gather to talk and sleep, shaded from a hot, sometimes hostile, world outside the tree’s sheltering branches.

Two years ago, Rev. Brian Combs approached Central United Methodist Church in downtown Asheville to ask whether he could establish a ministry devoted to serving the homeless in their building. They agreed, and now the church houses the Haywood Street Congregation. Photo by Matt Rose. Click to view full-size image.

The tree’s shade is something that Sandy Strauss, 56, knows well. Formerly homeless, having just recently found a place to live through the Housing Authority of the City of Asheville, she said she often sits under the tree, talking especially to one young woman who seems to be having a harder time than most with not having a home.

“I kind of found myself wanting to share my experiences with others,” Strauss, who left Florida a year ago, said recently from her new Asheville apartment. “We all have something that we can learn from each other. It’s been very enlightening to see other peoples’ problems and what they’re going through, because it can make what you’re going through seem not as hard.

“There’s a closeness to God when you’re in a situation like that, because who else do you have to count on?”

She said she was looking for a church to join when she found Haywood Street Congregation. She heard of it through one of the area missions she was staying at.

“So much of church is, you sit there and listen.” Strauss said. “But you might have a question. Brian’s service is like an open discussion. We all talk.

“Last week he invited us to take off our shoes and (walk like) Jesus did when he walked on the earth. I feel extra close to God when I’m in there. Brian makes everyone feel that we’re all ministers with God.”

Last December, Sawyer attended the Homeless Person’s Memorial Day, begun in 2007 to recognize the people on the street who had died during the previous year. Traditionally held on the longest night of winter, the event was held at Haywood Street Congregation last year. Sawyer said she was struck by the variety of people who appeared to be members of the congregation.

“Some people who were ‘housed’ were clearly a part of the church for a long time, and some were homeless,” she said. “To hear them talk about the same subject from their own perspectives made you feel like there was a community there.

“Having a place where people can go and feel safe and be engaged with people is really important. The Haywood Street Congregation is an example of that.”

A Walk of Awareness

In hopes of making visible the invisible lives of the area’s homeless, Haywood Street Congregation will hold “A Walk of Awareness,” on Sept. 11, that will take participants along the downtown Asheville routes the homeless take in search of food, clothing and shelter. The 3K-5K route (you decide its length) starts at 4 p.m. at Haywood Street Congregation, 297 Haywood St., Asheville. A celebration supper at the church is at 5:30 p.m. Registration is $30, available at www.awalkofawareness.com (online registration ends Sept. 9.). The event raises money for The Welcome Table, the congregation’s weekly community meal, and other ministry programs.

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Paul Clark is a contributing reporter for Wmforo. Contact him at [email protected].

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  1. Just right away this reminds me of Glide Memorial Methodist and Rev. Josea Williams, began as a hole in the wall and now's a bona fide institution. Too bad they find it so efficacious to suffer from some stigma rather than God's own people down on their luck; pleading for sympathy, slighted by the process.

  2. Great story Paul. This is real deal, faith in action Christianity. A very humble story about a humble man living out his faith. I love it. Keep up the excellent writing. God bless you. Patrick

  3. Thank God for churches and people who walk with those who Jesus walked with. BeLoved Community is another church in Asheville who focuses solely on friends from the streets and those living in poverty. We are grateful that Haywood and BeLoved share the deep heart that to walk with Jesus we must welcome and show hospitality to everyone especially those pushed to the margins.

  4. Paul, what a great article and wonderful story of what HIS mission here on earth is all about! Keep articles like this one coming...Jeff in B'ham, Al, USA
    PS: Please remember all those who lost loved ones on 9/11/01. Keep those extended families in your prayers.