Affirming Sacred Worth and Restoring Human Dignity
At Haywood Street Congregation (HSC), the Rev. Brian Combs has built a ministry of presence. Unlike many other urban ministry missions, through the past 10 years, Brian has built Haywood Street Congregation on relationships and being with people rather than doing for them.
“Usually in urban ministry, what happens is you identify a need and you provide some kind of social service to solve it, and it’s called transactional ministry. But what I have learned is that often that requires you to objectify someone and keep them at a distance. It’s more of a client relationship,” Brian says. “A ministry of presence, a ministry of being with rather than doing for, assumes we both come to this relationship out of need. Together we’ll co-partner a different tomorrow. For people in poverty, that’s a dramatic thing that most haven’t heard in a while.”
With that in mind, he dove head first into a project with little more than intention and a mission to build relationships and foster a sense of worth and belonging in the community.
Haywood Street Congregation is truly built on relationships. Anyone who finds themselves in need can walk through the doors and expect to be greeted as a person, not a burden. From a community garden to a free acupuncture clinic and a clothing closet, it’s apparent a lot of thought, love and hard work have gone into building this safe space. And it’s hard work on both sides, not just on the side of the wealthy.
“You’re not a project; you’re a person,” Brian says.
Using this outlook, positive relationships are built, and a community of trust is created.
The Welcome Table is HWC’s biggest offering. It’s a seven-course homemade meal for anyone to come and partake. About 50 of the independent restaurants in Asheville provide the meal, East Fork Pottery does the dishes, Trader Joe’s does the flower arrangements—the community comes together to provide, and it’s a very beautiful experience.
“It’s supposed to be the opposite of a soup kitchen,” Brian says. “A soup kitchen is just throwaway food, and if you’re on the receiving end of that for long enough, you start to internalize that you’re a throwaway person. You can eat all you want. You can come early and stay late. There are no boundaries.”
There’s also a clothing closet available without restriction. There are no interviews or cameras, and there’s no paperwork to fill out.
“Some people take a whole rack of clothes, and we just say, ‘That’s great,’” Brian says.
It’s important to feel beautiful, and while a new shirt or shoes can help with that, there’s nothing quite like a fresh haircut, which is why Jordan Carlson of Wink Salon started Humble Hairdressers. Gifted stylists offer their services to Haywood Street free of charge. In poverty, the main thing that’s taken away is freedom of choice, and choosing how one wants their hair styled is a basic desire that is being graciously met at HSC. Along with these services, there’s free acupuncture provided by the students at Daoist Traditions, yoga, a storytelling group and a respite for those in need of rest after an injury or sickness. At HSC, no one is turned away.
The theology practiced in this space is that God cares first for those who are last in line. Because of this, Brian wanted to immortalize those who have felt invisible for so long, and he did this by commissioning a 28-by-11-foot fresco painting by Christopher Holt.
“Fresco is the ancient medium that all the old masters of the Renaissance used,” Brian says. “It’s incredibly laborious and expensive, so nobody paints this way anymore.”
Christopher spent the past three years drawing members of the congregation and enlarging the drawings by hand so he could give the style of painting the attention to detail it requires. He’s put thousands and thousands of hours into this project, and because of the intense process, the painting will last hundreds of thousands of years.
“What we’re trying to say is that poverty makes you invisible, but art can make you immortal,” Brian says. “This is a way of saying that the people who are most left behind and left out get to be front and center forever.”
Because HSC is a church, there is worship as well. However, it happens at the end of the day, which is different from most urban ministries.
“Usually you have to go to church first, and then you have earned the right to clothes, shelter and food,” Brian says. “But that feels coercive to us.”
In this space, nothing is asked of anyone who walks through the doors. It’s a place that’s safe to be human, in whatever beautiful, messy way that may be. It’s an effort to provide relational warmth, and if you’re interested in learning more or helping out, visit HaywoodStreet.org.