Grace Dances Amidst Holy Chaos

This summer 14 Candler students are serving in ministry through Candler Advantage, a paid summer internship in conjunction with Candler’s Contextual Education Program.  Over the course of the summer many of these students will be sharing their experiences here on the blog.

Christopher Szarke at Haywood Street CongregationGrace dances amidst Holy Chaos.

This lesson doesn’t come naturally after previously embracing the structure of Roman Catholic religious life (Benedictine and Franciscan) and spending two years as the seminary intern in a calm Episcopal parish.   It has been the most challenging and freeing lesson of the ten-week Candler Advantage summer internship at Haywood Street Congregation, a United Methodist mission church that primarily ministers with homeless people in Asheville, North Carolina, population 85,000 people.   Pastor Brian Combs, a 2006 Candler graduate, founded the congregation three years ago and ministers with Co-Pastor Shannon Spencer.

Our motto is “Come as you are.”   This might mean not having showered for several days, being drunk or high, or without medication that keeps psychosis at bay.   Many members of our community have been asked to leave other churches, which is interpreted as rejection by God.    We understand that God embraces everyone and that we are called as Christians to embrace Jesus in our midst.   Each of us has our own brokenness and it’s better to err on the side of grace, leaving room for God to do the work that we cannot possibly accomplish on our own.

Grace dances amidst Holy Chaos.

The Welcome Table is a huge meal serving 275 to 455 people every Wednesday, followed by an optional worship service.   The choice for liturgy on Wednesday is intentional after receiving feedback that the opportunity to attend church in the middle of the week gives the strength to carry on through Sunday.   It’s a chance to encounter Jesus in the sacrament of communion, to be surrounded by community, and to gain support to remain sober another day.

A cross-section of Asheville is present at worship: business people, who may have hidden addictions to alcohol or prescription medications, and homeless people with addictions that society judges with less forgiveness; people who meet survival needs through prostitution; church grandmothers, youth groups, and formerly homeless people – including many veterans – who return to encourage our sisters and brothers along the journey.    I recognize God working through the congregation when a man is welcomed back after being incarcerated in the county jail.   We shake rattles in response to prayers and concerns of the people: hopes for housing, rejoicing at receiving housing for the first time in 22 years, remembering brothers and sisters who are not with us today because they are in jail or a hospital psychiatric unit or are recently deceased.

Sermons are conversational, with the pastor asking the congregation for responses to the Scripture reading.   Sometimes people are ramble on in response or are argumentative.   Somehow the pastor is able to affirm all of these voices and connect them back to Scripture and how this speaks to us today.

Grace dances amidst Holy Chaos.

I spend little time in an office, joining our congregation where they are throughout the week.   On Monday I am at a day center for homeless people, followed by serving lunch in Pritchard Park with Be Loved House (a nondenominational house church), where people ask for prayers about jobs, housing, or reconciliation with estranged family members.   I have joined Pastor Brian at the local shelter, staying overnight in the men’s dorm following a chapel service.    On Sundays I participate in liturgy at the Church of the Advocate, an Episcopal worshipping community that is primarily attended by homeless people.   Here communion extends beyond church walls.   Two of us leave the church and take communion to our sisters and brothers on the stairway, under the trees, and on the sidewalk.   I participate in two homeless advocacy groups; one promoting a Homeless Bill of Rights similar to the one recently passed in Rhode Island.   Members of Haywood Street Congregation gather once a month at Habitat for Humanity.   I am humbled by the people who work on homes for people while they themselves are sleeping by the river or in the shelter.

I lead the offertory by calling out to Haywood Street Congregation, “What does God love?”    They respond with shouts and shaking rattles, “A cheerful giver!”   I describe how each of us is called to share our blessings, whether it’s the gift of patience and kindness, or praying for each other, or sharing a few coins, or boiling three hundred eggs to pass out at the Welcome Table, or writing to our friends in jail, or gathering trash in the parking lot.   People write on the service bulletin about how they share, coming forward to put notes and coins in a basket.   I hold the basket above my head and pray for God to bless and multiply the offerings so they may continue the ministry of Jesus in our congregation and the larger community.

Grace dances amidst Holy Chaos.    The Incarnate Jesus is present with us each day and I remain in awe of this blessing.

– Christopher Szarke

Christopher Szarke, a rising third year M.Div. student in the Episcopal Studies and Faith and Health Certificate Programs, is currently in the discernment process with the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta.


2 Responses to “Grace Dances Amidst Holy Chaos”

  • Kristin McNamara Freeman Says:

    What a delight to read this article by Christopher Szarke. His words paint a picture of what the walk as Christian can be in fullness of relationship with all people. What a blessed experience he shares with us in this writing.

  • Brendan Spaar Says:

    This was a very inspirational article. Thanks for sharing!

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