Jan. 3, 2012
Asheville, N.C., has an abundance of fine dining options, but on Wednesdays, you’ll find business people, wealthy retirees and soccer moms lining up for a midday meal alongside the city’s homeless at the Haywood Street Congregation. Crack addicts serve the meal with volunteers from local churches; prostitutes and the mentally ill eat with lawyers and bankers. After lunch, there’s a worship service for those who wish to attend.
Leading the service is the Reverend Brian Combs, who received his Master of Divinity from Candler School of Theology in 2006. Despite his degree, Combs believes he has as much to learn from his parishioners as he has to teach.
“There’s this idea that people in ministry have Jesus, and that people in the world don’t, but I try to flip that. The poor are our teachers. Our role is to listen to God in the prostitute, the pimp, the person with mental illness.”
Combs has served as pastor of the Haywood Street Congregation for two years, but he didn’t always know that he wanted to work with the homeless. He says that Candler helped him discern this calling.
“When I got to Candler, I didn’t have a strong sense of vocational identity,” Combs says. “People like Alice Rogers gave space in their classes for God to speak, so that I could let go and find out what I needed to be. But whether I was in homiletics, systematic theology, or an Old Testament class, I heard something at Candler that I’d never heard growing up in a suburban church in Charlotte, and that was a commandment to care for the poor.”
A senior year class on theologian Howard Thurman, taught by Luther Smith, solidified Combs’ desire to work with people on the margins of society. After graduation, Combs used clinical pastoral education placements to confront some of the darkest corners of Atlanta. He spent time with the homeless under bridges and in line at shelters; he asked for the shifts no one wanted at Grady Hospital and found himself rocking drug-addicted babies in the neonatal ward and working with patients in the psych ward.
After his year at Grady, Combs asked to be appointed to a church where he could work with the kind of people he’d met at Grady. “I wanted the kind of Methodist church that I learned about in Rex Matthews’ class on the history of Methodism,” Combs says. “John Wesley spent his days in the slums of London being with the poor, and that was how I had come to understand church.”
That church didn’t exist, though, and Combs spent two years working in small churches outside of Asheville. Then, in 2006, Asheville’s Central United Methodist Church and Haywood Street United Methodist Church merged, leaving the building on Haywood Street vacant. The empty space was along a corridor where homelessness in Asheville was growing, and Combs saw the perfect opportunity to follow his calling to be with the downtrodden. The area's denominational leadership, also Candler alums -- Bishop Larry Goodpaster 73T 82T, District Superintendent John Boggs 79T, and Central's senior pastor, Rob Blackburn 76T -- agreed to take a chance on Combs’ vision, and the Haywood Street Congregation was born.
Combs began his ministry on Asheville’s streets, where he met a homeless man who said that what the church should provide was a midweek, midday service. That, according to the man, was when the shelters were closed, leaving him to struggle with drugs and the constant threat of arrest.
As a result of that conversation, Haywood Street offers its noon meal, clothing closet services and worship on Wednesday. Haywood Street also offers art classes, some recreational activities and opportunities for the homeless to volunteer building Habitat for Humanity homes throughout the week. Combs hopes to offer another service and meal in the future.
But Combs has made one thing clear to his congregants -- no matter how many services the church offers, attending them won’t be a prerequisite for a warm meal or a coat from the clothing closet. “Most homeless ministries require you to attend worship before they’ll extend services, but that can make people feel coerced.
“A lot of people think the role of Christianity in this situation is to fix people. And Jesus does extend an invitation for transformation, but it usually started with a meal and some conversation, and that doesn’t ‘fix’ anything about being homeless.”
It does, however, create community and dismantle stereotypes. A shared meal, according to Combs, helps the businessperson see a homeless person not as someone begging for money on the side of the road, but rather as a fellow child of God.
“I tell people who want to help the homeless that the most important thing to do is look someone in the eye and talk with them, touch them,” says Combs. “If you want to write a check or give food or buy jackets, that’s great, but the Gospel demands something far more transformational -- that we know someone as holy.”
Combs says that the Haywood Street Congregation has been growing so quickly that it’s hard to know exactly what the future holds, but he is convinced that Candler provided him with the tools necessary for it: “The longer I’m in ministry, the more I see that Candler was just what I needed,” he says. “Other people have pointed out that it’s obvious that Candler got me ready for this. It’s the school I would choose a hundred times over.”