Asheville – Directly on the edge of town on the corner of Haywood St. and Patton Rd, in a red brick building that’s set a little bit back from the road, Rev. Brian Combs has brought church to Asheville in a “different kind of way”. Approaching Haywood Street Congregation it doesn’t take long for that sense of “difference” to show up. The sign out front has a beautiful piece of artwork painted onto it depicting some people standing warming themselves at a barrel fire, some more people enjoying a view at a picnic table, in the center, two doors swung open revealing a chapel. All under a rising sun and a dove’s head. Underneath the words “Holy Chaos. Abundant grace. Welcome table.” are painted. Words that define the work that Rev. Brian, his staff and the innumerable volunteers have done in and for the community. Selfless acts of love and kindness but most importantly humanity.
Haywood Street Congregation are folks that definitely practice what they preach and what Rev. Brian preaches is the “ministry of relationship, which can be defined simply as the act of ‘being with’…. It contrasts with ‘doing for’ and requires spending time together, talking and listening, serving and being served, giving and receiving.”
At the downtown welcome table where Wednesday lunch and Sunday breakfast is served, people whose paths might not have otherwise crossed build bonds and connections and even friendships over a shared meal. Just as when Jesus broke the bounds of dining etiquette by inviting all to his table, prince and pauper alike, the social titles we all wear are left at the door when entering the downtown welcome table. Haywood Street Congregation and Rev. Brian Combs believe that “we all are made equal in the giving and receiving, where every child of God has a seat,” and they show up to prove this every week.
“Church is located where Jesus shows up,” is part of the principle behind the words “Holy Chaos” that are painted on the sign out front. “Jesus showed up as a homeless pauper, that set a precedent for where God is going to locate,” Rev. Brian explained when asked about his ministry. He takes this literally and very seriously. Haywood Street Congregation focusses all its ministry and efforts on some of the most vulnerable communities in our modern society: the houseless, the addicted, the sick, the poor. These communities, as far as the members of Haywood St Congregation are concerned, are where Jesus is and where church needs to be.
Rev. Brian also shared a remark he had heard from a houseless person, something that stood out to him and keeps him going in a way, “The most devastating thing is, ‘I just don’t feel like I belong anywhere.’ That loss of purpose and that feeling of loneliness is what Haywood Street has set out to change. Anyone and everyone is welcome. Whether it be to the Downtown Welcome Table, the Haywood Street Gardens where volunteers and staff plant and tend to all the various plants and flowers, or just stopping in for worship on Wednesday afternoon, all are always welcome.”
When asked if there was any single story that he witnessed over his 10 years at Haywood St. that really stood out to him, Rev. Combs had a surprising answer. He didn’t tell the heartwarming story of a houseless person who with help, support and faith in God went on to become successful, as one can kind of grow to expect from a group who works with the houseless. He told the story of a group of people: some of the “well-heeled, more privileged people’’ who have become members of the Haywood Congregation. He spoke of the change he witnessed in folks by being given the opportunity to sit with and share space with people who are unlike them. People whose stories they may not have understood so well at first but by simply “being with” each other, the way that Jesus would have, people will encounter the sacred in the person most unlike them. These “sacred exchanges,” Rev. Brian shared, “where roles are reversed, where giver and receiver are inverted,” this is where God exists.