Helping people who are homeless or have financial challenges builds hope and community, say a number of Asheville spiritual leaders. In the process, they have found that the so-called helpers can benefit as much as those receiving assistance.
The Rev. Amy Cantrell started the BeLoved Community to provide what she calls an “extravagant welcome” to anyone who shows up. “The heart of our work and mission here — and I think what sets us apart oftentimes — is about personal relationship. It’s about building community, and we think that is one of the clear solutions to poverty and homelessness,” she says.
To Cantrell, “extravagant welcome” means bringing people together across the many divisions imposed by society. On a shoestring annual budget of $25,000, BeLoved offers diverse types of assistance in the intentional community (where Cantrell also lives) that is based on the ideals of the organization. Services include transitional housing, laundry, haircuts, summer programs for children, access to nutritious food and one-on-one support. Nevertheless, the nondenominational BeLoved Community seems to be as much about services as living in community with people from all walks of life.
“Our name [BeLoved] comes from many different places,” says Cantrell. “We believe that each person is deeply and radically claimed and loved by God.” The name was also inspired from the philosophical concept, championed by Martin Luther King Jr., which envisions a completely integrated society — a community of love and justice in which brotherhood would be an actuality in all of social life. “We’re seeking to live in those ways here,” she says.
She is not the only faith leader in Asheville finding God in unlikely places. The Rev. Brian Combs, founder of the faith-based nonprofit Haywood Street Congregation, seeks to experience Jesus in what he calls the “radical other.” Instead of embracing the traditional pastoral role, where the minister is thought to be the embodiment of Jesus, Combs goes to the streets. “If I want to meet Jesus, then I have to practice incarnation, breaking bread where he shared table and show up at the places where he would be at. In my experience, that’s under the bridge, that’s at the soup kitchen, that’s the crack house, that’s on the red-light corner,” he says.
The experience has been “one holy surprise after another,” he says.
Every Wednesday, 400-500 people show up for the Haywood Street Congregation’s Downtown Welcome Table. The meal is not just about providing food, says Combs. “What folks have said to me over and over is that, while I can be fed, I would much rather have an encounter at the table where I am humanized,” he explains. “Rather than waiting in a long line and being shoved a plate of food in a Styrofoam bowl,” he says, people sit at round tables with linen tablecloths, eat homemade food on real plates and are served by wait staff. The Welcome Table opens at 10:30 a.m. and closes whenever the last person leaves. People are welcome to hang out as long as they like and can eat as many plates of food as they want, he says, adding that the food never runs out.
Gifts that keep on giving
All the ministers interviewed for this story agree: When a person reaches out and helps another person, especially a person in need, something happens that is beyond the giver-receiver paradigm.
“We really want to go to the root causes that create the inequalities we see in our society,” says the Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss, co-pastor of the Land of the Sky United Church of Christ. “We don’t want to be in a more paternalistic posture, where we are always these ‘good Christians’ serving, and others are just receiving,” she says. “We really come from an ethic and theology in that we are seeking Jesus in those living on the margins.”
Hendler-Voss tells a story of visiting the Black Mountain Neuro-Medical Treatment Center last year to perform the Land of the Sky Christmas pageant. The children came dressed in Christmas costumes, read from the bible and sang such songs as “Go Tell It on the Mountain” and “Silent Night” for the residents. It was a good learning experience for the children, she says, because it gave them an opportunity to learn how to interact with people in wheelchairs or “those who can’t speak but still want to be greeted.” But it turned into something much more.
“The kind of reception the kids received from the audience was amazing. Faces lit up, and people who looked unresponsive started to light up and sing,” Hendler-Voss says with heartfelt emotion in her voice. When the children’s program was over, a staff person who was tending to someone in a wheelchair spontaneously sang “one of the most arrestingly beautiful renditions of ‘O Holy Night’ I’d ever heard,” she says, adding that a hush fell over the room and the church’s pianist joined him for an impromptu accompaniment.
“We came to give, to tell the [Christmas] story. But, really, our children had the opportunity to be with people who opened them up in different ways of being in the world, and they were able to receive the music and the love and the joy of those residents,” she says. “It is a beautiful example of how it really breaks down the barriers of the giver and the receiver.”
‘Life that can be a blessing for everybody’
The Rev. Ham Fuller, vicar of the Church of the Advocate, speckles his scripture with psychology research. In a study he devised in 2008, he found that people who are poor, disenfranchised or homeless have had greater exposure to childhood trauma and abuse, mental health challenges and drug use. To overcome some of these challenges, he believes helping people boost their self-worth is important.
“Anytime that we can get people in places where they can express [their] talent or gifts or learn skills, it can enhance their self-concepts, which increases their sense of personal success,” says Fuller. “That is consistent with the Gospel. Jesus came to say we are equally loved, and it is a matter of believing that and living into that possibility.”
It is not only people down on their luck who can find their gifts or talents. Hendler-Voss helps church members decide on the right ministry for them, focusing on identifying their gifts and what they are passionate about. “I think what God really intends for our lives is to do the things that make our hearts sing. When we can give in ways that make our hearts sing, we are really doing the work that God intends for us to do in the world,” she says.
The other side of helping is the economic, racial and other types of prejudices the ministers inevitably encounter. “It can be the rich against the poor. Or those who have suffered stuff and overcome it, and those who suffered stuff and haven’t overcome it. There are prejudices in so many ways,” Fuller says. “Psychologically, we know that we put down other people so we feel better ourselves. The freedom comes when you don’t have to put down someone else; you know that we’re all in this gifted, blessed life that can be a blessing for everybody if we try to love everybody — if we see them as brothers and sisters rather than different or less than,” he says.
At the Haywood Street Congregation, giving starts with titles and roles. “We use the word ‘companion’ because the word ‘volunteer’ assumes a number of things. Primarily, it assumes … that I’m a person who has access to privilege, access to commodity, access to influence. Therefore, I am volunteering for a cause or person who doesn’t have that,” says Combs. “So we say ‘companion.’ It’s a biblical term, intending that we are so journeying together in this life of faith that there is a back and forth, and up and down — a reciprocity that transforms in both directions.” he says.
Combs says people often ask him how many people have gotten sober, housed or healthy. “I don’t have an answer for that,” he says. “Because the more compelling story is how many people who live in gated communities or are influencers in their companies, who live well-heeled lives, come to Haywood Street and say, ‘My spiritual deficit is so great that I am the one who is here in need.’” He believes those are the folks who have had their lives most transformed from having an encounter with someone different from themselves.
“Conversely, I would add that, for folks of poverty, one of the central messages that is said over and over again [by society] is that ‘You are simply takers of the system,’ that ‘All you do is ask, need, steal, do whatever to hoard resources.’ And, in Haywood Street, most ministries are led by people who are homeless or formerly homeless,” says Combs. “That’s a transformative invitation, too, to say you have talents of remarkable worth, and this church is dependent on your sharing them with the world.”
The Rev. Amy Cantrell
The Rev. Brian Combs
The Rev. Amanda Hendler-Voss
The Rev. Ham Fuller