Spirit of the streets

“The ultimate goal is to see people become knowledgeable about who they are and what their destiny is, so that they can fulfill it.”

— Ernest Hays of Soteria

It seems an unlikely setting for matters of the spirit: a cavernous nightclub on Asheville’s lower Broadway called Club Fusion, with garish orange walls, piercing neon beer signs, a stage littered with speakers and amps, and the requisite wrap-around bar.

The space is a hip-hop club on Saturday nights; but on Sunday mornings, weekday mornings and some weekday evenings it houses a new ministry called Soteria (Greek for “salvation”).

I was walking down Broadway one morning when I spied a man performing what appeared to be an exorcism. It was actually a form of faith healing, and the bearded fellow in question turned out to be nondenominational minister Ernest Hays.

He and his wife, Melody Hays, run the unorthodox church.

“What we want to do is have an open forum — a free-form type of worship,” Ernest explains. “It involves celebrating music, dance, theater, visual arts — all the expressionary arts. We want to expose people to things and offer a freedom they’d never get in a regular church.”

The couple invites folks to just show up at Soteria on weekday evenings and share their talents — a sort of open mic for the Lord. If nobody feels like getting artsy, the Hayses provide coffee and snacks, and people can just hang out and talk.

Soteria’s setup might seem less surprising if you consider how the Hayses met: at a spiritual conference two years ago in Orlando (where they both then lived) … at the Hard Rock Cafe. During the decade or so before they met, both had been living with what Melody calls “death sentences.” A former stage manager who’s worked at the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, she had suffered for 12 years from an incapacitating case of the neuromuscular disease myasthenia gravis (Melody says she was literally paralyzed for three years).

Ernest, meanwhile, had contracted life-threatening liver disease from what he calls “many years of heavy partying.”

“Two years before Melody and I met, I was sitting in front of my television watching a video of a church service I had been to in Pensacola,” he remembers. “And the Lord told me to pray in a special way to be healed all by myself. I did that. In 1992, the doctors had told me my liver was swollen three times its normal size and fully inflamed, and I had about five years to live. In 1998, when I was in front of that TV, I prayed, and I just felt this lifting of something off of me. … I lost all my symptoms, and I lost four pants sizes in one week. I have never had symptoms again.”

Melody is also healthy today, which she attributes to a period of “almost monastic” spirituality and prayer. (During that time, she also began praying for a husband. “I didn’t ever want to date again, because I hated it,” Melody reveals. “Interestingly enough, I met Ernie before I was well.”)

On Sundays, Ernest and Melody rise at 5 a.m. and head over to the club to clean up beer bottles, cigarette butts and assorted other leavings from the previous night’s hip-hop scene (it’s part of their deal with the building’s owner). At 9:30 a.m. — after setting out food and coffee for the homeless, the hungry and whoever else decides to drop in — they open the doors for a slightly more formal church service that’s still far from traditional.

“Right now, it’s very organic,” Melody explains. “The first Sunday, we had no idea if anyone would show up. It’s not like we’d advertised or anything. … The first guy who came in is named Christopher, and he walks around town wearing long, biblical robes. The first thing he did was grab our Hoover vacuum and start vacuuming the place. Boy, was that a picture!”

“We started calling it the holy Hoover,” Ernest interjects.

At the Sunday-morning services, says Melody, “we talk, we share our lives, we listen to music, we pray.”

On a recent Wednesday night, a surprisingly diverse array of folks milled around the club, munching chips, sipping coffee and greeting each other like long-lost friends: a young, long-haired guy with a guitar; a preppy-looking couple who appeared to be in their late teens; assorted middle-aged men who looked as though they’d seen better days; a perky blond woman who might have been a Junior League president … and in the midst of it all a slight, heavily bearded man in a long, flowing, purple garment.

Brother Christopher was ordained as a minister of the Holiness Church back in 1993 but says he no longer believes in denominations. “Jesus gave us two commandments: to love the Lord God … and to love our neighbor as ourselves. That’s often lost in modern Christianity,” he notes, praising the Hays’ commitment to offering sanctuary to folks in need without expecting anything in return — another tenet he feels is often sorely lacking in contemporary Christianity. Christopher himself says he gave up his house, car and job and now devotes his life to his spiritual calling. “You couldn’t give me enough money to replace the last 18 months of my life,” he declares.

John O’Connor sports a shaved head and looks to be in his 30s. He’s been attending Soteria’s Sunday-morning services and weekday-evening gatherings regularly. O’Connor praises the Hays’ open approach to religion: “There’s nobody standing at a pulpit giving you fire and brimstone. … People can dance and move around, and you can just actually be yourself.”

Soteria’s long-range plan goes way beyond free-form worship, however. As Ernest, a former business consultant, puts it, they’d like to find a way to help the whole person. “The huge vision entails taking people off the street, helping them find their destiny, offering classes, or tying them in with someone who can offer training,” he explains. “The ultimate goal is to see people become knowledgeable about who they are and what their destiny is, so that they can fulfill it — whether it’s in art, theater, business, the ministry. It doesn’t matter if it’s a businessperson who’s tired of sitting behind a desk or a guy who’s been sleeping down in the gutter or a Rainbow kid whose parents are superrich.”

Already, the Hayses have taken small steps toward making that dream a reality, such as helping one young homeless man get an ID (increasingly hard to come by in these high-security times) so he can look for work, and offering other folks rides to job interviews.

O’Connor, for example, works 12-hour days through a temporary labor agency, but he’s still homeless. “At $6.50 an hour, you can’t live in Asheville — and you especially can’t save the kind of money it takes to get an apartment,” he maintains. O’Connor praises the Hayses for aiming to provide services other agencies do not. “They seem to want to get to know you and find out what your individual needs are, to help you,” he observes. “I’ve been temping for 10 months now and there’s a chance to get a full-time position, but I have to go to orientation and that’s in Spartanburg. The Hays will probably take me. It’s that kind of help. It’s an individual thing.”

Show me the way

In a downright spooky bit of mysticism, a series of what both the Hayses and Soteria Assistant Pastor Jeff Dyar call “visions” were instrumental in determining that the ministry would operate out of this particular downtown building. To begin with, while Ernest was living in Orlando, he says he began to get “visions of long-haired, dreadlocked kids walking down inclined streets of a city I’d never been to before. I saw them falling on their knees and crying.” Coincidentally, Melody’s parents moved to Arden around the same time. When the Hayses visited Asheville for the first time, Ernest says he knew it was the place in his vision.

“And when we saw the building, I said, ‘That’s it,'” he recalls. “In January, we were up at Beanstreets having a prayer meeting, and we walked down the street and I saw this building, and it was called the Music Zone then. We laid hands on this building and prayed for it to somehow be ours. One week later, the Music Zone closed — and one week after that, I was in here talking to the owner of the building.” Through a series of providential negotiations, Hays worked out an agreement with the owner whereby Soteria would share the space with Club Fusion.

“I later explained my dreams and visions to other people, and I found there were all kinds of people in different churches and different traditions that had the same feeling about Asheville,” remembers Hays. “Some of the people said this building was the specific building they prayed for.”

One of those people was minister Jeff Dyar, who was visiting Asheville from Savannah last July. As he tells it, a “divine voice” instructed him: “Don’t go back. Stay here.” Soon after, Dyar met Ernest Hays.

“He was sharing his vision about the storefront ministry, and I was sitting there with my mouth falling open,” remembers Dyar. “I said, ‘Brother, stop — I’ll tell you the rest of it,’ because I had experienced a verbatim vision about the same building and the whole thing.” Dyar decided to actually visit the building himself. “I was praying, and all of a sudden I saw what I call a word picture. It was like a Polaroid picture flashed in my face. And I saw myself standing at those front doors with my hands on the doors. Within 15 seconds, God spoke to me and said, ‘Lay hands on those doors.’ And that’s what I did. Two weeks later, the [owner] handed the keys to Ernie.”

Dyar, who’d originally brought only enough clothes with him for three days in Asheville, has now left his life in Savannah for good so he can focus on Soteria — and on providing, as ministry regular Gary Stringer puts it, “a good place to come and examine your heart.”

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