Dear Haywood Street Community,
Before the oil paint dried, Janet McKenzie’s icon, “Jesus of the People,” was immediately controversial. The artist chose an African American woman as her model- thick eyebrows, generous lips, locked hair- to portray a non-binary Savior. One covered in the unadorned robes of a peasant, a tangle of barbs encircling her brown forehead rather than a gilded crown. Opposite the door, the framed image hangs on the long wall of the pastor’s study at Haywood Street Congregation, a visual reminder for all who enter that God’s priority has a preferential bias.
In August of 2020, after combing through old site maps, we confirmed that the Asheland Avenue parcel was unjustly taken during urban renewal decades prior, displacing nine black families with institutional promises that remain unkept. A painful truth obscured by revisionist history but long known by the local community of color. Practicing transparency, Haywood Street Community Development shared this finding with the City and throughout our neighborhood engagement, a three-month intensive of fact sharing, in-person meetings, virtual meetings, phone calls, emails, and texts totaling over 300 communications and counting.
While elders in the Southside neighborhood are championing this project, a dozen sister non-profits and citizens have written letters of endorsement, and leaders of color are encouraging us to press on, another holy pause is required. Ironically, our proposal, in part, has provoked a much larger conversation about government-sanctioned racism and institutional hegemony, justice and equity, and how to hasten the deconstruction of white supremacy. Because many of the misgivings aren’t primarily about our vision but long-standing systemic issues, HSCD, while grief-stricken for the unhoused shivering outside through yet another winter, understand the City’s decision to table the February 23rd vote to include more voices.
Refusing to perpetuate paternalism and instead taking contextual notes along the way, Haywood Street Congregation has a long tenure creating a safe space for fierce conversation and empathetic listening. We welcome an extension of the dialogue, especially during this concurrent season of Lent- the 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Easter when Christians expectantly wait in the darkness of unknowing. Stewards of mystery, we’re uncertain what happens next. But we remain convinced building is a righteous cause, a calling informed by the many congregants we’ve eulogized who died without a permanent address (54,000 adults and 20% of all children in Asheville live in poverty and NO affordable vacancies exist for low-income renters).
To the concerned citizens who raised their hands in opposition, thank you. Your feedback has been refining, a valued perspective that has heightened our awareness and deepened our conviction to collaborate. And to those not yet engaged, if you have an adamant but silent opinion, either in approval or disapproval, please speak up. Our hope for the site can only be as good as the perspectives that help shape it.
After a tumultuous week without comparison, filled with rampant rumors and political instability, I’ve found myself returning to “Jesus of the People” for needed guidance. Even after searching the painting for fifteen years, I noticed for the first time how McKenzie draped Christ in the muted colors of the world’s woundedness and affixed his gaze, not heavenward, but straight ahead. I believe the missional intent is clear: if your eyes meet Jesus’, then healing ministries are now the responsibility of each viewer, a reaffirmation of what Haywood Street has intended since our inception.
Rev. Brian Combs