Dear Haywood St.,
Henry, or as he preferred to be called “Tent Man,” pulled me aside in year one of the Welcome Table with a startling request. He didn’t ask for a propane heater, steel-toed boots, external frame backpack or anything else to keep him alive outside on the streets. Instead, he asked for something inside… a police officer. “When I come for food and fellowship, I need to feel safe. Could you please hire someone in uniform at church.”
While the assumption is often that the physical hierarchy of needs takes priority, if you’re under threat, real or perceived, everything else is penultimate. Medicine, clothes, and shelter become secondary. Intending church to be sanctuary- both spiritually and physically, a place of peace to be in the presence of the Prince of Peace- we honored Henry’s appeal and added Deputy Sherriff Jimmy Hall to our staff. While Jimmy doesn’t wear a uniform, he has faithfully served for nearly all of our ten years of our existence.
In response to Haywood Street’s growth in complexity and suffering, we formed a safety committee to discuss incidents recorded on our blotter and make recommendations to the larger church. We trained our entire staff in Resources for Resiliency, a practical approach to reducing the effects of trauma in ourselves and others. And we created the Mercy League, five staff members dedicated to relationally responding to conflict through de-escalation.
Still, even with all of our proactive interventions, a congregant can arrive intoxicated and psychotic, especially on Methamphetamine and without medication compliance, and be so compromised that violence still erupts. Regrettably, in the past weeks, we’ve had three such episodes with brothers we know by name, have shared life with, and love deeply.
On separate occasions, two staff members were shoved (no injuries occurred). And in a third, a congregant was cut with a knife (he was discharged from the E.R. later that afternoon). Wanting to live into our mission statement, “Relationship, above all else,” most in episodes like these, we have refused to excommunicate and instead extended community to the jail by visiting, phoning family, connecting with case managers, referring to rehab, and maintaining contact. Although agonizing, when thresholds are crossed, we do, in the rarest instances, ask congregants to take an extended break from church for their safety and yours. Praying that each child of God will have access to desperately needed mental health care and recovery support, we hope to welcome them back to Haywood St. after a season of dialogue and stability.
Since Tent Man’s initial request, safety has been a serious priority. As we continue to grapple with the most faithful Christian response in our context, please feel invited to collaborate, offer your insights and help us follow Jesus to the precarious edges of ministry.