My New Place in the World

By Dottie G.

From eating around a table with strangers who may or may not interact with you or anyone else to worshipping with a congregation that agrees to every praise report or prayer request by shaking jars filled with dried beans, the Haywood Street Congregation is an experience too few have had the pleasure to experience. It’s called Holy Chaos and is an experience that fills me with joy, even as I have some anxious moments. It’s for the joy of the experience that I am taking some training that will make me a better leader of the about-to-be-launched Haywood Street Storytelling Circle. Finally, it’s because of the joy I have experienced in our story writing group that stories have become so important to me.

Driving onto the church campus, especially on Wednesdays around noon, can be an unsettling experience for anyone who hasn’t been there. Milling around or sitting on every available space are a hundred and more men and women and dogs of every description, most disheveled from living on the streets or in encampments around the area. Many seem to know each other and speak to a stranger only if spoken to. Some are obviously in their own world, whether from drugs or mental illness is anyone’s guess. Quite a few have all their worldly goods with them, in bags or on grocery store carts. Going inside the back door entrance you may find people asleep on the benches that line the walls or waiting in line for a shampoo and haircut, offered by area stylists free of charge. All are welcome.

Going downstairs I find these folks and area residents who care about them, seated around tables for eight enjoying a good meal cooked and served by companions who greet one and all warmly, many of them by name. Some folks are neatly dressed, and you know they are most likely not among the unhoused. Some of the unhoused ones are also neat and clean, having been able to get up the street to AHope for a shower, but many are obviously not. They may be talking to one another or to themselves or to their phones, but all who want to be are fed well and free.

Haywood Street has spoken to me from the first time I entered about ten years ago, but it’s only recently that I feel I have found my place there. I have helped cook meals for the respite care site and celebrated Holy Communion at worship on Wednesdays, but it’s the story-telling that draws me in and feels right. The training I am receiving from an Asheville non-profit called SeekHealing isn’t about telling my story, although I will do that; it’s learning to listen and respond appropriately to the stories of persons whose life experiences may be filled with trauma, with addictions, with losses larger than I can imagine. Similar to the kind of active listening most of us have been taught, it also involves learning to understand what trauma is, what triggers relapses, how not register surprise to anything we may hear from a mentally ill person, but reflecting what we have heard and affirming the story-teller, and so much more.

Although I am only beginning the second phase of the training, I am trying to practice what I have learned. On a recent Wednesday at lunch I sat with seven persons around a meal served family style. The host encouraged everyone to introduce themselves , and after prayer requests, blessed the gathering and the food. As we enjoyed a delicious meal of ham, mac and cheese, broccoli, salad, corn on the cob, cornbread and strawberry shortcake, all prepared and served by companions, I became acquainted with the five men and the other woman at my table.

Beside me was a Black man of the streets who loved teasing the men and women who were serving us. It was obvious that he was a regular. Beside him was another likely regular, an employed local man who simply loves being there and chatting. Next around the table were a thirty-something woman from New Orleans, who told stories of living through hurricanes before she decided mountain life was easier, a young guy from Gulfport, MS, who said he was moving out that afternoon to go to Princeton, NC, because he had heard it was a good place, and the last two, young men who live in Woodfin and work, there for a good free meal on Wednesdays. We might have been any group, anywhere enjoying a meal together.

Following lunch, some diners go upstairs to the sanctuary for a wonderful, lively worship service led by members of the community. The pastors preach a conversational sermon, to which the listeners add ideas and comments on the Biblical lesson of the day, and at the closing of the service celebrate Holy Communion. Worshippers may sing a song or give a testimony, anyone who wants to may go up and join in the choir, lustily singing gospel hymns accompanied by Hazel on the baby grand piano. The congregation is made up of regulars, both housed and unhoused, visitors who have come to experience the new kind of congregation, area pastors, and several doggie companions. The best part is the shouted benediction: “Whose child are you?” asked three times, with enthusiastic response each time; “God’s child!”

I have loved being at Haywood St. from the first time I experienced it, and I think I finally know my place in the Holy Chaos that is Haywood St. Congregation.

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