A church without walls offers unconditional acceptance to people who are homeless
Windsor Jones and Country pause for a moment at the Common Soles clinic hosted by Church of the Common Ground, where Jones washed Country's feet. Photos by Branden Camp
Church of the Common Ground, an Episcopal congregation in Atlanta, avoids the usual attempts to “fix” people who are living on the streets. Instead, it seeks to be a living witness of love and compassion.
It is a Sunday afternoon in Atlanta, just after 1 p.m. It’s 92 degrees, but with the humidity, it feels hotter.
Fifteen to 20 women and men are gathered in a shaded area on the north end of Woodruff Park in downtown Atlanta. They sing “This Little Light of Mine” as the life of the city swirls around them.
Four blocks away, two EMS workers struggle with a gurney as they tend to a disheveled older man slumped on the side of the road. A recent high school graduate poses for photos in front of a nearby fountain. In the park, two people passing out plates of rice attract a crowd.
This is Sunday worship at Church of the Common Ground, where the Very Rev. Monica Mainwaring, her staff and volunteers hold worship outdoors every Sunday for a congregation of people who are living on the streets -- and anyone else who cares to join in.
It can be a struggle to compete with the activity surrounding them, but the experience is vital to this church without walls, which seeks to serve people where they are -- and as they are -- week in and week out.
Like any other church, Church of the Common Ground provides for the pastoral and spiritual needs of the women, men and youth in its midst each week. In addition to Sunday services in Woodruff Park, it offers morning prayer and Bible study, for example.
It also has offerings unique to its congregation, such as Common Soles, a nonmedical foot clinic. But more than anything, Church of the Common Ground is focused on offering unconditional acceptance, theological affirmation and community to some of the estimated 3,000 homeless people in the city.
“We strive to honor the dignity and worth of every human being, recognizing that those we encounter suffer shame, isolation, brokenness and unmet need,” Mainwaring said.
“We do not require that people who enter into a relationship with us be upwardly mobile. They do not need to enter a linear trajectory toward sobriety, housing, cleanliness, employment, mental wellness.”
Do you place conditions on acceptance, either spoken or unspoken?
After the group has read Scripture and sung another hymn, Mainwaring delivers the day’s sermon, competing with the surrounding sounds and activities without a microphone or portable speaker.
“Where is God in the midst of our struggles? God is here with us, among us,” she says. “We come to this circle to remember that God is here. God is not over there, not in a temple somewhere over there. God is here. Not because of what we do or what we produce. No, God is here. God is right here, with us.”
The worshippers sing “Amazing Grace” and then form a circle, locking hands, where they begin to share their names and prayer petitions. They pass the peace, take communion, sing another hymn and eventually receive a sending-forth blessing.
Some linger, while others disperse -- a typical Sunday gathering.
“By worshipping outside, they come as they are,” Mainwaring said. “If they arrive to worship inebriated, we welcome them just as we would a sober parishioner. We look them in their eye and know their name, celebrating with them the good news.”
Church without a building
The website of Church of the Common Ground says, “We’re like any other church -- we just don’t have a building.”
That is true -- the congregation is a worshipping community of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta; Mainwaring reports to the bishop. The Sunday service is an adapted Episcopal liturgy, and the core congregation is 50 to 60 people, though as many as 5,000 take part in its activities each year.
Church of the Common Ground is a nontraditional congregation within a traditional denominational structure. Are there opportunities for you to create nontraditional ministries within existing institutions?
But when your congregation is composed of people living on the streets, just being church can seem radical.
All too often, religious institutions limit their homeless outreach, along with their efforts to combat issues like addiction and sex trafficking, to transactional fixes -- one side gives, the other takes. Church of the Common Ground chooses a different approach.
Homelessness, Mainwaring said, is an indignity. Since people experiencing homelessness are systematically conditioned to be in transactional relationships with those who have and those who help, Church of the Common Ground intentionally doesn’t dabble in transactional aid.
Mainwaring spends much of her time working with partner agencies to get folks the services and help they need, but she is adamant that the church itself is not a place to get jobs, food or clothing.
“Theologically, we believe that God loves all of God’s people, especially those deemed unlovable by society. We resist the temptation to ‘do for’ and ‘fix,’ [in order] to prioritize love,” she said.
Could you or your organization stop trying to fix people? How would that change your work?
For church member Frank Torres Jr., that unconditional welcome has made all the difference. He has been involved with the congregation for almost 10 years.
“They have given me a sense of purpose,” Torres said. “Because of Church of the Common Ground, I was able to get back into services with the Atlanta VA. Once I got off the street, I started to give back, because they gave me so much.”
Footwashing and sacred conversations
Church of the Common Ground held its first service in Woodruff Park on Christmas Eve 2006. The Rev. Bob Book and Holly Book, who had been inspired by the work of the Ecclesia Ministries at common cathedral in Boston, founded it. The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta embraced the ministry and eventually ordained Book -- a Lutheran pastor -- as a priest.
The staff now includes a curate, a deacon, a volunteer administrator, an Episcopal Service Corps fellow, a ministry coordinator and five summer interns.
It’s funded mostly by individual donors, churches from throughout the diocese, diocesan support and grants, as well as in-kind gifts.
The church offers regular gatherings four days each week: Sunday worship; Monday morning prayer; Tuesday morning foot clinic; and Wednesday morning prayer and afternoon Bible study. It also hosts regular “Theology from the Margins” study sessions with a seminary professor, as well as regular coffee hours.
Common Soles, the foot clinic, takes place in the park of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. At the park -- and inside during cold weather -- homeless people can have their feet washed and massaged by parishioners and other volunteers.
It’s a sacramental ministry, as people receive loving care, clean socks and lemonade, and often have sacred conversations with the volunteers, Mainwaring said.
Cultivating lay leaders
On the first Sunday in June, a group of parishioners selected for a pilot project to develop lay leaders had their seventh lunch meeting at the Landmark Diner on Luckie Street, just a few feet from Woodruff Park.
When asked to bless the food, Johnny Stevenson joked, “I always get nominated for stuff.” It was a small honor, but significant nonetheless.
During lunch, the group discussed the successes of the program -- called Cultivating Leadership on Common Ground -- as well as areas that need improvement, like participants’ struggles in connecting with their assigned mentors.
They also learned more about each other, such as the fact that one of them, who currently lives with his mother, walks 13 miles one way to participate in the worship services at Woodruff Park.
Torres, who is in the group, shared his appreciation for the church and the program.
“People respect the church, because there is a proven record,” he said. “When I get to do a reading or even when I am greeting people, it makes me feel like I am a part.”
Mainwaring, cognizant of her privilege and inability to relate to the experience of those she serves, said she believes that such a program is essential.
“We have not cultivated a core community of people who carry the vision and [do] the work of Church of the Common Ground. It feels like we have an imbalance within the church broadly, where housed staff, interns and volunteers are designing, preparing and executing church programs for unhoused parishioners,” she said.
“We are at risk of being the very system of charity and dependence that we critique, and [in this] we deny our theological conviction that poor people can be -- and are -- the church too.”
Where do the risks lie for you and your organization? Could privilege and good intentions be undercutting your mission?
Stevenson, an adoptee who experienced neglect for most of his childhood and went on to struggle with drug addiction, initially became familiar with the church through Common Soles. At first, he was skeptical.
“Who in their right mind would start a full-time outdoor ministry?” he remembers thinking almost a year ago. “One of the volunteers at the time began talking to me about the church and Sunday service.”
He stayed on the periphery for a few weeks. Now he serves in several capacities during Sunday worship and beyond.
By the end of the lunch meeting, Stevenson and Mainwaring were discussing plans for him to cook the chili for a dinner meeting with their advisory board.
“Someone is going to have to help me,” he joked, glancing at Torres. “Cooking chili for 10 or more people is a lot of work.”
Transience is a feature of the community, but Mainwaring hopes that this six-month program, funded by an Innovation Grant from Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, will help develop more ownership and agency among lay leaders.
The leadership program began in February 2019. The first order of business was to identify and recruit five parishioners who have shown an interest in leadership and ownership of the church.
Each, in one way or another, experiences homelessness. Some are on the streets; others are living with family. Some are unemployed; others are receiving support from Veterans Affairs assistance programs.
The following month, they attended the 2019 Lansing Lee Conference at the Kanuga retreat center in North Carolina, where Stevenson and Torres addressed a crowd of roughly 100 attendees.
“Some can’t fathom what it’s like to live outside,” Mainwaring said. “What can we do to change that? In part, we have to create opportunities for them to tell their own story.”
A new era
Mainwaring recently announced that she will be leaving the Church of the Common Ground in August to take on the role of rector/pastor of St. Martin in the Fields Episcopal Church in Atlanta.
The Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta will bring in support for the transition alongside current clergy staff, the Rev. Kenya Thompson, who serves as curate, and the Rev. Devadas Lynton, who serves as deacon.
Mainwaring hopes they will continue several aspects of the work in progress. In addition to evaluating the effectiveness of the leadership-mentoring program, Mainwaring hopes to begin collecting data that could help the church stay in touch with those they serve. That way, she wouldn’t have to rely on word-of-mouth if, say, someone were in the hospital or had other needs.
“If we were able to have that information, then it would inform how present we are capable of being,” she said.
In addition, part of the job is raising awareness within the diocese to seek more effective ways to be a prophetic and provocative voice, especially about the connection between homelessness and race.
Are there opportunities for you to be a prophetic and provocative voice?
The National Alliance to End Homelessness reports that African Americans are overwhelmingly the largest group affected by homelessness. African Americans account for only 13 percent of the general population but 40 percent of people experiencing homelessness.
The cause, according to Pew Charitable Trusts, is “a pileup of inequities,” including racial disparities exacerbated by issues like lack of wealth and legal system inequality.
“I know that there is no quick fix to addiction or homelessness or years of physical and mental abuse. Linear trajectories are not always possible,” Mainwaring said. “[As with] most of us, there is a long view.”
Show up and be present
But the core of the ministry lies in relationships, in creating safe spaces where people who have exhausted most of their other connections can worship freely without judgment or further shame.
That can take time. In one instance, a woman came to Sunday worship for months staying on the periphery. Mainwaring eventually decided to just sit with her. Then one Sunday the woman moved in closer -- 100 feet, then 50 feet.
Later, the woman sat at a table next to the group during one of their gatherings. Mainwaring invited her to come closer, but she kept her distance -- yet sat close enough to hear the discussion.
The next week, she pulled up a chair.
“We are faithful to show up and be present,” Mainwaring said. “As a result, they know that regardless of snow, rain, humidity, we will be here.”