Everyone is welcome at the Haywood Street Congregation — “white collar, blue collar, bloody collar … just anybody,” says the Rev. Brian Combs.
Combs is a United Methodist minister at a urban church in Asheville, N.C., that bridges the gap between privilege and poverty.
“[This church] reflects their understanding of Jesus, which is a savior with radical hospitality, inclusive love, extending grace in every direction and always inviting the circle to be widened.”
–The Rev. Brian Combs
“My calling is to be with people on the streets, and that’s why this church was started — to welcome the modern-day lepers.
“I think God has called me to lay myself bare in a way that I can be transformed,” he said. “The prevailing notion of homeless ministry is that the church has something to offer and that it’s transformation in one direction. But actually, what we would say is that sanctification is something that goes both ways. It’s reciprocal: It requires me to look at you as a minister; it requires you to look at me as a minister. And once we get on that equal place of footing between each other, then transformation happens.”
At Haywood, both the “housed” and the homeless worship side by side. Combs doesn’t wear a suit and tie, and his shaggy hair and beard make him look more like a construction worker than a pastor. People often mistake the businessman or banker in the church as the pastor.
“That happens all the time, which is good,” he says. “Because so much of church is getting rid of lazy stereotypes, and God doesn’t see us that way.”
Serving the marginalized
He would much rather people see him as “Brian” rather than “Pastor Combs.”
One of his first appointments was in Atlanta where he worked with pimps and prostitutes, crack addicts, people with mental illness and those dying of AIDS. It was the kind of ministry he felt called to do.
Asheville “has always been my favorite place on earth,” he says. The homeless population is growing in that city and the North Carolina Annual (regional) Conference had been looking for a way to address the need.
“So if I can be in my favorite place on earth, fulfilling God’s call, doing a ministry that really is needed, then this is where I need to be.”
Combs listens to the people he meets. The idea for a midday worship service on Wednesdays came from a homeless man. Combs asked him what he thought the church should be doing.
The man told him, “Well I’m homeless, I'm struggling with addiction and I need something during the middle of the day because that’s when I really struggle with crack, marijuana and alcohol. And if you had a worship service, I’d much rather be doing that than getting high.”
Haywood Street is not like the United Methodist church Combs grew up in, but he is hearing from his parishioners that it is the kind of church they have always wanted.
“I remember a doctor saying, ‘I need to be here for my spiritual manna more than homeless folks need to be here for food and clothes.’”
Haywood Street is offering an encounter with Jesus with no strings attached, Combs says.
“We have an obligation as people of faith to include everybody in the circle of faith.” –The Rev. Brian Combs
He’s heard stories about homeless folks forced to attend church and listen to the sermons before they can get any services. Coercion and church should never be in the same sentence, he says.
“There is something antithetical to Jesus about that for me, so we’ve just flipped that on its head and said you can come here, you can get clothes, you can eat, you can engage in any services you want and then you can go on your way. But if you want to come to worship, you’re welcome.”
“When you hear somebody’s story, they are no longer a stranger. They become brother and sister. We have an obligation as people of faith to include everybody in the circle of faith.”
The following people contributed to this Profile:
Print story by Kathy Gilbert; interview by Heidi Robinson; videography by Antonio Davis.
UMC.org Profiles are produced by Pam Price, 615-742-5405.