By Frank Ramirez
When it comes to Brethren, signing up for service projects is as natural–and as sweet–as ice cream. At NOAC, participants came to serve, not only to receive. NOAC also offered time to simply be. To be at peace with sisters and brothers of very different backgrounds. To be at rest, away from the hustle and bustle of life. To be as one as they broke bread, not only at meals in the NOAC dining rooms but in communion with the folks at Haywood Street United Methodist Church in Asheville, N.C.
The NOAC Planning Team took great pains not only to create opportunities for service projects, but to check back and make sure everything would be prepared. However, as can be the case, real life happened. The person at the Haywood Street church who had been in contact with NOAC planners had suddenly taken sick, and those filling in for them had no idea that 15 people were scheduled to arrive for a service project.
Ted Foster of Brookville (Ohio) Church of the Brethren, who was called on at the last minute to lead the group, was a little surprised when “the lady who answered the door at the church didn’t have a clue about us.” Foster explained that the group from NOAC had come to the church for a service project of cleaning up after a meal to be shared with the homeless and those struggling with various medical and mental health problems.
He and the NOAC group soon learned more about the Haywood Street church and its programs, which are open to all. Twice a week a meal is offered, designed by the finest chefs in the area, prepared on site, and served to more than 500 individuals. After sharing in that day’s meal, the NOAC group was invited to a worship service.
“The service was led by what I called ‘the Doogie Howser of preachers,’” Foster said, referring to the relative youth of the minister. “We were welcomed in. The first part of the service was testimonies, life stories, how they had been in prison, and gotten out, had no place to go to be helped with jobs and living quarters. They got connected to the church, which became a vital part of their lives.”
Testimonies centered around mental illness, addictions, and how people had become connected to the church and were now a vital part of the church’s ministries. At one point, an impromptu group of musicians and singers came together and led the congregation in the song “I Am Everyday People,” by Sly and the Family Stone. When it came time to take communion, some of those who testified came forward to serve the communion. The NOAC group was invited to take communion with everyone else.
“The minister stressed in his sermon that what they do is inclusive of everyone, no matter what. ‘We’re all children of God,’ the minister said, ‘There is nothing we can do that will make God exclude us.’”
One of the key words used by the participants was “chaos.” Their addictions, illness, homelessness, and other problems were part of the chaos from which they sought to be delivered.
“We thought we had come to clean up after the meal. That was our assignment,” said Foster. “But we found out that during the worship the staff had already cleaned everything up. It was an awkward moment.”
But as the group talked among themselves, they realized, “We came to serve, but instead they served us.”
The ministries of Haywood Street United Methodist Church are funded by government programs as well as corporate grants. For more go to www.haywoodstreet.org.
— Frank Ramirez is a writer and pastor of Union Center Church of the Brethren in Nappanee, Ind., serving on the press team for National Older Adult Conference (NOAC) 2023.