Visit to Church of the Epiphany's Welcome Table
“Jerusalem, my happy home, when shall I come to thee? When shall my sorrows have an end? Thy joy when shall I see? Jerusalem, Jerusalem, God grant that I may see thine endless joy, and of the same partaker ever be!”
Earlier in October, I took a trip to Washington, DC, as part of a service opportunity with young adults across The Episcopal Church. Hosted by the 20s and 30s group at Washington National Cathedral, we met at the Church of the Epiphany on G and 13th Streets, right in the midst of downtown DC. As I emerged from the Metro Center subway station, I recognized the church from a particularly beautiful Good Friday Service I attended years ago while interning with the Office of Government Relations and the Episcopal Public Policy Network.
As in much of the District, history surrounds the traveler here; the White House and the National Mall are three blocks away, museums and monuments overtake the horizon, and tourists bustle along the streets. On that day, they did so seemingly unperturbed by the driving rain and cold—remnants of Hurricane Joaquin. The area is not only awash in history but also money. Sparkling office blocks and high-end stores are neatly pressed against the unlittered sidewalk, unsurprising, as the median income in this ZIP code was near $70,000 in 2010, and has steadily risen since then. This was an interesting place, I thought, for the Welcome Table, a ministry of Church of the Epiphany, dedicated to feeding and empowering the downtown poor of Washington.
When I arrived at Epiphany, the temperature had dropped to nearly 50 degrees—not terribly unseasonable for October, but jarring after a week of mid-80s in New York. The rain was cold, steady, and blowing directly in my face. I felt lucky indeed that the church was only a block from the station.
The church, as I had recalled from years earlier, was set in the midst of a small green courtyard on G Street. An off-white structure, with a large central tower and chimes, formed the façade. A black, wrought-iron fence surrounded the courtyard, which was dotted with vibrant flowers, and appeared well-maintained, even in the midst of the rain. Red doors were vibrant against the white of the building, and the gothic-arched windows with their skilled tracery reminded me of the prairie-gothic and resolutely-English churches of my youth.
Having been buzzed into the building, I met with some of the other young adults who had traveled to the city from the region. After cursory greetings, we moved ourselves and our luggage into the Mission Center, which consisted of the third floor of an addition to the church. Effectively a gym with a kitchen and second-floor running track, the room was objectively nice, and even more so when I considered other locations I had visited for church events while growing up. Racks of inflatable mattresses and sleeping bags lined a back wall, and newly constructed restrooms and shower facilities presented the idea that this space was usually used for hosting short-term mission groups for work in the city.
I reflected on the uniqueness of the space; about 50 feet long by 20 feet long, the Mission Center is an anomaly for churches in urban settings; the overwhelming demand for real estate in this city, as well as in locations like New York, Philadelphia, and Boston, seems to insist that any and every square inch of land must be used for commercial enterprise. Couple that demand with the District of Columbia’s law or tradition—depending on who you ask—keeping all buildings shorter than the Washington Memorial, and one starts to see buildings growing out, not up.
As the group got to setting up air mattresses and passing out materials, we were introduced to each other. We were a small but committed group, representing the dioceses of Washington, Pennsylvania, Upper South Carolina, Connecticut, and New York. Some were volunteers, some were staff, and some were somewhere in-between. There was nearly a 20-year span in age, and our backgrounds were as varied as they came, from educational background to hometowns to faith experiences growing up. Though it’s always fascinating to explore the many ways we are different, we also found ourselves, in at least one important way, the same: despite the varying natures of our vocations and the challenges that come with any work, we were committed to serving God and neighbor.
As we sat there, voices and laughter echoing off the floors and whitewashed walls, I remembered that fellowship often happens in this setting; we were eight people sharing each others’ company, being assured that there were no malevolent ghosts in the building, trying to figure out the six degrees of separation (though more accurately, two degrees) between us, and participating in what one of our number so aptly called “holy listening.” This was the first of many moving experiences over the weekend, and it laid the foundation for our work ahead. In these moments, we were reminded that ministry involves a small group of people who are committed, as Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori says, to “marching toward Zion.”
The conversation, spurred on by an excellent resource called How We Gather, led us to discuss the numerous food and feeding ministries which we had witnessed over the years. From Street Church to Church by the Pond to St. Lydia’s, Brooklyn, there has been a noticeable increase in Episcopal ministries dedicated to worship and meals around lunch and dinner tables. One of our number, remarking on Street Church at Franklin Park in DC, described a weekday scene of young suited professionals eating lunch and worshiping with homeless folks pushing overloaded shopping carts, and the whole assembly raising the strains of Amazing Grace. “Something about that scene was jarring,” he said. The scene itself proved that, in his words, “Mission can be awkward, and that’s great.”
This awkwardness, at which the participant hinted, can be difficult to handle; nobody enjoys those moments when, during a stilted conversation, one can hear knuckles cracking or keys jingling in a pocket. Uncomfortable as it is, this awkwardness speaks to the earnestness and authenticity that we are called to value. In a world where so much is transitory, fleeting, cynical, immediate, and vapid, we are starting to see the beauty in the unpolished, unrefined, and tangled-up ways of being together. It can be a joy.
The next morning, we gathered around donuts, bagels, and coffee. To say that we looked unpolished and unrefined would be wholly accurate. But as we sat, talking about our dreams for, experiences of, and stories about the Church, that fact faded into the background. One participant, a young professional with a stellar academic record and an eminently respectable job, realized soon after graduating that these accomplishments, while gratifying in themselves, were not personally fulfilling to him. He explained that he needed the community that could tell him that he is more than just a letter on a report card or a job. The value and dignity of being recognized as a beloved child of God were instrumental in his understanding of himself and the world. “Embracing my Christianity has changed me,” he said.
Another of our number offered an uncomplicated sentence that is at the heart of evangelism—“I want to take all of what I’ve learned and share it.” I marveled at how simple the goal is, and how much more difficult I have made my work as a Christian. Presiding Bishop-elect Michael Curry recently said in an interview with The Charlotte Observer, “We’ve got to get to the day when the average Episcopalian is in touch with their own faith story and faith journey and is able to share that appropriately and authentically… That may be the game-changer… We’re good about doing. We’re nervous about talking.” This has certainly been true in my life, and I committed in that moment to be more conscientious in, as the Book of Common Prayer puts it, “commend[ing] the faith that is in us.” Another participant noted that, while we face our own challenges and the competing narratives of death, unbridled consumerism, and salvation by technology, “We have the greater narrative of the Good News.” With the help of God and through the Good News, we are empowered, as one of our number put it, to “foster transformative, sustaining relationships that matter.”
The next morning, we turned our discussion into service at Church of the Epiphany’s Welcome Table ministry. This ministry has undertaken a mission “to feed the hungry, build diverse and inclusive community, worship as one, and give and receive the love of Christ.” This is accomplished through a variety of programs, including Bible study, a choir, Gospel Art, Narcotics Anonymous, breakfast, and a celebration of the Eucharist. Nearly 200 poor and homeless persons participate in Welcome Table ministries each week, so the amount of work can seem understandably daunting. Thankfully, there was a formidable cadre of volunteers willing to undertake the task. Unbeknownst to me at the time, the church had been open and staffed with volunteers since 6:30 that morning—cooking, leading classes and generally preparing for the influx of people sent out of the shelters at the crack of dawn.
I arrived at the church just long enough to admire the Matthew 25 windows along the western wall of the sanctuary. After I snapped a few pictures, I was ushered to join the choir behind the altar. The service, which began at 8:00, followed Rite II. The Old Testament, psalm, and epistle were all read by homeless parishioners, and the prayers of the people followed a loose format where members of the congregation spoke their petitions allowed, ending them with “Lord, in your mercy,” before the assembly responded with the customary, “Hear our prayer.” By my estimation, and with the understanding that appearances are often deceiving, around half of the twelve choristers were experiencing homelessness. Homeless or not, the whole group sang every piece as the words were written on their hearts.
The service, though complete, was brief—45 minutes from beginning to end- and understandably so. A few of the parishioners were dazed or asleep across the pews. While an attitude of respectful detachment was evident, I was put off until I realized that many of these people had been up for at least two hours and had pushed or carried their belongings through stinging rain and wind for the last two days.
After the service ended, I joined John, a homeless member of the choir, for breakfast. We talked briefly about the programs and what he enjoyed about the Welcome Table and Church of the Epiphany, before comparing notes on where we’ve been around the country and who we might know in common. He told me about growing up and having adventures in 1970s Brooklyn, I told him about the comparatively less exciting mid-90s in suburban Minnesota. We cut our visit short when I was informed that the Gospel Art class was about to begin.
The Rev. Dr. Marge McNaughton, associate dean emerita at Virginia Theological Seminary, introduced me to the program. She facilitates Gospel Art with Dr. Lisa Kimball, also of VTS, who is the Director of the Center for Ministry of Teaching, and Professor of Christian Formation and Congregational Leadership. Ms. Mary Sebold, a parishioner at Epiphany, and the Gospel artists, most of whom are homeless, also share in the leadership and direction of the program. They are funded by a grant from the Episcopal Evangelical Education Society.
When I asked Mother Marge about the main aim of the program, she explained, that it is to develop an effective way to tell guests, “You matter to us.” From this point, volunteers and artists work to build Christian community where people experiencing homelessness can get to know each other in a safe environment. Art and aesthetics, for these artists, is not only a way of building faith, but also a creative outlet that is often frustrated elsewhere. Kelly, whose work on a tempera painting of a tree far surpassed any of my abilities, mentioned what a blessing it was for her personally to have access to a breadth of art supplies, including colored pencils, paints, canvases, drawing paper, and pens. As important to her was the fact that the leadership and other artists valued her creation. Because the homeless obviously have very few belongings and must bring them wherever they go, they often leave their artwork behind; this is particularly true as many shelters are moved out of downtowns and toward suburban rings. While similar ministries might simply push the pieces into a trash can at the end of the work time, volunteers at the Welcome Table provide a small storage space for the artists and display completed pieces on a series of corkboards. In the past, Gospel Art, with the permission of the artists, has printed pieces on cards and sold them throughout Advent.
Also significant is the stated goal of building a community among the homeless. To put it mildly, there is little romantic about the life. I heard stories of people being regularly attacked, wholly unprovoked, and how a good day might be one when the worst that happened is that you were ignored altogether. This is, of course, dehumanizing and humiliating in itself; time and again, I heard, about the isolation that the artists felt when their pleas were met with, at worst, derision, and at best, stony indifference. Kelly told me that I was the first person all week that had looked her in the eyes while she talked, which was a kind thing to say and a devastating thing to hear. Mother Marge described it in a way that will haunt me as I confront my own deficiency in compassion: “It’s absolutely heartbreaking to see the beloved community—people with big hearts and profound faith—treated like they’re not human.” In this space, they are not only human, but they are artists. Here, they are recognized as endowed by God with a creative spirit. Here, they seek to create beauty in a world that offers them little of the sort.
When I said my farewells to the group, I asked if there was anything I should make sure to note in my writing. Kelly responded, “Make sure people know that we are people, too. Pray for us.” Mother Marge imparted a final thought to me—that part of the nature of the Church and the kingdom of God is the idea that we cannot live without each other. The words from Ephesians 2:19 sprang to mind, though imperfectly remembered: “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.” As we continue our mission, it is imperative that we leave no brick out in this temple we are building for the glorification of God and the service of God’s beloved.
As I reflected on what I had seen and heard at the Welcome Table’s ministries, I couldn’t help but see the manifold blessings of the program. In the first place, they are critical because of their centralized, safe location. The church’s location, one block away from Metro Center and near several bus routes, ensures that folks who are reliant on public transportation can find a way in from nearly everywhere in the city. Because guests need not choose between addiction counseling, self-expression, religious fulfillment, and breakfast, many take advantage of as much as possible. Here, homeless brothers and sisters are able to have several of their needs met without hauling their belongings across town in weather ranging from humid and hot to rainy and cold.
Additionally important were some of the smaller touches that made the environment more pleasant for guests. After the service, healing prayers were offered to all guests. The laying on of hands was particularly moving for many of the homeless, as they had too often heard and considered themselves untouchable and dirty. During Gospel Art, a volunteer warmly offered flowers from a funeral the previous day to guests. An artist noted that they would come in handy as she would be leaving for a homeless friend’s funeral in the hours to come. These otherwise small stories spoke volumes about the commitment of the volunteers.
This is not to say that the path is in any way easy or the most effective form of service for every congregation. The interim rector of the parish, the Rev. Elizabeth Gardner, has the pleasure of seeing the devotion and service of the parish-- those experiencing homelessness, those not, and those dangerously close to it. I missed the opportunity to chat with her after the service, as she was earnestly counseling a member of the parish. After experiencing Gospel Art, though, I stepped outside the parish hall and saw her talking with homeless guests and a DC policeman. As I later discussed with Mother Gardner, this is an unfortunately regular occurrence. Interaction with drug addiction, alcoholism, mental illness, and a general attitude of mistrust are almost always part and parcel of homeless ministry. Apart from a few sleeping parishioners, unbeknownst to me, there were also those who had dangerously overdosed on drugs, leading to small outbursts of violence, bouts of sickness, or complete incapacitation. These difficulties, apart from questions of funding and sustainability, need to be considered.
It is crucial to understand the commitment that is required for this kind of ministry. It is not for the faint of heart. In addition to concerns listed above, one should be willing and able to address the desired relationship between worship and service. Neither ought to be an afterthought for a congregation. To give up the ministry, once started, is extraordinarily difficult for both clients and volunteers. Navigating the tensions is important, as Mother Gardner explained to me, “We are trying to translate our commitment to be the hands and feet of Christ into a sustainable model.”
At Church of the Epiphany’s Welcome Table, I witnessed the true empowerment of individuals. Homeless guests were not seen as children to be minded, or challenges to an institution’s bottom line, or a problem to be fixed, or a cross to be borne. They were seen as people through whom we as Episcopalians might seek and serve Jesus. They were invited to sing, read, pray, partake of the Eucharist, create, and be together in a truly beautiful way. Despite the ever-present challenges, this ministry is part of our mission. Our discipleship, I realized anew, is forged in service to God and neighbor.
Our catechism explains, “The duty of all Christians is to follow Christ; to come together week by week for corporate worship; and to work, pray, and give for the spread of the kingdom of God.” The Welcome Table at Church of the Epiphany provides for all these in varying degrees. As Mother Marge noted, if one looks hard enough, “there’s a Jesus story here every five minutes.” That includes the stings of betrayal and dull pains of isolation as well as the glorious resurrections; there are certainly Good Fridays evident here, but there are just as certainly Easters in our midst.
When I left that Sunday, preparing for my return trip to New York, the chimes at Epiphany began a song instantly recognizable from years of church choir while growing up. Land of Rest, an American folk tune, was playing. It seemed a prescient choice for my state of mind—comfort, peace, praise, and joy, offered as symbols of our true home in Jerusalem, that heavenly city where there is no death, neither sorrow nor crying, neither homelessness nor addiction, neither isolation nor pain, but rather the fullness of joy with all the saints.