Highlands United Methodist Church at Five Points South sits across 11th Avenue from Frank Stitt’s Highlands Bar and Grill and directly behind Frank Fleming’s bronze sculpture, The Storyteller, known simply as “the fountain.” Internationally known now, Fleming, like many of us in the South, grew up in an impoverished situation without indoor plumbing or electricity. How fitting that his storyteller, a ram-man, is reading to creatures of both water and land, perched in front of him on “lily pads.” Inside, a congregation whose dress, culture and stance on social issues are as diverse as their socioeconomic range gather to hear parables of the living water. Ah, now my church is pinpointed for you. You won’t need a GPS. The homeless hang out at the fountain. And, by the way, my church is also their church.
The church was designed by Thornton Marye of Atlanta, designer of the Fox Theatre. Its architecture first attracted my husband and me. The red tiled roof of this Spanish Renaissance Revival structure is more striking than the Methodist tongue of flame in a neighborhood clawing to keep its respectability. Well-to-do residents of this first Birmingham suburb have moved away to homes with trendy multiple rooflines. Seediness is barely being kept at bay. Businesses have popped up, then died, or moved on. Much ado has been made by merchants over the newest addition of a Chick-fil-A. Behold, the golden cow!
It was neither the location nor the architecture that clinched our decision to drive past several mega churches with gym-size facilities to worship at HUMC. What convinced us was what the church was about.
Grace. That’s the one-word summation by Senior Pastor Mikah Hudson on the website. Grace, in the sense of mercy or pardon. The mission statement boiled down to its essence on the church seal created by Alicia Zeski is “Love God and Serve Your Neighbor.”
The first time my husband and I visited, services were being held in a meeting room behind what was then the Pickwick Hotel (now Hotel Highland at Five Points). Our last church, Wesley Monumental in downtown Savannah, was as different as frogs and turtles are from rabbits and dogs. This church consisted of the homeless and the well heeled. When the renovation was complete joining the sanctuary to the educational building and offices, we both volunteered in the homeless program, Community Ministries. We helped stuff and hand out snack packs, picnic-type lunches tied up in plastic grocery bags. We brought our cardboard moving wardrobes to help organize the mass of donated clothing that was simply piled on a floor. Somehow, we felt closer to fulfilling the Biblical marching orders: Give to everyone who begs of you and sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.
If the benchmark is ideal, the experience was not. I had never stood shoulder to shoulder with a man who had just been released from prison, an alcoholic or one who resented women. The men clamored to be first in line outside the locked door of a small room facing Magnolia. Very rarely, there would be a woman or a child. On rainy days, there was standing room only. Several pots of coffee later with the door securely locked again, we surveyed the remains of that day. Some had washed up and shaved with the products we offered them — a small hotel soap, toothpaste and toothbrush, comb, disposable razors — with only paper towels. A sink smudged with street dirt and littered with body or facial hair is not a pretty sight. This reality was not the worst of it — our janitor would clean the bathroom — but I had to talk to these people. As I found myself getting to know first names and their eccentricities, conversing was not a problem for me, even to the sullen or disengaged.
Few of us will ever attain the perfection required to sell all our possessions and give the money to the poor. At HUMC, a group of dedicated workers are giving it their best shot. Melinda Sparks is Missions Chair. Emily Freeman Penfield, associate pastor, oversees these activities. Each weekday they invite the homeless into the spacious fellowship hall 9-10 a.m. for coffee and breakfast rolls. They also refer them to agencies to obtain documentation for a personal ID. A clothes closet is stocked with underwear and socks. Their dirty laundry can be dropped off to be washed. But, above all, the volunteers listen. They are there. They care. On Sunday mornings Walter Rush teaches a Community Ministries class.
They may choose the Sunday morning worship service or the special service created for them on Sunday evenings.
I’ve pondered what has kept us at HUMC. Family comes first — we sit on the same pew with our son and his wife most Sundays, secure that Will and Victoria are being nurtured and taught by Ms. Doreen and Ms. Edna. Rubbing shoulders with people like Frances Owens and others in Bill Clark’s New Class is another sticking point. Not afraid to tackle the hard social issues, the class rarely agrees entirely, but we mostly remain tolerant and respectful. How Methodist. A lively discussion of our homeless program arose recently when Nancy Sawyer, a retired physician, launched a study of Generous Justice by Timothy Keller. Frances Owens who worked tirelessly to secure donations and grants for at least 15 years as Missions Chair is now involved in writing international grants for Nicaraguan Health and caring for her elderly mother. But she keeps up with her old passion. She cited figures of the 2010 expenditures: Project ID, $26,269, and Community Ministries, $27,032—a far cry from snack packs.
There is always, however, the rest of the story: Jesus also admonishes feed my sheep. Some members lament that the church is besot with the cause of the homeless to the detriment of the elderly and their issues. It is always the unknown that is most frightening. A homeless man sleeping on your pew or a panhandler blocking your path can be daunting. But that’s another story — perhaps equally valid.
Frank Stitt in the introduction to his first cookbook says, “…sharing food at table is ultimately about sharing one’s love of life.” Answers about feeding the homeless are not definitive or easy. I must confess that my heart races when I see a man holding a sign begging for food on a street corner. Decision time. My left brain comes to my rescue with reason: I’ll be supporting his habit if I hand him money. I’m late to babysit my grandchild — oh, good, the light’s green. Quite frankly, I keep my eyes straight ahead and speed away.
Kathleen Thompson offers both a fiction lecture and a poetry workshop as a Road Scholar with Alabama Humanities Foundation; she is the author of three poetry books including The Shortest Distance. Send your feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.