Downtown church offers spiritual home to homeless people

2/28/2006

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By Henri Giles*

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (UMNS) - A decade ago, a local United Methodist church chose to come face to face with the ills of racism - a courageous step in a city that is still referred to as one of the country's most segregated.

Church of the Reconciler began its ministry in 1993 as a way to bring black and white citizens together to worship. Even today, many refer to the United Methodist congregation as the only one in Birmingham that openly welcomes people of different ethnicities.

The church's founding pastor, the Rev. Lawton Higgs Sr., does not view his congregation's mission as groundbreaking.

The model of the church that we built our congregation on is the church of Antioch in Syria, found in Acts 12 and 13, he says. The biblical teachings, along with principles of the civil rights movement, are the church's foundation, he says.

The downtown church is just a block away from the historic Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, the site of the 1963 bombing that killed four African-American girls preparing for Sunday school. One cannot miss the irony of establishing a church with its doors open to all people in such close proximity to another church that was the target of so much hate.

Higgs believes Church of the Reconciler is just one example of how effective - and sometimes challenging - change can be.

Soon after his United Methodist congregation came together, he noticed a glaring problem.

The racial issue was very challenging but not as challenging as the class issue, he recalls.

The church is surrounded by abandoned buildings, reflecting the neighborhood's economic decline. Many of the congregants are people who lived on these streets and were part of Birmingham's growing number of homeless people.

The issue of homelessness and poverty, and clearly having a church with the homeless and the poor - as well as being racially inclusive - is a difficult challenge, Higgs says.

The sentiment is shared by Higgs' son, the Rev. Kevin Higgs, who was appointed pastor of Church of the Reconciler in January. All of the issues that are impacted by race, such as poverty, housing, medical care, living wages - all of the issues that relate to that in our city and also in our country - have just greeted us with its ugly face, Kevin Higgs says.

The church has about 300 members, at least half of them homeless. When you come here, you're sitting next to God's child, Kevin Higgs says. The renovated warehouse is a sanctuary for hundreds of those without a home. Here, they are not judged but welcomed.

We have the biggest door of any church anywhere, he adds. It's a warehouse door, and we open it up and everyone's welcome. And when you come through that door you see all of America.

The call to walk inside comes for different reasons. Jill Varney came to Church of the Reconciler simply because she could use the phone there. Varney says she was at the lowest point in her life and was attempting to make improvements when she came.

God's making an example out of me, she says. If I can change, anybody can change, and these people know me and they know how bad I was out there.

Varney was homeless, a drug addict and prostitute. Now she is an active member working in several ministries at the church, including the children's ministry.

I'm very proud of who I am today, she says. I'm a living testimony of what God can do and change somebody.

With several programs in place to address the needs of its congregants, this United Methodist church has another label that is considered somewhat unusual by Birmingham standards. We are more than just the 'church of the homeless,' Kevin Higgs says. We are a way that all the churches in the Birmingham area that are United Methodist and other denominations can come together and be in ministry and mission together.

Each Sunday, members from an area church prepare dinner for the members of Church of the Reconciler. Members from both congregations work alongside each other in the kitchen, with backgrounds as varied as the dishes being prepared. An African-American woman in a black and white sweater adds vegetables to a plate next to a white woman in a brightly colored sweater. One cannot tell which woman is homeless - an indicator that the church's mission is working.

Mary Jones coordinates the Sunday dinner for Church of the Reconciler and recognizes the meal is a ministry in itself. We can have people to come and be with someone unlike yourself, someone unlike me, someone unlike him. You're a human being, number one, and you are welcome to this place. That's what church ought to be, she explains.

The Higgses agree that for progress to occur, an examination of all the layers of the issue is needed. The church's beginnings were based on racial healing, which evolved into helping the poor. Each day, when both men arrive at the church, they are met by men and women in need. No one is turned away.

Welcoming them is a simple practice in which the Christian faith is rooted, but often ignored.

I have a hard time figuring out what gets in the way, Lawton Higgs says. We've got Jesus, his teachings. We've got (John) Wesley, we've got his teachings. We've got Martin King, his teachings. God has sent us the prophets. We need to break out of our historic fear of racism, segregation, and we need to get reconnected with the poor.


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