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November 29, 2013 · 22:16

Welcome Church

Pastor and Developer
The Welcome Church
Purpose Prize Winner 2013

 

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When Reverend Violet Little answered a higher call to serve Philadelphia’s homeless, she launched an encore career that is redefining just what a “church” is.

On a cold day in 2006, the Reverend Violet Little walked into a public transit restroom in Philadelphia. She was exhausted. She’d been diagnosed with myasthenia gravis, a neuromuscular disease that causes weakness, vision problems and breathing difficulties. Unable to drive, she was dependent on the city’s transit system. Inside, she found a woman washing her hair in the sink. Another woman was attempting to dry her pants under a hand dryer. Little felt a deep empathy. They began to chat.
Soon a police officer arrived and told the women to get out. They quickly packed up and left. Little was stunned. Where were they supposed to go?
In that moment, she realized their vulnerability and marginalization, and felt a passionate calling to provide them with a community that would feel like a home. “My life,” Little says, “was forever changed.”
It was then she left behind her congregation of 14 years to create a refuge for the homeless that would become the “church without walls” called the Welcome Church. Years of experience working in pastoral care and psychological counseling bolstered her belief that she could. “It was like a tapestry,” says Little, 61. “It was a combination of everything in my life leading up to it. It was exactly the right time. I had the confidence to do it. I had the network to do it.”
She soon approached a Center City church asking for space to hold a drop-in center for the homeless. Since 2007, the hospitality site has offered tea, lunches, books, activities, clothing and medical services twice a week for more than 100 visitors per day.
In 2010, heartened by the success of the center—by then a nonreligious, nonprofit organization with its own board—Little became pastor of the Welcome Church, a recognized “congregation in development” of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), one of the largest Christian denominations in the United States.
Since then, Little’s church has grown to include hundreds of homeless congregants and non-homeless volunteers. She’s become the voice of the homeless among the ELCA’s more than 10,000 congregations.
The community need is great. While chronic homelessness fell in Philadelphia between 2011 and 2012, it remains a serious problem. Nationally, nearly 110,000 people in the U.S. are experiencing chronic, long-term homelessness, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and many more live on the streets or in shelters temporarily.
Led by an ecumenical team of Christian ministers, the Welcome Church is itself technically homeless, as it has no permanent headquarters. It holds teatime in a Methodist church, Bible Study in a Lutheran church, a women’s group in subsidized housing and worship services in a park. It also holds celebrations for members moving into permanent housing, coordinates medical services through local universities, helps people get into rehab or jobs, and offers educational services to the public on the causes of homelessness.
Once a month, rain or shine, as many as 200 people gather beneath a tree on a stretch of grass on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for a communion service featuring songs, readings, prayers and fellowship. In winter, congregants show up even in blizzards, clearing the snow without shovels.
“I feel spiritually fed by this group. It’s like they’re my pastors, to want it so badly.” Little says. “People want something they can hold onto that says: ‘You’re not thrown away. You’re not the trash.’”
The church relies mostly on word of mouth, and services are often attended by a cross-section of the city’s homeless population. Some suffer from mental illness or addiction. Others lost their jobs in the recent economic crisis. Many are wary of accepting city agency assistance because of parole violations or immigration status. Some have homes but are disenchanted with typical church services. The Welcome Church even draws teenage volunteers from the suburbs. No questions are asked, and everyone is welcome.
“The lines get blurred between who’s a volunteer and who isn’t,” Little says, recounting the time a homeless man offered her a sandwich. “In reality, we all have much more in common than we think.”
Little is a firm believer in the idea that homelessness is less about a lack of money than it is a lack of relationships. “People tend to share resources,” Little says. “I know lots of friends who have lost their jobs or have gone bankrupt, but because of the people they knew and their community, they were able to get jobs or legal help.”
Little has spent years fostering connections between the city’s homeless and those who can help them, whether by networking to enlist volunteers, referring people to mental health services—or fighting legal battles. In 2012 she joined forces with three other faith-based groups as the plaintiffs in an ACLU lawsuit challenging the city’s decision to ban the public sharing of food on Benjamin Franklin Parkway, a grand thoroughfare lined with institutions and symbols of art, faith and government. It’s also where an estimated 175 homeless people sleep every night.
They won. The decision set a crucial judicial precedent nationwide. Similar food-sharing bans in cities in Colorado, Texas and California have since been challenged, using the Philadelphia example.
“It was a good thing because it brought awareness,” Little says. “The folks on the Parkway felt like they had a voice.”
The next big project for the Welcome Church is a social enterprise called Welcome Threads, a business run by church members that will create and sell silk-screen products with inspiring messages. The idea is modeled on programs like Thistle Farms in Nashville, where former prostitutes and recovering addicts make and sell bath products and candles, and Homeboy Ministries in Los Angeles, where former gang members operate a bakery and a restaurant.
Little estimates 40 percent of her congregants have moved off the streets into permanent housing. Most stay in touch, relying on the church to help with their transition. At a recent service in the park at which congregants huddled under the small tree amid a torrential downpour, one member, Mike, proudly reminded Little that after years of homelessness, he was celebrating his sixth month in his own home.
“I just keep coming back,” he says.
Even those who can’t come back are still acknowledged as beloved members of the Welcome Church. Many members of the congregation wear a necklace featuring the “Ecclesia cross,” a unique symbol of their connection to the community. If the coroner’s office sees this cross, the city’s Outreach Coordination Center calls Little to come identify her congregant.
Little’s passionate commitment is having a ripple effect. At a 2012 summit attended by 60 faith leaders from around the country, the Welcome Church leaders were the main speakers and facilitators. Little has mentored similar ministries in cities across the country and taken the lead in forming a network connecting those serving people in poverty. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America recently backed this work with a $50,000 grant.
That’s significant for a Lutheran denomination that has traditionally defined congregations by their buildings and members. Faced with a congregation without walls composed of an ever-changing number of transients, the ELCA has had to grapple with how it recognizes congregations—and in the process redefine what a “church” really is.
Reverend Sean Mullen, the rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, immediately saw the “church” in Little’s congregation. St. Mark’s was the first partner to fund it.
“Violet baptizes, marries and buries people that would not otherwise have the ministry of the church in their lives simply because nobody else is offering it to them,” says Mullen. “Violet has found a way to provide for deeper needs—shelter, human services, but most especially attending to their spiritual lives with dignity and respect.”
Such connections bring the Welcome Church new opportunities. They do the same for Little’s encore journey. “There are always opportunities for newness. I never thought I’d be doing this,” Little says. “One thing always leads to another. It energizes me, it nurtures me and it keeps me as a perpetual student at the same time.”
– See more at: http://www.encore.org/violet-little#sthash.gC3Nffwl.dpuf

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Feed the Poor

MONDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2013,  NEW YORK DAILY NEWS

 
Carol and Willie Fowler didn’t want the upscale dinner they had planned for their daughter’s wedding to go to waste. When the nuptials got canceled, they invited 200 of the city’s destitute to join them.
A kind-hearted Atlanta couple made the best out of a bad situation by donating their daughter’s canceled wedding reception to the homeless.

Carol and Willie Fowler decided that the first-rate meal they had reserved for Sunday, Sept. 15 at upmarket Villa Christina restaurant shouldn’t go to waste — so they invited 200 of the Atlanta’s destitute to join them.

Bosses at Hosea Feed the Hungry charity initially thought the offer to feed their attendees a lavish four-course meal was a practical joke.

Approximately 200 needy Atlanta residents were invited to Villa Christina to dine on the meal that had been originally intended for the Fowler's daughter's wedding. 

JONATHAN PHILLIPS

 

But the Fowlers, who have not revealed why daughter Tamara’s nuptials were called off just 40 days beforehand, insisted they were sincere — and the event went ahead, albeit with a new list of invitees. 

“It was my husband’s idea,” Mrs. Fowler told WBUR.

“The passed hors d’oeuvre were very interesting because the children were wondering, ‘could we take the whole tray, or do we just take one off of the tray?’” said Elisabeth Omilami, CEO of Hosea Feed the Hungry.

JONATHAN PHILLIPS

“We prayed about it. And when he woke up the next morning, he said, ‘We’re going to call Hosea Feed the Hungry and ask if we can donate it to the needy,'” she added.

Many of the guests were not accustomed to the gold plates and crystal stemware at Villa Christina, nor the formal presentation of the food. 

“The passed hors d’oeuvre were very interesting because the children were wondering, ‘could we take the whole tray, or do we just take one off of the tray?’” said Elisabeth Omilami, CEO of Hosea Feed the Hungry.  “So this was an educational opportunity as well, because now they all know how to eat at a four-course meal and the etiquette involved in that.” 

All in all, the guests, and even the former bride-to-be ended up having such a good time that the Fowler's say they plan to host a similar event for the homeless next year. 

JONATHAN PHILLIPS

All in all, the guests, and even the former bride-to-be ended up having such a good time that the Fowler’s say they plan to host a similar event for the homeless next year

Mrs. Fowler said that Tamara was in attendance and also ended up enjoying herself. 

“We’re very pleased that she’s handling it so well. She was delighted to see and know others had an opportunity to enjoy something, rather than allow it to go to waste,” Fowler added.

Willie H. Fowler (center), his daughter Tamara and wife Carol (right) socialize with Elisabeth Omilami during the first annual Fowler Family Celebration of Love at Villa Christina in Atlanta on Sunday, September 15.

JONATHAN PHILLIPS

Willie H. Fowler (center), his daughter Tamara and wife Carol (right) socialize with Elisabeth Omilami during the first annual Fowler Family Celebration of Love at Villa Christina in Atlanta on Sunday, September 15

Omilami hopes that others will learn from the Fowler’s example, and contact charities before letting an opportunity go to waste. 

“The event on Sunday demonstrated how as a community when we come together and live in harmony, we can make a difference. Today is an example of harmony. Hosea Feed The Hungry is very thankful to the Fowler Family and their heart for the poor.” Omilami said in a press release. “It is a blessing that this family provided an experience for those who are less fortunate to enjoy an afternoon with their family at one of Atlanta’s premiere wedding venues. We are so thankful for their generosity.”

The family dubbed the meal as “The First Annual Fowler Family Celebration of Love” and plan to host a similar event, paid for by sponsors, next year.

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Raleigh, NC Police Threaten To Arrest Good Samaritans Who Feed The Homeless

Progressive Populist

Posted by Progressive Populist – 24 August 2013

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Fresh on the heels of a law being passed in Columbia, South Carolina that makes being homeless illegal, we have yet another situation where the homeless and the downtrodden are basically being treated like savage animals and kicked to the curb.

In Raleigh, North Carolina, a group of good Samaritans from Love Wins Ministry, along with five other churches who contribute funds and manpower, have been going to a local park on virtually every Saturday and Sunday, bringing food to homeless people for years. They would bring breakfast sandwiches and coffee and give them away, for free, to anyone who wanted it. By all means, it has been a very kind and generous deed that these folks have been doing over the years. A true grassroots effort to help others who are in need, and a huge testament to human compassion and spirit.

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By all means, this act of human kindness was not causing anyone any problems. Until one recent day when the group showed up with around 100 sausage biscuits and hot coffee. Some 70 people were waiting in line to be served their free meal. Also present were officers from the Raleigh Police Department, and they were not there for a free sausage biscuit sandwich. They told the group that if they served any of their food to the homeless folks who were waiting in the line that they would be arrested. Clearly, no food was going to be served today to those 70 people, and apparently not on any day going forward.

The group has never had any prior run-ins with the police. They were not allowed to use the park itself without paying for an expensive permit, so they have always set up shop on the sidewalk near the park, as long as they were not blocking it and cleaned up their messes.

The reason given by the cop for not being able to provide food to the homeless and the hungry was this: “I am just telling you what is. Now you pass out that food, you will go to jail.”

There were no apparent ordinance violations. Just a simple message from a cop that obviously came from someone higher up the chain of command. And the good Samaritans have every intention of continuing their good deeds, but have not yet determined the logistics of doing so.

And apparently, it’s still legal to feed animals at the park – just not humans.

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Jeremiah Steepek

Pastor Jeremiah Steepek (pictured below) transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning. He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service....only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food....NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit n the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.  As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation........"We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek"....The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation.....The homeless man sitting in the back stood up.....and started walking down the aisle.....the clapping stopped with ALL eyes on him....he walked up the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment....then he recited “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning...many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame.... he then said....Today I see a gathering of people......not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples...when will YOU decide to become disciples? He then dismissed service until next week.......Being a Christian is more than something you claim. I'ts something you live by and share with others.
Pastor Jeremiah Steepek  transformed himself into a homeless person and went to the 10,000 member church that he was to be introduced as the head pastor at that morning. He walked around his soon to be church for 30 minutes while it was filling with people for service….only 3 people out of the 7-10,000 people said hello to him. He asked people for change to buy food….NO ONE in the church gave him change. He went into the sanctuary to sit down in the front of the church and was asked by the ushers if he would please sit n the back. He greeted people to be greeted back with stares and dirty looks, with people looking down on him and judging him.
As he sat in the back of the church, he listened to the church announcements and such. When all that was done, the elders went up and were excited to introduce the new pastor of the church to the congregation……..”We would like to introduce to you Pastor Jeremiah Steepek”….The congregation looked around clapping with joy and anticipation…..The homeless man sitting in the back stood up…..and started walking down the aisle…..the clapping stopped with ALL eyes on him….he walked up the altar and took the microphone from the elders (who were in on this) and paused for a moment….then he recited
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
After he recited this, he looked towards the congregation and told them all what he had experienced that morning…many began to cry and many heads were bowed in shame…. he then said….Today I see a gathering of people……not a church of Jesus Christ. The world has enough people, but not enough disciples…when will YOU decide to become disciples? He then dismissed service until next week…….Being a Christian is more than something you claim. I’ts something you live by and share with others

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A True Gentleman

By  May 21, 2013

 

When Zach Galifianakis hit the red carpet at the Los Angeles premiere of The Hangover 3 Monday night, he brought along a formerly homeless woman named Elizabeth “Mimi” Haist. And she’s no newcomer to the red carpet, either. She has been Galifianakis’ date to The Campaign  and The Hangover 2 premieres as well, but no one knew who was the tiny woman on the actor’s arm. “All the fans were taking photos and I waved at them, I said, ‘They don’t know who I am!’” 

 

Zach Galifianakis appears on NBC News' "Today" show in New York City, May 9, 2013.
PETER KRAMER / NBC / GETTY IMAGE

Galifianakis and Haist have been friends for almost 20 years, according to the Daily News. Galifianakis met Haist at the Fox Laundry when he was just starting out in Hollywood back in 1994. He befriended Haist at his local laundromat where she volunteered, surviving on the tips patrons gave her. Eventually Galifianakis stopped going to the laundromat, but two years ago, when Galifianakis found out that Haist had become homeless, he tracked her down and set her up in a one-bedroom apartment where he pays the rent and utilities. He also recruited his friend, actress Renee Zellweger, to the cause,  and Zellweger outfitted the woman’s apartment with furniture and makes sure Haist’s fridge is always stocked with food.

Since then Haist has been escorting Galifianakis to red carpet events and enjoying herself. “I dress up nice and a friend helps me with my makeup. It’s fun, not something I’ve ever dreamed I’d experience. The limo takes me home afterwards,” Haist told the Daily News.

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