Tag Archives: Philadelphia

Welcome Church

Pastor and Developer
The Welcome Church
Purpose Prize Winner 2013


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

Leave a comment

Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic

I want to break free

I want to break free

Leave a comment

August 26, 2013 · 10:41

57 cents church


A little girl stood near a small church from which she had been turned away because it was too crowded.

‘I can’t go to Sunday School,’ she sobbed to the pastor as he walked by

Seeing her shabby, unkempt appearance, the pastor guessed the reason and taking her by the hand, took her inside and found a place for her in the Sunday school class. The child was so happy that they found room for her, and she went to bed that night thinking of the children who have no place to worship Jesus.

Some two years later, this child lay dead in one of the poor tenement buildings. Her parents called for the kindhearted pastor who had befriended their daughter to handle the final arrangements.

As her poor little body was being moved, a worn and crumpled red purse was found which seemed to have been rummaged from some trash dump.

Inside was found 57 cents and a note, scribbled in childish handwriting, which read:

‘This is to help build the little church bigger so more children can go to Sunday School.’

For two years she had saved for this offering of love.

When the pastor tearfully read that note, he knew instantly what he would do. Carrying this note and the cracked, red pocketbook to the pulpit, he told the story of her unselfish love and devotion.

He challenged his deacons to get busy and raise enough money for the larger building.

But the story does not end there…

A newspaper learned of the story and published It. It was read by a wealthy realtor who offered them a parcel of land worth many thousands.

When told that the church could not pay so much, he offered to sell it to the little church for 57 cents.

Church members made large donations. Cheques came from far and wide.

Within five years the little girl’s gift had increased to $250,000.00–a huge sum for that time (near the turn of the century). Her unselfish love had paid large dividends.

When you are in the city of Philadelphia , look up Temple Baptist Church , with a seating capacity of 3,300. And be sure to visit Temple University, where thousands of students are educated.

Have a look, too, at the Good Samaritan Hospital and at a Sunday School building which houses hundreds of beautiful children, built so that no child in the area will ever need to be left outside during Sunday school time.

In one of the rooms of this building may be seen the picture of the sweet face of the little girl whose 57 cents, so sacrificially saved, made such remarkable history. Alongside of it is a portrait of her kind pastor,

Dr. Russell H. Conwell, author of the book, ‘Acres of Diamonds‘.

Leave a comment

Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic

Stand up, Stand up, for Jesus

In 1858, a great Christian revival – known as “the work of God in Philadelphia” – swept across that great American city 

Of the participating ministers, it was said that none was more powerful than a twenty-nine year old Episcopalian minister, the Reverend Dudley Atkins Tyng – a bold and uncompromising preacher.

Dudley Atkins Tyng was a tireless advocate for the emancipation of slaves. He was ridiculed and persecuted for his view, and even criticized for bringing politics into the pulpit.  Many of his congregation owned slaves, a common practice in those days, and they didn’t like him telling them plainly and bluntly that to hold a fellow human being in slavery was a sin.

In addition to preaching at his own church, the Church of the Epiphany in Philadelphia, Tyng began holding midday services at the downtown YMCA.  Such was his power and dynamism that great crowds came to hear him preach, and on Tuesday, March 30th 1858, over 5000 men gathered for a mass meeting to hear him.

He took as his text these words from Exodus chapter 10 verse 11: “Go now ye that are men and serve the Lord”

Over 1,000 of the men were converted; the sermon was called “one of the most successful of the time”; the entire city was being stirred; a religious awakening was gaining force.

The next week Tyng returned to his family in the country.   On Tuesday, April 13, 1858, he was watching the operation of a corn-thrasher in a barn.  Raising his arm to place his hand on the head of a mule which was walking up the inclined lane of the machine, the young minister accidentally caught his loose sleeve between the cogs.

His arm was lacerated severely, the main artery severed and the median nerve injured. As a result of shock and a great loss of blood, he died on the 19th

His last words were “Stand up for Jesus, father; stand up for Jesus; and tell my brethren of the ministry, wherever you meet them, to stand up for Jesus.”

On the following Sunday, Tyng’s close friend, George Duffield, the minister of the Temple Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, preached on Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, the sixth chapter, beginning at the 14th verse:

“Stand, therefore, having your loins girded about with truth, and having on the breastplate of righteousness.”

Duffield closed his sermon by reading a poem that he had just written.  It had been inspired by the dying words of his friend.  His words are still with us, of course, known as the hymn “Stand up, stand up, for Jesus.”

As we’ve said, Dudley Atkins Tyng was a vigorous campaigner for the emancipation of slaves. He  stood up in protest against inequality and injustice

– and so must we, wherever God’s will is ignored, wherever wrong and evil flourish….and by doing so, we stand up for Jesus.

We Christians stand up to powers of oppression, we stand firm in our faith, and we stand down when violence becomes the only option, because what we stand for is the very peace Jesus proclaims to his disciples.

Stand up for God’s justice, mercy, and truth. Stand up to protest against something—such as the obscene bonuses paid to failed bankers at this time of economic recession. Stand up against the disintegration of society; stand up for decency, honour and worth in our country. Stand up to affirm something—like the importance of traditional morality, the need for peace and cooperation in Palestine, Syria, Afghanistan and so many other troubled countries in the world,, or hope for the future of humankind..

When we encounter evil, hypocrisy, corruption, or anything else that is counter to the world of truth, beauty, peace and justice that is God’s will, let us, with righteous indignation, take an aggressive stand for God.  Let us, too, ‘Stand up! Stand up for Jesus!’

Let me finish by quoting a verse from the original version of the hymn:

Stand up, stand up for Jesus!

The solemn watchword hear,

If while ye sleep he suffers,

Away with shame and fear,

Where’er ye meet with evil,

Within you or without,

Charge for the God of battles,

And put the foe to rout.


Leave a comment

Filed under The Ramblings of a Reformed Ecclesiastic