By Jessica Brodie
There's a place where all the broken can come to find solace and love. There, in a once-closed church that itself now has new life, they stand together in worship — the homeless alongside those with plenty, the recovering addicts alongside those struggling to overcome a need for excess and greed, the mentally ill alongside the spiritually ill. All of them clasping hands, bowed in prayer.
This is the South Main Chapel and Mercy Center in Anderson, South Carolina. It is a church in a poverty-stricken area where its people intentionally work alongside the homeless and poor to create a God-filled space rooted in love and dedicated to embracing people.
"It's been the fulfillment of my calling to be able to lead this type of ministry," said the Rev. Kurt Stutler, pastor of South Main, noting that the church strives to break down barriers and truly be a place of racial, social and economic diversity — whatever that happens to look like. "We've become a place people see as their church home, and also a place where people from the community can come help out and be our compassion partners."
Indeed, said Kim Board, a South Main volunteer, "We have a very mixed bag of people."
As Board talks, a well-dressed woman is nearby, sitting with a man in tattered jeans and a faded hoodie as though they are old friends; thanks to South Main and Jesus, they are.
"If you can think of a way to be diverse, it's here: We are diverse in education, socioeconomics, race, sexual orientation and religious background," Board said. "It's really beautiful, because when you go in the dining room you see someone on the higher end, more affluent, breaking bread with someone who's sleeping in a tent."
Learning and partnering
South Main opened in 2014. It used to be called Orrville United Methodist before it closed in 2012. But there was a new vision afoot for a different kind of church in Orrville's space.
As the vision began to fuse with concrete plans, Stutler and his team turned their focus to the neighborhood. They sought natural partnerships with others serving the neighborhood. A group of Baptists had been setting up an outdoor grill at another church every Monday afternoon for several years and offering free hot dogs and hamburgers for the community, so Stutler's team began to attend the meal and get to know their neighbors better. When South Main opened, they offered to host the Baptists' meal indoors; they agreed.
South Main also teamed up with other churches, nonprofits, the local free clinic and state agencies like the South Carolina Department of Mental Health and South Carolina Department of Vocational Rehabilitation. They offered rental space to the Alston Wilkes Society, which helps former offenders transition from prison back into society.
Meeting needs with authentic love
The neighborhood is lower-income, racially diverse and, as Stutler said, a place widely known as a place to buy drugs and solicit prostitution. Given that, the church set out to provide services crafted to meet the needs of its neighbors.
Not only do they work hard to cultivate a place of love where all feel welcome and wanted, but they also host free meals several times a week (Sunday breakfast and lunch, Monday dinner and a Wednesday noon prayer service and lunch) along with a wealth of free services every Monday night, including a nurse, mental health assistance, vocational training, 12-step meetings and more. They have plans soon to open a free community shower and washer/dryer service.
Many of the people who worship at South Main have formerly been intimidated by the idea of being a part of a church.
"We end up becoming a whole-person-healing kind of thing — physical, emotional, spiritual and mental," Board said. "We can take care of every part of people for people who can't get access to that help anywhere else."
Ann Cothran, a registered nurse who has been a member and volunteer of South Main for two years, said she gets hugged by 20 people a day when she comes there.
"It's just pure love here," Cothran said. "It's an amazing church; all God's children are welcome. It doesn't matter how you're dressed or how you talk. If you're homeless or you live in a mansion, you're welcome."
Many of the people who worship at South Main have formerly been intimidated by the idea of being a part of a church, but Stutler said it all goes back to hospitality combined with genuine respect for people no matter who they are or where they sleep. He said what helps is crafting informal opportunities, particularly the meals, for people to get comfortable with each other.
"It's a little intimidating if you're not used to being around people who don't dress very well and smell bad and have a criminal history or a history of using drugs," Stutler said. "It takes a while to get beyond that and realize they're just people just like us; sometimes their problems are just more outward."
A meal is a nonthreatening context to let people know they're cared about, Stutler said, as well as having the doors of the church open every day of the week and otherwise being welcoming: speaking respectfully to people, listening to them, letting them know you want them to be a part of your church and community, and then giving them opportunities to participate, whether that's sweeping a floor or saying a prayer in worship or picking weeds out of the garden.
'We're all kind of broken'
"I fit in here. We're all kind of broken."
That's precisely what appeals to Cothran. She serves as a faith community nurse for AnMed Health, and mission work is her passion. But she also loves South Main because it is her church home, a place where she can enjoy the love of Christ in an authentic way.
"I fit right in here," Cothran said. "We're all kind of broken, and we all come with our sins. We're just not all broken in the same way."
Member and volunteer Karen Knowles found South Main after years of shying away from church. But the love she has found there, coupled with the support they have given her in her struggles, turned her life around.
"When I first came, I had an alcohol problem. One day at a time, this church allowed me to share delight in the Lord and see people in a different light," Knowles said.
Her husband was going through cancer at the time and has since passed away. Now she is sober and helps chair recovery meetings, and she cannot get enough of the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit, which she said seeps into every crack of the place and fills her and others with a sense of peace and serenity in the Lord. "Because of this church and all the people who rallied around me, I was able to get through this trying time. (Now) I help reach out to other people. It's a gift from the Lord — life outside myself."
Witness to the world
One church member, Gregory Sims, had been known to church leaders even before South Main opened. Chronically homeless for most of his adult life and struggling with both mental illness and addiction issues, Sims had no transportation, Stutler said. The church gave him a bike so he could get around town, whether to the soup kitchen or the library or to church.
Sims said the help he's received at South Main has transformed his life, and he does what he can to give back in gratitude.
"I used to be a moody person, but I got support. I was going through stuff, and they still loved me," Sims said, noting that God led him to South Main, and he can't imagine life without it. Without the church and its support, he said, "I wouldn't be the person I am now."
It is people like Sims who Stutler said drive home the mission of the church.
"What a witness to the world," Stutler said. "People are not just coming to take; people are giving back, too, in whatever way they can. … Folks, even if they're struggling in life, have gifts, and they want to be able to give back and use them."
On a recent Sunday morning, the pews were packed with people — children and seniors, black and white, the shabbily dressed and the chic, the smiling and the serious, yet still all one body, ready to come together in Christian love and worship the One who gave them life.
Stutler raised his hands and called out to the congregation, "When we gather together in this place, who are we?"
And as one, the people shouted back, "God's children!"
Article by Jessica Brodie. Jessica is editor of the South Carolina United Methodist Advocate newspaper.