To Be Known And Loved

Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Atlanta, Georgia

by Mary Button

I was in my second year studying ethics at the Candler School of Theology when I first visited Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in southeast Atlanta. In typical fashion I tiptoed into the sanctuary about five minutes after the start of worship. My good friend and fellow student was preaching that day, and I had hoped to be seen and to hear, but not necessarily to socialize beyond the requisite passing of the peace.

My Lutheranism betrayed itself almost immediately. The bulletin was obviously in English but might as well have been in Klingon for all the opaque-to-me references to the Book of Common Prayer. When I was hopelessly lost, the woman on my right took it upon herself to guide me through the entire worship service. She switched back and forth between bulletin, prayer book and hymnal like no churchgoer I had ever seen, and for an hour she managed for the both of us.

My personal worship assistant was also struggling in some visible ways with intellectual disability. Her hair was messy and her blouse badly buttoned. When we stood up to pass the peace, her pants fell completely off. She matter-of-factly redressed, and the service continued as if nothing had happened. There were no gasps or stares; worship just continued.

In those moments, I was brought painfully back to my difficult adolescence in the church. I was 14 when my mother suffered a debilitating stroke. For years afterward, I rarely entered a room in our church building without a hush falling, affirming my fear that my mother’s constantly failing health was the subject of the church’s particular brand of saintly, well-intentioned gossip. In contrast, within those first minutes in worship at Holy Comforter, I experienced a profound sense of welcome. I knew the comfort of church and a sanctuary for my own vulnerabilities.

The worshiping community at Holy Comforter is composed largely of clients of the Friendship Center, an inclusive community of people living with chronic and severe mental illness, often in poverty.

The ministries of the Friendship Center include twice weekly day programs, recovery support, and art therapy for people in Atlanta living with mental health challenges. The majority of the clients served by the ministries and programs of the Friendship Center live in large group homes in the neighborhoods surrounding Holy Comforter. The Friendship Center was born in 1993 out of a desire to meet the needs of Holy Comforter’s neighbors living with mental health challenges.

As the current director of the center, Rev. Alexis Chase, describes it, the impetus for the Friendship Center was to create a place for people to “be known and loved.” There are two main ministries of the Friendship Center. The first is “Wellness and Recovery,” which includes peer support groups, yoga, interplay and a clothing closet. A particularly empowering dimension within the Wellness ministries is a gardening program. This supported employment program trains clients to become certified nursery and greenhouse assistants. According to Rev. Chase, part of the beauty of this particular program is that it gives folks who might otherwise spend their days alone and sedentary the benefit of both a hard day’s work as well as the company and support of other people experiencing similar struggles and challenges.

The gardening program bears much in common with the second substantial part of the Friendship Center’s outreach. In “Recovery Through the Arts,” clients have access to studio spaces, supplies and materials at no cost. Twice a week, clients can access these programs through painting, weaving and sculpting. For Rev. Chase, Recovery Through the Arts is especially important because it gives clients who struggle to communicate verbally alternate and important means of communication. Art, gardening and the relationships nurtured when people come together to create and to grow are all part of the ways in which the Friendship Center meets people where they are on their recovery journey.

While the Friendship Center is a ministry of Holy Comforter Episcopal Church, the two are clearly in a symbiotic, growing relationship. The community being built through making art, growing gardens, and sharing meals together carries into worship at Holy Comforter. The power of radical welcome and hospitality I felt during worship was a direct result of the work of the Friendship Center. The majority of people who worship at Holy Comforter are clients of the center, and the sense of worth and vocation that the center inculcates in people carries into how accessible worship is for the community there. Flowers from the gardens color the sanctuary, paintings created in Recovery Through the Arts decorate the entire church campus, and worship services conclude with the vegetables grown in the community gardens being blessed and distributed to whoever needs or wants fresh produce.

Many mental health advocacy centers claim to meet people where they are, but few honor the lives of their clients in the profoundly life-giving way that the Friendship Center and Holy Comforter do through vocational training, relationship building, and worship.

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