As my friend Jonathan explained in the previous post, we are part of the Candler Advantage program this summer. My placement is at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church, a church that has a strong connection with Candler and has hosted Contextual Education 1 and 2 students. It is a mission of the Episcopal Church, meaning it is not a regular congregation (whatever regular means). Most of the people who fill the pews on Sundays and who are involved in church activities throughout the week are adults with mental illness. They live in group homes or are homeless, some also suffer from various addiction issues. It isn’t a “regular” congregation because the members do not support the church financially but congregants are very much a part of nearly every aspect of church life. Holy Comforter also has a day-program called The Friendship Center that has opportunities for all kinds of art projects and two meals twice a week.
I chose Holy Comforter despite not being Episcopalian (I grew up in and also attend a United Church of Christ congregation) and despite having no experience with caring for and working with people with mental illness. I knew that this would be a challenge for me, but I had seen so many of my Candler colleagues fall in love with Holy Comforter, so I wanted in on it. I was still a little nervous as I began coming to worship services and meals, slowly learning people’s names and learning the songs and responses of the liturgy.
The people of my new congregation were not people I normally encountered in my day-to-day life, I would sometimes see people like them in a grocery store or maybe a fast food place but would try and discreetly avoid their gaze and perhaps offer a wan smile if I accidentally made eye contact. I was simply uncomfortable in their presence, unsure of how to interact with them and unsure of what my responsibility was to respond to their mumbling or confusing speech. I knew Jesus wanted me to be with “the least of these,” even if it made me uneasy. I knew this in my head but I still had no idea what it really might mean, or even how condescending that bumper sticker theology might be.
One of the deacons at Holy Comforter asked me how I was feeling after my first few days, if I was beginning to feel more at ease. I nodded, actually unsure of how comfortable I was feeling. He said, “Good, you know Holy Comforter is a place you can really be yourself. It is a place of rest, a place of acceptance.” I realized I had been looking at Holy Comforter too much like my own personal mission to comfort the afflicted. I was focused on caring for people; of responsibly saying the right thing after someone had just told be they were in fact married to a famous celebrity. I had not opened myself up to receive the respite this unique congregation had to offer. I did not have to worry about judgment if I did something wrong in the liturgy or sang off key. I did not have to worry if people would want to talk to me. I didn’t have to worry about my painting looking amateurish- I could just paint.
Holy Comforter is an aptly named church. It is a place that everyone and anyone can go to be welcomed, fed, loved, and respected with an honesty that I do not encounter in many other places in my life. Although it is still an adjustment for me to be with the congregation and I still find myself second-guessing things I do and sometimes catch myself feeling particularly saintly for helping someone with a walker, I have started to open up myself to the rest, freedom, and acceptance at Holy Comforter.