The Rev. Brian Combs (06T) reaches out to restore respect to members of society most people try to avoid—prostitutes, drug addicts, people with mental illness and those living with AIDS.

Raised in Charlotte, N.C., Combs attended a suburban United Methodist church that held Christ "aloft in the sky and so far away that not only can you not see him, but you can’t follow him." Candler brought Jesus down to Earth for Combs, and he has been building intentional community with people who live on the streets since he graduated.

"At Candler I was introduced to a Jesus in the gutters, this savior who chose to take on flesh and blood, bone and breath as a derelict among us. That was completely revolutionary for me," he says.

Combs took what he learned in the classroom and through his Candler contextual education experiences and applied it to a chaplaincy at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital, the nation’s fifth largest public hospital and one of its busiest Level I trauma centers. His work there with people from various marginalized populations led him to Asheville, N.C., where he was inspired to start the Haywood Street Congregation, a church that seeks to be a place of welcome to all.

Dispelling perceptions

Combs speaks passionately about reframing roles when ministering to the homeless person or the individual struggling with addiction or mental illness. First he helps dispel the perception that if they’re homeless, they must be in a state of deficit in their relationship with God.

"If Jesus was going to incarnate as the schizophrenic, the homeless person, the crack addict, the prostitute, then we have to begin by saying, 'I’m actually the one—even though I have housing, education, privilege—who has a spiritual poverty, who needs to encounter that Jesus, and I can’t do that if I treat him as a spiritual project,'" he says. 

It’s this message that resonates when talking about the people—those who are homeless and those who are not—who come to Haywood. Brian talks enthusiastically about the dramatic conversion he’s seen in the church, people whose assumptions about poverty and themselves have been completely obliterated.

"What they say to me is, ‘for most of my life I assumed following the gospel and believing in Jesus meant writing my check to the social service agency so they could do the discipleship that I didn’t want to do. Now I’m convinced I can’t follow Jesus without being in a relationship with the poor. My liberation is bound up in the people I’ve dismissed for most of my Christian life. I’m here, I’m broken and I need to be to be filled back up in a new way,'" he says.

It’s this sort of transformation that Combs encourages. "This seems very mundane and simple, but if there’s one thing I hope people are transformed into doing, when they leave Haywood instead of dismissing the guy on the corner with the sign, or relegating the sister or brother who comes up and panhandles to a useless street urchin, they will instead extend a hand, ask a name, offer a hug … because they have realized that their humanity is bound up in that person. If we can do that as a church, then I’m thrilled."

Building community

Part of this change comes through building a community where people come together to eat, worship and work together. Stop by the church on a Wednesday and you’ll find people addicted to drugs standing side by side with those we aren’t, passing out a midday meal to prostitutes and the mentally ill, who dine with lawyers and bankers. Afterward there’s a worship service for those who wish to attend. 

Combs is taking this simple act of sharing a meal together to the next level to raise the respect notch even higher. After a member mentioned that a church meal served on a Styrofoam tray "fills you up but does little to make you feel human," Combs has invited downtown restaurants to partner with Haywood each week to provide the gourmet fare they serve to paying customers. Picture homemade polenta with tomato sauce, veal meatballs and apple cider served by waiters to church members sitting at tables laid out with fine linens and flowers.

Says Combs, "To be able to watch someone as they realize that maybe God does love them that much—they begin to take seriously that they’re a child of God. That’s kingdom work as far as I’m concerned."

Related story: Haywood Street Respite offers homeless a place to recover after hospitalization.

Photo on homepage by Erin Brethauer, Asheville Citizen-Times. Photo on this page by Matt Rose.