For minister, it's about more than feeding the homeless

Violet Little ministers on Ben Franklin Parkway, where many visitors are homeless.
Violet Little ministers on Ben Franklin Parkway, where many visitors are homeless.
Posted: June 15, 2012

Ever since Mayor Nutter's ban on feeding homeless people on Benjamin Franklin Parkway went into effect June 1, I've been worried about Violet Little.

After all, she's been nourishing the Parkway's homeless for two years. But her meals are heartier than chunky chili or cheesy ziti. I fret that her mission might be at risk.

A Lutheran minister, Little is pastor of the Welcome Church, which she founded as "a church without walls," since no bricks or mortar shelter its inhabitants. Instead, the church bursts to life like Brigadoon on the last Sunday of the month with an open-air service on Logan Square.

Assisting her are Episcopal priests Dennis Lloyd and David Madsen; Presbyterian minister Schaunel Steinnagel; and Seventh Day Adventist Waverly Alston, the minister of music.

The Welcome Church is so named because all are welcome to gather around the card table they use as an altar. Overwhelmingly, congregants are the homeless men and women who wander the Parkway. But passers-by, too, have yielded to serendipity, seduced by the hymn of prayers on a breeze. Or the way leaf-filtered light glints like stained glass.

Anywhere from 20 to 200 have taken part in the bread-and-grape-juice communion and stayed for hospitality hour, when coffee and danish are served.

"I wonder if this will be regarded as ‘feeding the homeless,'?" says Little, 59, thinking ahead to the next service, on June 24 at 3 p.m. "I hope not."

But she's not taking chances.

Last week, Little joined the leaders of three other religious organizations — Chosen 300 Ministries, the King's Jubilee and Philly Restart — in a federal lawsuit claiming that the feeding ban violates their right to freedom of speech and religion. Their feeding activities, the lawsuit argues, are an expression of their faith. "They feel that what they're doing is a direct extension of their principal purpose, which is religious observance," says civil-rights attorney Paul Messing, who filed the suit.

"By feeding the poor outside, they're putting a public face on a problem that a lot of people prefer would just disappear. They send an important message about the plight of those in need. They engender sympathy and get people involved in extending help."

Messing said late Wednesday that the city has agreed not to enforce the ban pending a decision after a hearing set for July 9 in U.S. District Court.

Little says that she's not so much committed to ministering to people on the Parkway as she is committed to ministering to people where they are. In this case, the people in most need happen to be on the Parkway. So that is where she ministers.

"Look, we already have a Welcome Center," she says, referring to the nonprofit drop-in site she founded, located inside Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion, at 2111 Sansom St. It offers respite and refreshment for anyone who seeks it. Again, the majority of users are homeless.

"But not every homeless person feels comfortable coming inside. If they did, why would they be on the Parkway?"

She has wonderful stories of helping the most desperate people access services that eventually led them to permanent shelter. The initial contact with these people began during her Logan Square hospitality hour.

The relationships forged there can remind people of their dignity. Which can ignite just enough hope to prompt a homeless person to take the first step off the streets and into, say, a drug- or alcohol-treatment program.

"We know that feeding people on the street is not a permanent solution," Little says, echoing the sentiments of other advocates. "But it's a first step to getting people inside. The thing is, even if they all wanted to come inside, the city doesn't have enough services to meet their needs. Until it does, what are we supposed to do? Not care for them?"

The other thing is, even if the feeding stopped, the homeless wouldn't leave the Parkway. They have access to the Free Library, where they can read, escape the heat or cold and use the restrooms. The Basilica is open every day, offering a lovely place of peace. There are benches and grass, offering a sense of place to those with no place of their own.

It's not home, nor should it ever be. But it's where many of the homeless feel safe. They will be there whether Good Samaritans feed them or not.

Violet Little, for one, plans to continue her holy communion and coffee hour. It may not please the mayor. But it's what God is calling her to do.

Contact polaner@phillynews.com. Call 215-854-2217. Blog: www.phillynews.com/ronnieblog. Twitter: @RonniePhilly.

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