Knocking down walls

PHOTO: ROBERT FISHER Frigid temperatures can't keep the Rev. Violet Little (center) from leading her monthly outdoor Communion service for the homeless.
PHOTO: ROBERT FISHER Frigid temperatures can't keep the Rev. Violet Little (center) from leading her monthly outdoor Communion service for the homeless.
Posted: December 02, 2013

WITH ITS bronze doors, stained glass and iconic dome, the Cathedral Basilica of Ss. Peter and Paul on Logan Circle is an ode to God's grandeur.

Around the corner, a Mormon cathedral rising on a former parking lot promises to be similarly inspiring, with granite-clad walls to provide a solid base to soaring spires.

In the shadow of such places, you'd think that the Rev. Violet Little's humble Welcome Church would feel inadequate. Yet here we are, dozens of us, gladly worshipping around a folding-table altar on the grass in front of Family Court on the Parkway. It's a frigid Sunday afternoon and a brutal wind is whipping sideways the plumes of water that normally shoot skyward from Swann Fountain across the street.

The Welcome Church is a "church without walls" that holds its outdoor 3 p.m. service on the last Sunday of the month, no matter the weather. It was founded in 2010 by Little, a Lutheran minister, and most of its attendees are homeless. The church's simplicity, though, also attracts a handful of better-situated regulars and volunteers enamored of the church's mission who take seriously God's call to welcome all with open arms.

"I love this," says Robert Hardy, after the readings, hymns and sermon have ended and we share coffee, stamping our feet to thaw them. Around us, volunteers are handing out sandwiches, socks, gloves and coats. "I love the Bible readings. The people are so kind. They even gave me this jacket," he says of the green Eagles parka whose hood zips so snugly around his face that all I can see are his eyes.

"God is good," he says.

With those three words - "God is good" - it's clear that the Welcome Church is making headway in its mission on the Parkway: to help the marginalized feel God's love, care and concern, even when their circumstances would seem to belie the benevolence of a kindly supreme being.

"You serve people where they are," says Little, 61, who has helped many congregants connect with services to get them off the street. "We want them to know that God has not thrown them away. They are not trash." Talking to Little and attending her service is a reminder of how simple group worship can be. No buildings, no organ accompaniment, no pews, even, are necessary for seekers to gather. Just a willingness to be present, together.

Little founded Welcome Church after ministering to the poor through the Welcome Center, a nonprofit respite place for the homeless, which she opened at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion at 21st and Chestnut streets. She'd joined with other churches in protesting the city's ban on feeding the homeless on the Parkway (the ban was lifted) but she was aware that the homeless needed "more than a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich." And so was born the Welcome Church, which is recognized by the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America as a "congregation under development serving people in poverty."

Although "churches without walls" are rare, says Robert Fisher, communications director for the Eastern Lutheran Conference, "we're hearing more and more about similar, nontraditional ministries, created by people inspired by Violet's passion and example of listening to the needs of the poor."

Little has admirers outside the church, too. This week, she will travel to Sausalito, Calif., to accept a $25,000 Purpose Prize from Encore.org, which recognizes people older than age 60 who are "improving their communities and the world." She will use the money to beef up a fund created after a homeless man found $5 on the ground during a service and gave it to her for Welcome Church.

"It was all the money he had," she says, "and he wanted to give it away." Together, they decided to use the $5 as seed money for a fund inspired by Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, to promote issues of justice and peace. Little will use her prize money to add $10,000 to it. And in January, they will meet with other church members to decide how to dole it out in grants.

Or, rather, she will listen as they discuss where and how the money should be used.

"These are people who are usually on the receiving end of charity," says Little.

"But this time, they'll be the ones doing the giving.

"It's very empowering, when so much has been taken from you, to be able to give. It shifts the paradigm of how you see yourself, and how the world sees you."


Email: polaner@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-2217

On Twitter: @RonniePhilly

Blog: ph.ly/RonnieBlog

Columns: ph.ly/Ronnie

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