NOTE: Mary is a friend of mine and an Episcopal priest for the Church of the Common Ground, a homeless ministry in Atlanta as part of the Ecclesia Street Church program. Here is her interview with the Atlanta Journal Constitution about their program.
On Christmas Eve 2006, a group of people, most of them homeless, gathered at downtown Atlanta’s Woodruff Park and formed the Church of the Common Ground. Eight years later, while many congregants have come and gone, the church continues to go strong. In addition to the weekly Sunday service, there is morning prayer twice a week.
Once a week, there’s a Bible study and a nonmedical foot clinic where congregants can get their feet washed and tell their stories. Under the auspices of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, the Church of the Common Ground isn’t about fixing or converting people, says the Rev. Mary Wetzel, who has served as the church’s vicar for four years.
The church is about celebrating the people of God on their own terms.
The Rev. Mary Wetzel, vicar of the Church of the Common Ground, washes feet and listens to stories of people attending the church’s non-medical foot clinic. The church, which holds its gatherings in parks in downtown Atlanta, was founded in 2006 to serve people who are homeless.
Q: Why have church outside?
A: Some folks, for whatever reason, do not feel comfortable going inside. And they feel a little more comfortable coming just as they are. Our church provides another option. We have a van. I call it our mobile sacristy. We keep the altar and all we need for the services in it.
Q: Who comes to the Church of the Common Ground?
Parishioners of the Church of the Common Ground, many of whom are homeless, attend Sunday service in Downtown Atlanta’s Woodruff Park. From left to right are Eddie Conley, the Rev. Mary Wetzel, Eddie Holmes and Vivian Medina.
A: A variety of people. There are those who live in the area. Some folks who live in regular houses want to come worship with us. A number of the folks have gotten jobs, or moved into housing. We encourage folks to get involved in a church where they are living. Some will come to a church in the morning and then come to our church in the afternoon. They feel that it is their church.
Q: And why do you think they come?
A: I think folks come for community. There is a good core group of people that care for each other, and pray for each other. It is the relationships that draw them.
Gregory Mitchell listens to the Rev. Mary Wetzel, vicar of the Church of the Common Ground. The church, which meets in city parks, was founded in 2006 and many of its parishioners are homeless.
Q: What about the Church of the Common Ground appeals to you?
A: It really is a place where we can have such different theological beliefs and still come to God’s table. I can see the gifts that God has given the folks who come and how they use those gifts in the world. When I see how they are helping each other, that encourages me so much. And being outdoors, I feel God’s presence.
Q: Are the folks who come religious?
A: Very. Most know their Bible inside and out. They are very aware of God in their life. The first thing many think about when they wake up is, “Thank you Lord for waking me up today.” That hits me in my soul.
Q: So they aren’t angry at their station in life?
A: I wouldn’t go that far. You get angry when you know that people look down on you. Or you get caught up in a system that is so hard to get out of. But most are aware of the presence of God.
Q: Do you think your message would be different if you were preaching to an affluent congregation?
A: My message would be the same. There’s as much addiction and mental health problems in traditional parishes.
Q: And what is that message?
A: We are all God’s beloved. Since we are all made in God’s image, we need to learn the respect and dignity of very human being.