This Maundy Thursday, people who live on the streets of Philadelphia will gather outside in the city’s Logan Circle area for worship and Holy Communion. Some will also participate in the ritual of foot washing, a sign of humility and hospitality, joined by a group of podiatrists and others who happen by.
They will all be part of The Welcome Church that day, a 2-year-old ELCA ministry that serves people living with homelessness in downtown Philadelphia.
The Welcome Church is led by Violet C. Little, an ELCA pastor, psychotherapist, community organizer and writer. Together with Episcopal, United Methodist and Presbyterian clergy colleagues plus volunteers who serve the ministry, this unusual street church is a place where people find hope and hospitality. It has evolved into a multisite ecumenical ministry, serving people where they live throughout the city.
Some doctors, students and administrators from the Temple University School of Podiatric Medicine will join Thursday’s foot washing.
Inspired by The Welcome Church, the students are planning to start an organized program this summer of regular foot care and treatment for people who are homeless, as part of their schooling and service to the community.
The hands of the doctors and medical students will be blessed as part of the Maundy Thursday event.
“It’s an opportunity for me, my colleagues at the university and the students to provide care,” said Dr. John P. Scanlon, a Philadelphia podiatrist and Temple University podiatry school graduate. “We all have an obligation to help those in need.”
Also taking part in the worship and foot washing on Thursday will be Claire S. Burkat, bishop of the ELCA Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, Philadelphia. She said The Welcome Church is a “powerful and courageous ministry.”
“It’s an example to the whole church to be alert for opportunities to do God’s work through our hands,” she said. “We can do much more together than we can do alone.”
Towels will be given to each foot washing participant. Socks for Shelters, a student group from Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, an ELCA congregation in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., will also give each participant new socks.
The Welcome Church grew out of The Welcome Center, opened in 2007 in the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion, an ELCA congregation in Philadelphia.
Violet, who served as a pastor in urban Philadelphia for 14 years, helped establish the center. She wanted to provide a hospitable place for people living on the streets to rest, have some refreshments and engage in conversation.
“I travel on public transportation all the time,” Violet said. “I would meet homeless people in bus and train stations. What I couldn’t get out of my mind was the extreme exhaustion and the look in people’s eyes. I couldn’t stand to see anybody who was cold or tired.”
As word spread and people came, relationships were formed. Lunch was served, and activities such as movies and art shows were offered. Violet noticed that the people she met were hungry for more than food — they had a spiritual hunger, she said.
With support from the ELCA churchwide organization, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, the Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion, volunteers and other pastors, The Welcome Church was established. Violet became pastor to a network of people living on the streets and under bridges in Philadelphia. It’s a role she cherishes.
“I’ve never met people like this who are so hungry for communion,” she said. “The best thing I can offer to people is to verbalize hope. The most important thing I can do is speak the words that they are children of God.”
Members wear crosses, a recognizable symbol of their participation in The Welcome Church.
One member, Darren, 46, is a native of Philadelphia. For more than seven years, he has slept under a bridge at night and survived with the help of people who gave him money and food. A woman who gave him a sandwich and some money brought him to The Welcome Church. Now he’s a regular, participating in Bible studies, worship and singing in the choir.
“I’m just a Christian trying to serve God,” said Darren, who attended a Baptist church when he was growing up. He tells people he meets on the street about The Welcome Church.
Darren said people living with homelessness are a lot like many people, except they’ve been caught up in difficult circumstances. “You have to get to know homeless people before you judge them,” he said.
This past winter was difficult for Darren. He suffered frostbite from cold weather exposure and had to have two toes amputated. But during this Holy Week, he will be among those who gather in Logan Circle to hear the word, share Holy Communion and have his feet washed.
“I don’t know what is going to happen,” he said, “but I feel this is something God had planned all along.”