The cross Violet Little wears around her neck is a simple one — dark wood with a smooth, curved finish meant to fit comfortably in the palm of the hand. “You only get one by having it placed around your neck, and you receive a blessing with it,” Violet shares.
Violet is the pastor of The Welcome Church, an ELCA worship community among people experiencing homelessness in Philadelphia. The Welcome Church is a member of a new network of ELCA ministries that work with and among people living in poverty. And the crosses have become an identifier of the people with whom she worships.
“So much of what we do has to do with identity. A lot of people don’t have an ID or are maybe embarrassed of their situation,” Violet says.
So for those who may have no other form of identification — or perhaps are looking for a new one — the cross necklace has become more than just a piece of jewelry. The crosses have become a symbol of the community to which they belong.
In fact, the crosses have become so synonymous with The Welcome Church that when an unconscious man was brought into the emergency room, the nursing staff called Violet to see if she could identify him. Violet has also had calls from the police about people wearing the cross. And from the morgue.
One of Violet’s favorite stories about the crosses is from a member of The Welcome Church named Drew.
When Violet first met Drew he had been living on the street for 15 years, and when he saw the cross Violet was wearing, he was immediately drawn to it. “He saw the cross I was wearing, and he said to me, ‘Can I have one of those?’ So I placed it around his neck.”
Drew started coming to The Welcome Church regularly, but when he suddenly stopped showing up, Violet got worried. “We hadn’t seen him for about six weeks, and I couldn’t find him. Finally he showed up back in the park one day, and we were having our service.”
Drew stood up in the middle of the group and announced that he had something to say. Then he began unbuttoning his shirt. “I wasn’t sure where this was going,” Violet laughs, adding, “Not everyone is always in a sober state of mind.”
But when Drew removed his shirt, a large scar was visible on his chest. “He had been stabbed,” Violet remembers, “and that’s why he hadn’t been around for six weeks.”
“He described his experience of being in the emergency room,” Violet continues. “And he said, ‘You know what that doctor said? He said that the knife missed my heart by a fraction of an inch.’”
Drew said that because the knife had struck the cross he was wearing around his neck, the blade missed penetrating his heart.
“So literally the cross got in his way and it saved his life,” says Violet. “So we use that phrase now about how the cross gets in our way all the time, protecting us and holding us and saving us.”