Atlanta’s homeless find a church home

Reverend Kenya Thompson leads prayer during a Church of the Common Ground Christmas Eve service for the homeless at Woodruff Park in Atlanta. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Reverend Kenya Thompson leads prayer during a Church of the Common Ground Christmas Eve service for the homeless at Woodruff Park in Atlanta. (ALYSSA POINTER/ALYSSA.POINTER@AJC.COM)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Under crisp blue skies, the Very Rev. Monica Mainwaring smiles broadly Monday afternoon at a special Christmas Eve worship service at a park in downtown Atlanta.

Brothers and sisters in Christ. I have good news.

God is here. God is right with us, and this is holy ground.

Once again in Woodruff Park, the Church of the Common Ground, an Episcopal parish for the homeless, held a special Christmas celebration Monday.

The sun shone. Pigeons waddled. And standing on granite squares, dozens of people bowed their heads and prayed.

"This church is so open," said Frank Torres, a regular at Common Ground church services. "You don't have to dress a certain way. I love the fellowship, and I love being with these folks I know."

Torres, who is 67, was homeless for several years but has secured short-term housing arrangements over the past couple of years, and he’s hoping to secure long-term housing soon. A soft-spoken man with a ponytail, Torres served in the U.S. Army for 18 years. His life spiraled downward in the early 1990s. He struggled with “addiction issues” for several years but has been sober for two years. He credited the Church of the Common Ground for helping him connect with resources to help him overcome his addiction.

“I feel like I am a new person,” said Torres. “And this church helps keep me grounded.”

Torres, who attends Common Ground church services every week at Woodruff Park, also volunteers with the church, too.

The Church of the Common Ground was founded 12 years ago when a small group of people gathered around a priest in a city park in Atlanta and celebrated the Eucharist.

While the church has no building, it has a white van that hauls the altar and everything else they need for Sunday service —along with gallons of coffee, creamer and sugar. If they need a few chairs for morning  prayer, it’s no problem. Their white van totes chairs and a few tables, too.

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The Church of the Common Ground serves coffee at morning prayers and hands out bottles of water at Bible study. The church also washes and cares for hundreds of pairs of feet of homeless people as part of a foot clinic called “Common Soles” throughout the year. Volunteers offer men and women on the streets a place to relax and enjoy a foot wash and massage, clean socks and glass of lemonade.

Twelve years later, this church — without walls, without pews or stained glass windows — continues to re-imagine the meaning of church.

On a chilly afternoon, the group of worshippers formed a circle, hand in hand. They included men and women who are homeless, as well as members of other Episcopal churches in metro Atlanta. They sang Christmas carols, filling the open space with “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World.”

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They shook hands and embraced in a heartfelt, even emotional service.

Crystal Buchans has been going to services every week since they started 12 years ago.

“God is always God,” said Buchans, who is 53. “Even if I turn away, he’s patient.”

Homeless for several years, Buchans said, “I have good days and bad days living on the streets. … But I’ve learned I’m a survivor.”

Buchans said she’s glad to be able to go to a church service where she always feels welcome. She was even tapped to read a passage at the service Monday. And when it was her turn to speak, she read Luke 2:15-16 with passion and conviction.

“Our church is obviously outside, and we have very porous boundaries,” said Mainwaring, vicar of the Church of the Common Ground. “We are welcoming to all, and we affirm the dignity and worth of every human being.”

On Monday afternoon, wearing a long winter coat and a hat with pom poms, Mainwaring said she realizes the holidays can be a difficult time, a time when people can feel alienated and lonely.

“We need God for joy, for housing, for sobriety,” she said. “You are not alone even though you may feel alone. … God is here. God will come here.”

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