By Emma Castleberry
Reverend Brian Combs came to Asheville in the summer of 2009 with a goal of developing a very specific ministry with and among people on the furthest edges of society. “He spent about six months out on the streets, under the bridges, in line at the shelters, listening and talking with folks to understand what such a ministry should look like,” says Laura Kirby, executive director of Haywood Street Congregation. Combs learned about the shame and indignity that people often experience living on the streets. “Poverty and related problems can literally tear a community apart by separating ‘those that have’ from ‘those that need,’ even if the separation simply happens across the serving line at a soup kitchen,” says Kirby. It was this idea that led to the creation of Haywood Street’s Downtown Welcome Table, a shared, homemade lunch served family-style to a diverse community. “The Downtown Welcome Table aims to bring us back together as community and affirm an alternative set of truths: you matter. You are worth the very best. We all need each other,” says Kirby. “From the very beginning, there was an emphasis on learning each others’ names and stories—becoming friends.”
What started as a casual, mid-week communion worship service with lunch grew into a large shared meal. Haywood Street partnered with MANNA and launched the formal Downtown Welcome Table in February of 2010. That first day, congregation members Amy Gaston and Shelley Arnold drove around Asheville, stopping at Pritchard Park and other places to invite folks to lunch. Twenty-five people attended that first day. The Downtown Welcome Table now serves more than 350 people for lunch every Wednesday and more than 250 people for supper on Sunday evenings. Robert Stafford, who has been attending Welcome Tables for a long time, says his favorite part of the experience is seeing people’s joy as they share a meal.“It gives us a chance to love everyone, to serve and be served,” he says.
In 2013, the Chefs @ Downtown Welcome Table partnership program was spearheaded by Liz Button, co- owner of Katie Button Restaurants. Through this program, restaurants handle the Welcome Table meal preparation a couple of times a month. Five restaurants participated in the first year of the partnership: Cúrate, Blackbird, Cucina 24, French Broad Chocolate Lounge and Chai Pani. The Chefs @ Downtown Welcome Table program now boasts more than 40 restaurant partners, including seven local food trucks.
The sweetness of the Downtown Welcome Table experience is found in the details: locally sourced, high-quality ingredients from Mills River Creamery and Sunburst Trout Farms, tables decorated with fresh flowers, cloth napkins and linen tablecloths. East Fork Pottery recently donated handmade, local pottery for use at the Downtown Welcome Table. Volunteer waitstaff are called “companions.” There is no scarcity— portions are large and generous. These intentional details come together for an experience that is filling—emotionally, physically and spiritually. “So many things divide us today,” says Kirby. “Welcome Tables bring us back together.”
Orientation for Haywood Street companions takes place the first Monday of every month at 5 p.m. For more information about Haywood Street Congregation and the Downtown Welcome Table, visit HaywoodStreet.org.