Western NC’s Kairos West: Intentionally sacred among the secular
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of stories about The Episcopal Church’s pledge at the 77th General Convention to partner with dioceses to begin innovative mission strategies. Previous stories are here.
[Episcopal News Service] Any given day or night, the Kairos West Community Center hosts people interested in “funky fitness” classes, artists, musicians, those living with traumatic brain injury and others exploring their gender assignment, as well as those seeking conversation, free Wi-Fi, coffee and pastries, fresh produce, spiritual sustenance and worship.
Located in increasingly gentrified West Asheville, the one-year-old center is a church-in-the-world initiative of the Cathedral of All Souls and the Diocese of Western North Carolina. It was partially funded by a 2014 Mission Enterprise Zone grant from The Episcopal Church.
Mission Enterprise Zones and their companion New Church Starts are Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society initiatives funded through the 2013-2015 Five Marks of Mission triennial budget, approved by General Convention July 2012. In the budget, $2 million was allotted for the work of establishing Mission Enterprise Zones and for supporting new church starts for the first of the Anglican Communion’s Five Marks of Mission: to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom.
(The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the legal and canonical name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business and carries out mission.)
Matching grants were available for up to $20,000 for a Mission Enterprise Zone and up to $100,000 for new church starts. The Executive Council’s Joint Standing Committee on Local Mission and Ministry Committee considered applications for the grants and recommended to council which ought to be approved.
For Joy, 53, who is homeless and shows up most mornings to help set out coffee and pastries for guests, it is a place finally to belong.
“I dropped in one day and it was a refuge; a nice community of people trying to help each other here,” she said. “It’s great, because there’s coffee and tea and I get on-line. I get to use the computer to communicate with friends because I don’t have a phone.”
Located on the active Haywood Road business strip, the center “is not commercial or materialistic,” said Joy, who asked that her last name be withheld. “It’s nice that it’s here on this street among restaurants and businesses, because it’s not about money. It’s not about what you just bought or anything like that.
“It’s about your emotional and spiritual well-being. It’s just about coming in and people being themselves and for that to be okay for them, to be themselves.”
“West Asheville is changing,” said the Rev. Milly Morrow, canon missioner for the cathedral. “It used to be a poverty-stricken area that was thriving in the sense of the capacity of the community there.
“Then one great restaurant opened up and the New York Times covered it and boom, a flood of businesses came in right on this one street and the economy went nuts. Prices went up. It was like Gentrification 101, with folks living in the neighborhood getting pushed back further,” Morrow told ENS.
The Rev. James Lee, associate pastor at St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church, a Kairos West partner, credited Morrow “with the great idea of having a center that does church but not in a traditional sense of doing it … of sharing the love of Christ without the stained glass windows and steeple.”
Morrow credits the center’s inspiration on a visit to its namesake, Kairos Cuba, a community center in Matanzas, about 50 miles south of Havana. While on pilgrimage to Cuba, she and a group of cathedral youth and adults visited the center, which is “right on the main street. They have a cistern with clean water and beds for pilgrims and a worship space and do art and liturgy.
“They keep the front doors open all the time and people come in and out for water,” she said. “Neighbors meet and discuss what’s happening in their neighborhoods and their families and the changing life in Cuba. Together, they are coming up with solutions and energizing each other and building the capacity of the community to thrive.”
She realized that, “this is church, 24/7. It seemed effortless,” Morrow recalled. ”It was about being together. It wasn’t programmatic. It wasn’t strategic. It was relationship.”
After she returned to West Asheville, the memory of Kairos Cuba “couldn’t let go of me,” she said. “It just kept hovering right over every other work I was doing and was ultimately linked with this vision I had about this community center.”
She connected with local pastors and it quickly came together.
A fabric store on Haywood Road went out of business;Morrow was able to lease the space with assistance from the $20,000 Mission Enterprise Zone grant, which an equal amount to be previously pledged by the diocese.
Western North Carolina Bishop Porter Taylor said the diocese matched the Mission Enterprise Zone grant through an endowment earmarked for innovative ministries and their operating budgets because Kairos West aims to meet a segment of West Asheville’s population that “longs to be fed but is not coming to church to be fed.
“Instead of trying to get people to come to church, she (Morrow) is taking the church to the people,” he said.
“Kairos West is important to us because we believe that we can’t afford to lose this whole generation, not so much to The Episcopal Church, but to the good news of Jesus Christ and she is able to be with people where they are and connect them to the good news in a way that makes sense to them.”
Additionally, the center “has really energized the diocese and has also inspired other parishes to explore creative ministries,” Taylor said. “It’s had a ripple effect.”
Receiving the grants was “amazing; for the church being willing to say, this is what we do. We send people out into the world to start new things, to help communities flourish, this is what we want to be about,” Morrow said.
After Kairos West opened, for the first few weeks, she waited inside, “wondering what am I doing? And then people started trickling in, saying ‘what are you doing’ and I’d say ‘we’re working on mercy and justice and here’s our mission and do you want to participate?’”
Within several months, a diverse group of at least 15 “commerce-free” ministries began using the space, free of charge, Morrow said. In turn, they offer gatherings free of charge and they do not receive payment for the work they do at the center.
They commit to core values of decreasing competition and isolation, and increasing collaboration and connectivity in order to help “invite the Holy Spirit into our work more and more and more. That’s what we hear Jesus asking us to do, be connected.”
Morrow is one of those people who knows how to listen well to the people who historically have been underrepresented or even unrepresented in The Episcopal Church, said the Rev. Tom Brackett, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society’s missioner for church planting and ministry redevelopment. (The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society is the legal and canonical name under which The Episcopal Church is incorporated, conducts business and carries out mission.)
Morrow and similar practitioners ask people who have been in the community a long time to tell them what the needs are in the community that are not being met but that could be engaged immediately and who are or who might be allies in that work, Brackett said.
“The shape of ministry development that emerges from their style really, truly is organic; based on lots of conversation, and while they are very capable of coming up with strategy and getting allies to help them with great strategy, they have chosen to listen,” Brackett told ENS.
And, he added invoking the Williams Stafford poem The Way it Is, Morrow knows how to pull the thread of her ministry through all of her encounters.
“So, she has endless stories of how she said yes to one person that led her to another person that led to a new opportunity,” Brackett said.
Janet Hurley’s nonprofit agency, Asheville Writers and Schools in Community, has a huge mission but not much office space. The program, which connects writers and teaching artists with teachers, classrooms and community programs, frequently holds board meetings at Kairos West.
“It’s very welcoming,” Hurley said. “There are poetry workshops, peer counselors who meet with a mental health group. They can drop in and see the counselors, a lot of different folks use the space for a variety of different reasons,” said Hurley, who also serves as a volunteer host, setting out pastries, making coffee, and greeting guests.
“You end up having conversations and making connections,” she said. “It has a the-sum –is-greater-than-its-parts-feel to it. I bring my laptop to do some work and if people stop by, there’s always a sign out front that they can come in and have coffee and tea. There are children’s books and games. The other day while I was there hosting, two young women came in and played Pictionary.”
‘Ministering without really ministering’
Lee, from St. Paul’s Missionary Baptist Church, grew up in West Asheville and has witnessed gentrification shift the largely African American community and his congregation into more of “a mixed community, a multicultural church.”
An early collaborator with Morrow and Kairos West, he calls it a beacon among the area’s economic explosion. “It’s a great way of ministering without really ministering in the sense of having the bible ready and saying that this is a bible study or prayer meeting.”
“There’s a lot of hurt with the church and the traditions of the church,” he added. “It’s a way of introducing those traditions in a different manner to make it more receptive and hopefully bring someone back to the body of the church.”
He recalled referring someone to the center for spiritual support who “was ecstatic to have someone listen to him without judgment, with conviction, offer a prayer for him. That’s a phenomenal experience of how to do church without looking like a church.”
A donation of books about social justice helped to form a library; comfortable couches and chairs lend a living room feel. A children’s nook with games and bean bag chairs, art tables and supplies and a computer plug-in counter space help create “the intentional sacred space in a secular world set apart for the building of capacity of community through art, liturgy and service,” Morrow said.
Also available are spiritual direction and counseling, yoga classes, free farmer’s markets and free food markets, “which help because in West Asheville there’s no free food, so we go and pick up extra food and hand it out,” she said.
Recently, a group of twentysomethings “who love church and love liturgy … wanted to give thanks to God for everything that God’s doing here” began a Wednesday evening worship collective. It incorporates Taizé chant, prayers, Scripture, music, silence, classical literature excerpts, and “we’ll see where it goes,” Morrow said.
Lee, 36, has held bible study and prayer meetings at the center and says Kairos West offers a variety of ways in which “people can experience Christ in a different manner than they probably would on Sunday morning.
“I’ve seen the way it’s pulled together church across denominations, across racial lines, across socioeconomic classes,” he added. “It’s been able to allow people to exist as God has intended us to exist, with peace and harmony and justice.”
Morrow said she regrets, however, not ensuring greater diversity, making sure “it is multi-voiced, and not just the people who have interests. I said, okay, who’s interested? Instead, I should have said who’s really needed at the table?
“My definition of interest was very white, very middle class,” she added. “I didn’t do a great job of designing a place for intersectional ministry that I really have a longing for, a growing edge, I need to learn more about that.”
While the center offers a much-needed presence and helps the community’s capacity to thrive, Morrow considers it “a moment in time; an explosion in the best way possible.
“It is gifting me,” she added. “I am a better person because it exists. Everybody that walks into the space gains some empowerment from it.”
–The Rev. Pat McCaughan is a correspondent for the Episcopal News Service.