As we departed the bus on a beautiful Wednesday morning and walked through a friendly group of street-dependent residents of Asheville, North Carolina, the sign outside the church was a dead giveaway that this would be a different experience from our normal tours of playful shingle style houses or exuberant art deco commercial architecture.
What would we find in a welcoming place of holy chaos and abundant grace?
Our National Trust Tour travelers had come to this place to see one of the newest additions to the Appalachian murals: the Haywood Street Fresco. The second clue that our expectations were about to be challenged was the mission statement for the fresco, displayed on a large wall painting just inside the front door of the Haywood Street Congregation.*
“Affirming sacred worth, restoring human dignity, and sabotaging the shame of poverty, the Haywood Street Fresco announces, in plaster and pigment, that you matter.”
As described in a beautiful brochure from Haywood Street, the buon fresco is an ancient art that involves painting ground pigments onto wet plaster. It is time consuming and labor intensive. It requires specialized skill from artists working with a trained team. One such artist — Christopher Holt — approached the Rev. Brian Combs, the founding pastor of the Haywood Street Congregation, in 2011 with the idea of creating just such a painting on the wall behind the altar to recognize the people and work of this mission. Those depicted in the fresco would be the street-dependent and working poor members of the congregation who we saw as we entered. And people like Charlie Burns. Charlie’s story is an integral part of the Haywood Street Congregation.
Charles Burns had a presence about him. He was a man of many talents. He and his constant companion, Emma the Wonder Dog, met Brian Combs in 2009 – a young preacher who wanted to make the church relevant to folks struggling with addiction and homelessness. Brian would later say that having Charles vouch for him gave him the street credibility that became the foundation of Haywood Street Congregation.
Charles was a talented woodworker who created numerous palm crosses and “peace poles” that are now scattered from post Hurricane Sandy homes in New Jersey to indigenous villages in Bolivia. He was generous with anything he owned or anywhere he lived. He took in strays and offered them whatever he had. He loved a good fire and good friends. Charles was a natural leader who was respected by all. Living with throat cancer during his final years, he made every day count…always planning his next adventure, helping a friend and showing us all how to live.
Although he died shortly before the artists began painting the wall in 2018, his spirit, support, and generosity live on through the Charles Burns Memorial Fresco Fund which help ensures the longevity of the work.
A staff member met our group and — along with our guide Tom Frank — gave a brief overview of the fresco. We then spent the next 20 minutes or so studying the faces, seeing the affirmation of worth and life in each one.
“Haywood Street Congregation was founded in 2009 by Rev. Brian Combs, a United Methodist pastor responding to a call to reach out to individuals living on the margins with a message of acceptance and belonging. The ministry has grown rapidly and today several hundred folks gather each Wednesday and Sunday for table fellowship and worship. Those who eat and worship together are individuals carrying all their worldly possessions in ragged backpacks as well as privileged professionals, stay-at-home moms, students, and the working poor.”
Art can definitely be a spiritual experience, and this was one such time in an extraordinary day of touring historic houses of worship in this western North Carolina community.
More to come…
*I have been working on several mission statements in recent months, and I’m here to say that this is one great example of the genre.
All photos by DJB