Homeless near the White House

Sundays at Epiphany Episcopal (Anglican) Church in downtown Washington DC start at 6.30am. The doors open and the welcomers are ready with a warm smile and a label for your name and your number (for the breakfast queue later).

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Well organised teams of volunteers set up for The Welcome Table. Part one is groups from 7am-8am – Bible study; art group; 12 step groups like narcotics anonymous; choir practice. Everyone is invited to take part in the discussions; they are listened to with respect and openness; some make sense, others not so much. It doesn’t matter the respect is the same.

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Part two is the 8am eucharist led by the Epiphany clergy supported by a gospel style choir led by a man who was once homeless. Those who read, lead the psalm and the prayers are likely to have slept the night on the street or in a shelter. They do it well, having practiced in the 7am slot, they know the ritual, the responses.

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Part three is breakfast – scrambled eggs, bacon, grits (the chef must be from the South), scone, fruit, coffee, orange juice.

150 or so can be fed each Sunday and so the names and numbers are called in groups of forty and people move through to breakfast, seated at tables, with flowers in the centre, proper plates and cutlery; the coffee is poured by the volunteers. Everyone waits patiently for their turn, sitting quietly in the church. My number was 119 so I waited a while and then moved through, greeted warmly, chatting with others as we lined up to be served (I declined the grits). I was shown to a table, others were eating, we chatted about the food and the weather, as you might do with any strangers at a table.

I noticed most of the guests were African American, most were men. Most of the volunteers were white, a mix of men and women.

People moved off, and the church was set up again for the 11am congregation; some of the homeless folk stayed. The liturgy this time was led by a more traditional choir. The sermon was the same – very well delivered without a script each time. There were more people at the 8am service. Both services were relaxed and warm.

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On Tuesdays there is another group of volunteers who take church out into the park, along with lunch.

Rev Catriona Laing said their ministry is about being with people. Other agencies and places were assisting with housing and other issues. Their call she said, is simply to be with, to listen, to respect. To provide a spiritual home where people are welcome, truly welcome, not treated with suspicion or hostility. A place where people have a name, and are seen.

Epiphany has a very small staff, this is largely the work of the parishioners and other volunteers who join their teams. Impressive work.

Epiphany is two blocks from the White House. Political and structural change to remedy the causes of homelessness aren’t going to come any time soon. The people of Epiphany will continue every Sunday whatever the politics of the House up the road. 6.30am every Sunday at the Welcome Table .

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