BY ALAN STIMPSON
“There is a lot of hate being preached in the name of love,” but the Reverend Bob Leopold is putting the emphasis back where it belongs.
Most Friday nights, anywhere from twenty-five to fifty people meet at the Hart Gallery on Main Street to worship at Southside Abbey. Bob rents out this small gallery on Main Street that sells artwork created by Chattanooga’s homeless population. It is a small space characterized by exposed brick walls, concrete floors, and lofted ceiling, giving it an industrial feel. On a recent Friday evening, people from all walks of life are gathered—large families and singles, businessmen and blue-collar workers, immigrants and Chattanooga natives, college students and professors. There are lots of rambunctious children bouncing off the walls, which is problematic in an art gallery. Midway through the evening’s worship, a woman asks why there is a uniformed officer in attendance. She is new to Southside Abbey and doesn’t know that the policeman and his wife have been regulars for three years or that he sometimes doesn’t have time to change out of his uniform after his shift. She isn’t the first to ask this question.
It is unusual to see people from all walks of life sitting together as equals, sharing a meal. Yet in another sense, this gathering consists of a wide sampling of typical Chattanoogans—just not necessarily the Chattanoogans that Bob initially set out to serve.
Bob resigned in 2012 from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, an historic church in downtown Chattanooga, to start Southside Abbey. The break from a well-established and very traditional church—St. Paul’s was established in 1853 and worships in a building constructed in 1881—was quite the leap of faith, even for a priest. Bob’s inspiration for drastically altering his career path grew out of his experiences in the days following the unexpected death of his close friend Phil Pollard. Pollard, an active musician and long-time resident of Knoxville, had recently moved to Richmond, Virginia, when he collapsed and died on his 44th birthday. An impromptu memorial was planned, and Bob, because of his vocation, was asked to organize it. A chartered bus full of Pollard’s friends came from Knoxville. In total, more than 700 people showed up.
Recognizing that these people came from diverse backgrounds and did not regularly attend church, Bob decided to make the service less traditional and more of a celebration of Pollard’s life. Bob remembers that, after the service, he heard from many of those in attendance that if church had been “like this, a celebration of life,” then they would not have stopped going. This experience inspired Bob to leave St. Paul’s and start a church for people “who had been injured by the church.”
The structure of Southside Abbey’s Friday night worship has, from the beginning, remained the same: There is a brief service, communion, a reading from scripture, dinner, and small group conversations. It is consciously modeled after Christ’s last supper.
Bob says that in the first year there were lots of families, “but we felt called to do more.” Friday nights “had always involved a free meal, and trust and relationships grew with the homeless community.” He knew there were other places to get a meal on Friday nights, places where no one preached to them, yet they chose to become regulars at Southside Abbey.
As the demographics of the parishioners evolved, some families “left due to concerns of safety.” Because of this, the second year was focused on “embracing whom the Holy Spirit brought to us, which was largely the poor.” The third year “has been the return of the disaffected churchgoers who are here because of the demographic we are, instead of sticking around in spite of it.”
This sense of inclusion was palpable on the Friday night service I recently attended. Most people seemed comfortable in a situation where, at first glance, everyone appeared out of place.
Bob had asked those in attendance about the different ways in which churches of various denominations had pushed them away, and I was surprised to see a group of largely disenfranchised citizens—the poor, homeless, immigrant, mentally ill, and addicts of Chattanooga—deliver sharp criticism of the Christian church at large for being hypocritical, homophobic, sexist, racist, and classist. It should have been a tense scene, but everyone was comfortable with the topic that Bob had introduced for the evening’s conversations. I was probably the most uncomfortable person in the room. My discomfort was just a result of how unfamiliar Southside Abbey can feel, even for people who grow up going to church.
In speaking with Bob about Southside Abbey’s evolution, he stressed a distinction between the “perceived needs versus the felt needs” of a community. The problem, he says, is that “as a culture we look at an area we think has a need” but “don’t ask what they need, don’t listen.” Further complicating the task of discovering these “felt needs” in a community is the fact that mainstream culture has systematically silenced marginalized groups, and they no longer trust the people who claim to want to help them.
Bob explains the distinction he makes about helping the community with the old English proverb about giving a man a fish. Historically, church outreach was simply giving food to the poor, something that he says Eastern Orthodox churches still practice by giving everyone a loaf of bread at the end of the service. More recently, outreach has evolved into “teaching a person to fish” in the hopes that he will learn to provide for himself.
Bob sees a “danger” in these models in that they “presuppose a one-way exchange, that the church has the good to give away.” As an alternative, Bob proposes a model of community outreach based on “fishing together.”
Like a good priest, Bob has a story to illuminate his meaning:
Mark, a homeless man who regularly attends Friday night worship, showed up recently after having missed several Fridays in a row. His face was bruised and covered with partially healed cuts. Bob greeted him: “Mark, it’s so good to see you. What happened to you?” Mark related that he was just released from the hospital, that two guys stole what few possessions he had and then threw him off of a bridge. Bob asked Mark if he knew who the men were that robbed him, and Mark said that yes, he knew. The men were also regular attendees at Southside Abbey. Bob offered to help Mark pursue some kind of justice. However, Mark refused to name his assailants, knowing that Bob would ask them to leave. Mark felt that the two men should be allowed to stay because “they need Jesus’s love as much as I do.”
It was an explanation that caught Bob off guard by flipping the paradigm of priest as giver of spiritual insight on its head.
Southside Abbey’s Senior Warden Kim Smith echoes Bob’s sentiment: “We were feeding our neighbors, but really they were feeding us spiritually.” She goes on to say that the “exchange rate was unbalanced,” that she found herself receiving more spiritually than the cost of the food might suggest was possible.
Perhaps Southside Abbey has managed to strike a chord with the homeless because, in many ways, it doesn’t look or feel like church. Worship services take place in the Hart Gallery on East Main Street, a familiar venue for many in the homeless community. The Hart Gallery describes itself as a “not-for-profit organization with the mission of offering homeless persons and other non-traditional artists an opportunity to create and sell their artwork for their benefit.”
Southside Abbey is consciously designed to avoid the sterile formality that many associate with churches. The evening meal, while modeled after Christ’s last supper with the apostles, helps to create a familial atmosphere. Bob uses simple plastic banquet tables arranged in a cross and folding chairs for seating. Food frequently comes from nearby eateries like Conga, a Latin American restaurant across the street, and is eaten as parishioners talk amongst themselves.
Rather than offering a lengthy sermon, the majority of the time is spent in small group conversations, which Bob listens to as he mingles with the congregation. Without knowing Bob, picking the priest out of a lineup might be difficult. On a recent Friday, he wore flip flops, cargo shorts, and a faded Vols t-shirt, and only put on a hand-knit stole as he called everyone to worship with an opening prayer.
It may seem odd to hold a church service in an art gallery, but there are perks to this arrangement. The reality is that buildings are the largest expense for many churches. Not knowing how many disaffected church-goers he might attract, Bob would have been hard pressed to predict his church’s needs for the near future. Bob is acutely aware of how underutilized church buildings typically are. Many sit idle for six days of the week. Renting space from the Hart Gallery presented the obvious benefit of sidestepping these issues while also contributing to the local economy and a business that helps the homeless. But the most significant upside to not being able to see Southside Abbey when driving through the Southside is that the lack of a tangible structure shifts the church’s focus from the place to the relationships, or what Kim Smith calls a shift from the “steeple towards the people.”
Consider the typical question, typical at least for a city in the Bible Belt: “Where do you go to church?” It is loaded with the weight of theological, political, and socio-economic distinctions. “I am a (insert denomination) and go here, to this building, at this address.” The mind falls into the easy habit of equating that place, that building, with what church is. The absence of the tangible church building forces parishioners of Southside Abbey to consider a different set of answers to these questions and new questions that are peculiar to Southside Abbey. Where, for instance, is Southside Abbey the rest of the week?
I wasn’t terribly surprised when Bob told me that “the Latin and Greek words for ‘church,’ or the word that gets translated in the Bible as ‘church’ just means an assembly of people.” The place those people meet is, to some extent, irrelevant. As a result, people and the relationships between them are the foundation of Southside Abbey. It’s common to hear similar statements about churches or schools, but the only possible answer to the question, “What is Southside Abbey?”, if you stop and think about it, actually is the people.
Bob’s approach to building relationships with people in his community who are traditionally overlooked—the poor, the homeless, those suffering addictions, those suffering from mental illness—isn’t ground breaking. He listens. He stresses that Southside Abbey is not a “program.” Tucked deep in the website is the following statement:
“We are not here to help. We are here to destroy the structures of oppression that are contrary to the love of God, embodied in Jesus.”
Southside Abbey does not aim to be just another band-aid for our large social and spiritual problems. Do the Friday night meals, shoe-drives, tutoring programs, school computer labs, and other projects that Southside Abbey has funded help the community? Yes, but help isn’t enough. Southside Abbey wants to change society. Bob wants to change the way we treat each other.
Part of what makes Southside Abbey so special is that it has such an all-encompassing mission but no concrete plan. Bob has no distinct vision for what the next project will be because those ideas will come from listening to the community. Take, for instance, the 2014 Jubilee Fund, which, in a Times Free Press editorial, Bob credits to the “congregation” as a response to the crosses erected on I-75 north. The Jubilee was a plan to raise $700,000, the cost of putting up those three crosses, and then “give it away.”
Of course there were guidelines: the money was to be spent “Feeding the hungry. Welcoming the stranger. Giving drink to the thirsty. Clothing those in need. Caring for the sick. Loving your neighbor. Forgiving your enemies. Honoring widows. Healing the land.” These are broad categories, but the ideas that fit within them are easily distinguishable. Furthermore, the fund was envisioned as “seed money” for the specific programs that people felt were absent in their communities. It offered an outlet for these unheard people to voice their needs.
The Jubilee Fund ended up raising around $38,000 from 111 donors, which was used to fund 24 grants in the community. The smallest grant was $108 for rent, while the largest was a $7,000 donation towards a Habitat for Humanity home. Most of the grants, though, were around a thousand dollars. These relatively small amounts, however, disguise the significance of the Fund’s achievements:
Keeping a family’s electricity turned on in the winter
Helping an immigrant family pay off loans with predatory interest rates
Funding tuition for twenty children to attend summer camp
Paying for the repair of a volunteer’s car, so he can keep driving people in his community to AA and NA meetings
Helping establish tutoring programs and computer labs for students at Battle Academy, a local elementary school
These are small amounts of money relative to the amount of good they accomplished in the community.
Getting people to express their needs can sometimes be a large hurdle, but Bob has managed to establish some rapport with his community. At least, that was my impression when I saw the willingness of those gathered to offer honest appraisals of their interactions with the church. Such openness represents a significant amount of trust in Bob and testifies to community members’ belief in Southside Abbey’s commitment to their needs. They know that, regardless of the criticisms they level at Bob’s profession and the institution he represents, they will always be welcome on Friday evenings.
When asked about the current focus of his church, Bob laughingly replied, “If you asked me four years ago who I would be spending time with and told me it would be with those experiencing homelessness and addiction, I wouldn’t have believed you.” Bob’s surprise at where his church has taken him parallels his approach to building relationships in his community. Rather than beginning with a plan, Bob’s strategy is to listen to the needs of others and follow where those voices lead him. When asked about the future of Southside Abbey, Bob defers to past experiences, saying that, “We’ll go where the Holy Spirit leads.” Piecing these statements together, it becomes clear that not only do the disenfranchised direct Southside Abbey, but their voices are the “Holy Spirit” that Bob listens to for guidance.
After all his talk of working to establish ties within his community, I asked Bob at the end of a conversation if I could make the generalization that Southside Abbey was in the relationship business. Bob disagreed and remarked, “Really, we are in the love business.” That makes sense. Love is the common thread in the guidelines for the Jubilee Fund. It is the reason to listen to the needs of others. Love is the foundation for trust and the relationships that are built upon that trust. Bob envisions a world that is built upon love of all humanity. It’s a simple idea.
Note: After this article was completed, Bob Leopold took a position as the Incumbent at St. Luke’s Anglican Church in Ottawa, Ontario. The editors felt that this compelling story still needed to be shared. Friday night services continue at the Hart Gallery at 6:11 pm.