A Lighter in the Whirlwind

“Does anyone have a lighter?”

We all looked around at each other, and shook our heads.

“Some of our friends who are smokers aren’t here this week, and I usually borrow a lighter from them to light the candle.”

So Hugh Hollowell, with a self-deprecating laugh, asked us to imagine the candle is lit, as he proclaims the chapel service open.

We sat on metal chairs that we set up ourselves, in a cement-block room in the back annex of Trinity United Methodist Church off Bloodworth Street, at the northern edge of Oakwood — one of the richest neighborhoods in Raleigh.

Every Sunday afternoon, Hugh — a Mennonite minister and founder of Love Wins Ministries — opens the doors to the hospitality house and holds a chapel service. It’s a simple, bare-bones version of most Protestant services.

We sing hymns — there are a lot of standards in Love Wins worship book. My favorite is “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.”

Hugh has a gospel reading, and a message based on the gospel reading. After his message, Hugh opens it up to comment about the message. He says that he doesn’t have all the answers, and if the group wants to share something about the message, they are welcome to.

It is a church of last resort, Hugh says, and he means it, too. It is a place where people can come when they don’t have anywhere else to go; when they don’t feel welcome in the hundred other churches that hold services every Sunday morning.

Hugh’s theology is at the heart of Love Wins. He believes in community, and that persistent homelessness is perpetuated by a loss of community. His fight is against “hobophobia” — literally the fear of poor people.

Words matter to Hugh — because words carry weight beyond their literal meaning.

At Love Wins, Hugh and his staff call you by your name, and they tell you their names. It’s a simple, yet powerful act to someone who is experiencing homelessness or violence or fear — sharing your name restores dignity.

And there’s no better way to show love, respect, and dignity than to share a meal with someone. That’s why, at every chapel service, every Sunday, communion is celebrated.

Hugh pulls out the bread and the cup — the traditional elements of the Last Supper. For Christians, there is nothing more sacred, and yet, many Christians actively work to make communion an exclusive ritual.

Some churches celebrate communion once a month. Some churches make you walk to the front of the sanctuary, in front of everyone, and kneel in front of the minister to receive the sacraments. Some churches send ushers out with the bread and the cup and serve the congregation in the pews.

In some churches, you have to be baptized to receive communion; in others, being baptized isn’t good enough — you have to be baptized in that particular church in order to receive communion.

But Hugh explains that isn’t the case at Love Wins — everyone who wants to participate is welcome.

“You are all welcome here, and all of you is welcome here,” he says, borrowing a line from one of his fellow minister friends.

He begins the communion service by telling the story of the Last Supper.

“This is my favorite story — and it’s a very old story,” he says.

And he tells the story like this:

On the night he was to be arrested, Jesus was scared. The Bible says he was so scared that he was sweating blood — he was that scared.

He knew what was going to happen — so, if you’re scared, you want to be around friends, so you’re not so scared. During the meal, Jesus takes the bread, breaks it, and says, ‘My body is going to be broken like this bread.’ And he takes the cup of wine and says, ‘My blood will be spilled, just like this wine can be spilled.’

Jesus says to his friends, ‘Think of me when you eat the bread and drink the wine.’

And so, we line up quietly. Hugh breaks the bread — usually a roll that was donated during the week before. One week, it was a biscuit from Bojangles.

He tears off a piece, and hands it to us.

“The body of Christ for you, Ben.”

He says our name.

We dip the bread into a cup full of grape juice (wine isn’t used out of respect for friends who are recovering), and we eat the bread and go back to our seats.

For Hugh, taking communion is an act of bearing witness — by sharing the Last Supper with strangers, from all different backgrounds, faiths, classes, and socio-economic situations, we are showing a world that could be — but, sadly, isn’t.

Churches hide their faith behind ritual and rules. Those rituals and rules are made to create a mystical feeling that creates wonder, but also disorients us and keeps us separated from God and each other. Especially around Easter and Christmas — the high Christian holidays — the rituals become a whirlwind, where the pageantry becomes more important than community.

Children walk down the aisle, waving palm branches, on Palm Sunday, while their parents take pictures from the pews. A week later, the children are flowering the rough old cross, while the minister proclaims “He is risen” and the congregation responding in unison, “He is risen, indeed!”

We sing the hymns, we recount the story of the empty tomb, and head back out into the world, dressed up in our bright, colorful Easter outfits to head home for a traditional Southern Easter supper of ham and all the fixin’s.

But somewhere in the whirlwind, the community is lost. Being together — whether it’s with family or friends or complete strangers — is lost in the overt symbolism of the faith.

In Hugh’s church, there is none of that. No palm branches, no choirs or pipe organs, no overt ritual — because ritual can sometimes be a barrier that keeps us from each other and from God.

The next week, one of the attendees — someone who spent the last week in a shelter — brought a pack of lighters, so the candle could be lit.

Listen to my conversation with Hugh Hollowell about Love Wins Ministries on “This is Raleigh” from Little Raleigh Radio:

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