Last Wednesday, Josh and I received a vanload of volunteers from Holy Comforter Episcopal Church. The group was a mix of folks from the Friendship Center and interns from the Candler School of Theology. After they piled out, we exchanged greetings, briefly caught up with each other, and finally joined hands in prayer. Will, one of the Friendship Center participants, led us in offering to God words of gratitude for the chance to work in the open air, as well as words inviting God to make our common work holy and good. After the amen, we divided into groups and set about repairing the greenhouse plastic, planting seed pallets, and feeding the farm’s livestock.
At first glance, all this might seem routine, at least for a church with a farm, but what is not so ordinary are the gifts and graces these groups bring to their work at Berea. Holy Comforter is a mission parish, and its primary outreach is to those who live with mental illness and disability. Over the last three decades, Holy Comforter has proved such a place of welcome and refuge for this often misunderstood population that persons with mental illness and disability now make up a whopping seventy-five percent of the church’s membership. (You would be hard-pressed to find another church with this kind of makeup anywhere else in the nation.) Having received such hospitality, these folks welcome strangers and bind up the broken-hearted, working in the church’s vegetable garden and greenhouse, offering the gift of music to their brothers and sisters, and producing beautifully and earnestly made craftwork and artwork. The love there, though mixed with experiences of incredible heartbreak, spills over its borders and has now managed to find its way to Berea.
Last year I served at Holy Comforter as one of several Candler interns. Nearly every Wednesday afternoon, I would take a vanload of folks to Berea’s farm. The connection has evolved from brief tours to an exchange in which Friendship Center participants and Candler interns learn to work as a team to achieve concrete results on the farm and enjoy the (oftentimes literal) fruits (and vegetables) of their shared labor.
Our partnership with Holy Comforter is still pretty new, but I think it is a good example of what God’s New Creation might look like. Persons with mental illness and disability are all too often treated as burdensome waste. (Yes, I meant that.) They are rarely expected – let alone called upon – to contribute to the common good. But when this group gathers each Wednesday, we begin with the basic Christian belief that we have each been graced by God, and then we move from belief to action. We roll up our sleeves and dig in our heels and give back what has been uniquely given each of us. And in this receiving and giving, we unfailingly find ourselves caught up in an even more abounding grace. Not only have we worked for the common good, but we have found the Good common to us all – the Spirit of God in the world and among his people.
After we finished our work, we put away our tools and materials and headed back to the van. On the way, we stopped in the courtyard to close in prayer. This time, another Friendship Center participant offered to pray on the group’s behalf. As he did so, I couldn’t help but think, “The kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” May the Church not fail in giving these members of the Body of Christ what is already theirs by God-given right – their good and proper place in God’s New Creation. And may Holy Comforter and Berea together offer more and more signs of the New Creation’s approach.