The Welcome Church: A Beloved Community without Walls

The Welcome Church: A Beloved Community without Walls alongside People Experiencing Homelessness

Rev. Greg Klimovitz

In 2006, Rev. Violet Little was making one of her regular afternoon commutes into the city when she had an encounter that would forever alter the course of her ministry.  She walked into the women’s bathroom of Suburban Station and met a young woman huddled on the floor with all her belongings. As the two strangers talked, Rev. Little learned about Christina’s* experience with homelessness and how the restroom had become her primary shelter and place of respite.

Christina told Rev. Little she had nowhere else to go.  These words more than lingered with Rev. Little; they sparked a movement of the Spirit.

As then-pastor of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Mt. Airy, Rev. Little learned this was a common narrative for many in Philadelphia who experience homelessness: train station restrooms as sanctuary. Surely they needed somewhere else to go to find respite, empowerment, and a sense of belonging. So Rev. Little teamed up with local partners, to include Rev. Schaunel Steinnagel of the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and birthed what would become The Welcome Church, a congregation under development through the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

A Covenant Fund recipient through the Presbytery of Philadelphia in each of the last three years, The Welcome Church has evolved into an ecumenical faith community whose primary worship participants and ministry leaders experience chronic street homelessness.  Truly a congregation without walls, The Welcome Church gathers every first and last Sunday of the month by the Benjamin Franklin Parkway for an outdoor service of Word and Sacrament followed by fellowship and coffee. At locations around Center City familiar to their populous, The Welcome Church also hosts weekly tea and talk, Tuesday Eucharist, Bible studies, and knitting groups that foster community with those all too familiar with dismissal and isolation. A central element of all of The Welcome Church is leadership alongside those who experience homelessness. As Rev. Violet Little noted, “we always leave room at the table for the gifts of those experiencing homelessness.”

This was on full display in November when The Welcome Church hosted their monthly women’s dinner playfully called, “Chat and Chew.” In cooperation with Rev. Steinnagel, who has served as the Associate Pastor of The Welcome Church in a validated ministry of the Presbytery of Philadelphia since 2013, the women selected a seasonal menu that mirrored the best of Thanksgiving dinner.  Everything from turkey to fresh cranberry sauce, sweet potatoes to seasoned vegetables, were prepared by the twelve women who gathered together in the small kitchen of Trinity Memorial Episcopal Church. One of the participants even brought a pie with cool whip for dessert.  Rev. Steinnagel commented on the gathering, “The November Women’s Dinner was a wonderful example of the work of the Welcome Church, because a diversity of people came together, from a wide variety of races, housing statuses, mental health diagnoses, etc., and each had the opportunity to share something…While the chaos of food prep was occurring, people were sharing tools and making room for one another and talking and being with one another, just like any family on Thanksgiving in a small kitchen!”

While worship and hospitality are central to The Welcome Church’s mission, commitment to alleviating the root causes of poverty and homelessness is also critical to their ministry. Rev. Steinnagel and Rev. Little, along with their volunteer clergy team, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopal, and Methodist congregations, West Kensington Ministry, and other local partners, have walked alongside those in search of housing, employment, and various services pertinent to those who experience chronic homelessness and poverty. The Welcome Church has also launched various social enterprises, such as Welcome Threads silk-screening studio, which provide opportunities for those who experience homelessness to develop the basic skills necessary for maintaining a job.

In their efforts to eradicate local homelessness, The Welcome Church hinges on advocacy alongside and empowerment of those for whom homelessness is more than a social issue but an element of their lived narrative. In 2013, The Welcome Church even launched the I Have a Dream Fund, which began when a regular participant offered the $5 he found on the Parkway to assist others in the development of comparable ministries to the ones that had made a major impact on his life.  Through various awards and contributions of Welcome Church participants, the I Have a Dream Fund has grown to over $18,000 and awarded as much as $1,000. The entire process is overseen by leaders of The Welcome Church, many who currently experience homelessness, and reverses the traditional praxis of grant distribution necessary for poverty alleviation efforts. As Rev. Steinnagel remarked, “bring what you have and we will make room for you and your gifts.”

While The Welcome Church began as an intentional effort to extend community and hospitality to some of our most vulnerable neighbors in Philadelphia, the ministry has transformed into a beloved community of dignity and inclusive grace. In other words, for those looking for a congregation that embodies the holistic gospel of Jesus Christ, The Welcome Church is one place all can go and be received with open arms.  After all, there are no walls to bar anyone from participation.

*This is not the real name of the individual.

How can you help?  Please contact Rev. Schaunel Steinnegal at [email protected] and find out the various ways you can support the Welcome Church.

  • Join the Welcome Church for Worship in the first and last Sundays of the month on the Ben Franklin Parkway
  • Welcome Kits for those who have secured housing
  • Providing baked goods for Fellowship
  • Host coffee hour after Sunday Worship
  • Support Pastor Salaries