Church of the Common Ground Shows “Everyone Can Serve”

Members of the Church of the Common Ground take seriously their church’s outreach motto, from the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Everyone can be great, because everyone can serve.”

A ministry of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta, the Church of the Common Ground was formed in order to provide a place of worship for the area’s homeless population. Despite the daunting challenges that many congregation members face in their own lives, they recently reached out to others in need around the world, purchasing items from Episcopal Relief & Development’s Gifts for Life catalog.

“Some people assume that we only take donations and that the homeless never give,” noted Deacon Carole Maddux. “But like everyone, our members have a heart for people in need.”

The Church of the Common Ground began in fall 2006 after Pastor Bob and Holly Book visited Common Cathedral, a worship community for the homeless in Boston, and felt led to build a similar ministry in Atlanta. The church’s first Communion service took place on Christmas Eve in Woodruff Park, which still serves as the venue for most Sunday services.

Church services average between 40 to 70 people, most of whom are currently unhoused. In addition to Pastor Bob and Deacon Carole, the staff also includes the Rev. Mary Wetzel, vicar, and Mike Munger, who heads the recovery program. Common Ground also has a facility that serves as an alternate Sunday meeting place in inclement weather, along with providing space for services including pastoral care, a Bible study, a foot clinic and medical clinic, and an art and movie program.

While the church welcomes everyone, its main mission is to serve those without homes, who “haven’t always found a sincere welcome in other churches,” Carole noted. At Common Ground, she said, people know that “they might be under the influence or not have clean clothes, but they’re still welcome.”

According to Carole, the Gifts for Life project was a natural extension of the church’s outreach ministries. “Our parishioners are marginalized already, but my job is to bring the needs of the world to the church,” she said. “We march in the Hunger Walk every year and have helped with Episcopal Relief & Development.” Debbie Betsill, Episcopal Relief & Development’s volunteer Diocesan Coordinator in Atlanta, has also visited the congregation to share about the organization’s work worldwide.

Carole thought that Gifts for Life would be a simple way for congregation members to continue participating in the organization’s work during Advent. Each Sunday throughout the season, the altar table held a jar where people could put in offerings as they went up for communion. On the last Sunday of Advent, Carole invited interested members to help decide what to purchase with the offering.

About eight people met after the service to “shop” from the catalog. Originally, Carole said, “I was thinking we might be able to get a duck.” But after counting the offerings, the committee realized they not only had enough to also purchase a flock of chickens, they were very close to being able to afford bees and honey as well. The group decided to extend the collection to Christmas Eve, and in the end, they did purchase the flock of chickens, the bees and honey—“and the one duck!” Carole said.

One participant, Amy, said, “I liked that we were able to reach out to other countries in peace instead of war. I felt like I was helping my country.” Another congregation member, Eddie, explained his motivation in contributing: “I knew that if you have your own resources, you can help yourself and your whole community into the future.”

As Carole reflected on the congregation’s generosity, she said, “They can appreciate, perhaps even better than the average Episcopalian, how much a hand up can change lives.”

Top: Parishioners Greg, Melanie and Lonnie with the Gifts for Life catalog. Left column: Parishioners Thomas and Amy peruse the catalog. Bottom: (left) The Rev. Mary Wetzel, vicar of Common Ground, preaching at a service; (center) Jimmy, a parishioner, and the Rev. Sarah Wood, volunteer priest, during fellowship; (right) Deacon Carole Maddux. Photos courtesy of Deacon Carole Maddux.