Venture a few blocks north of the neon signs and honky-tonks in downtown Nashville to the corner of 5th and Church streets. If you happen to be there around noon on Wednesdays, you’ll witness the doors to the fellowship hall of Downtown Presbyterian Church swing open, and you’ll watch men and women, some scruffier than others, gather at those doors for a free, hot meal. In twenty minutes, more than two hundred hungry people will arrive, and they will be fed.
Upstairs, paint might still be drying on a canvas in one of the rented art studios on the third floor. If you’re lucky, you might even see one of the current artists-in-residence setting up for an upcoming show.
Or perhaps you’ve wandered down 5th on a Tuesday afternoon, and the sign advertising the congregation’s Taizé service catches your eye. You’re welcome to join in and stay afterwards for a chat over a cup of coffee.
There is no telling who you might meet in this church. But there is a core of some 80 members who, under the leadership of Pastor Ken Locke, have constructed the frame of this spiritual home for Nashville’s needy. Together, members and those they serve form an energetic cross-section of urban poor, emerging artists, business executives, and tourists. And therein lives this congregations’ vitality—Downtown Pres is not simply a place for food and worship; it is a place to call home. A home dedicated to radical hospitality.
Ministering to the Misfortunate
The foundations for the Wednesday Lunch program were laid years ago by a group of office workers from the church and downtown community who began to enjoy a weekly lunch as a time of midweek fellowship. It didn’t take long, however, for these people to notice that downtown’s rampant urban poverty and homelessness, which were well-concealed from tourists and easy to miss amid the activities of Sunday mornings, were nevertheless needs that were going unmet. Because the group was already gathering over food, they expanded their guest list to include anyone who needed a meal. Word of the lunch quickly spread, and the program began to grow. In 2010, the church served more than 10,000 Wednesday lunches, a long way from its humble origins.
Before the meal each week, guests are invited to a brief chapel service that includes a homily and a prayer, but attendance is strictly optional. “We do not convert by the knife and fork,” Locke says, and he’s serious. Yet, among the surprises in store for an observer of the meal is the realization that quite a few diners are looking for nourishment that goes beyond satiating their hunger. Refrains of “we still meetin’ today?” can be heard sporadically as people arrive. Indeed, people come to be fed.
A typical Wednesday lunch requires a group of about a dozen volunteers to ensure the meal will go smoothly. Some of these volunteers come from the congregation itself. But many are volunteers from various groups, organizations, and faith communities around Nashville. To the folks at Downtown Pres, these volunteers are as important recipients of hospitality
as those arriving for a meal.
The congregation of Downtown Presbyterian is kept well-informed about the goings-on of the Wednesday lunches, even if they are unable to volunteer to serve the midweek meal. Locke is especially intentional about ensuring the congregation knows how its financial support is translating into hot meals for the hungry. His weekly E-Votions filter this data through a theological lens, as he explains to the congregation how they are “sharing [their] caring.” Each Sunday’s worship bulletin also provides the attendance information from the meal: “233 individuals enjoyed a hot meal in a warm and friendly environment.”
“I’m not shy about asking the congregation to give generously,” Locke says. “It’s simply, ‘Do you believe that we’re doing what God wants us to be doing here? Then, let’s see it. Let’s show it.’”
Radical Hospitality and Learning to Hurt
When asked about his training and background in urban ministry, Locke laughs. “This is it,” he says. Prior to his arrival at Downtown Presbyterian in 2002, he served as the pastor of a middle-class congregation in rural Mid-America at Range Line Presbyterian Church in Hebron, Indiana. The church in Indiana was his first to pastor after earning his M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1997, making Downtown Presbyterian his second.
“It’s been lots of trial and error and on-the-job training,” Locke admits. “But a big part of what I’ve learned is to care enough about people to be willing to be hurt by them.”
Like, for example, by the down-on-his-luck man who came to Locke requesting money for a bus ticket to Atlanta. Locke felt confident that the man’s story aligned with his need, and so he allocated a part of his $700 monthly discretionary fund for the one-way ticket. A few days later, he learned of a woman whose husband had just left her, and Locke was horrified to discover this was the same man he had sent down to Atlanta. “No more bus tickets after that,” Locke says.
This experience might have proved the last straw for some congregations’ willingness to engage in this sort of ministry at the margins, but Locke and his congregation continue to take the risk, believing that’s what they are called to do. “There’s a constant hermeneutic of suspicion,” Locke says, “but it’s always a battle between suspicion and grace. And somewhere along the line, you learn to say, ok.”
On Mondays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays, Locke presides over that discretionary fund and discerns the ways to distribute one-time gifts to help people get back on their feet. It’s not a “revolving door,” Locke insists, but a way to bolster the recipients’ wellbeing by encouraging a step in a positive direction. So there is help with funding state identification cards, official copies of birth certificates, co-payments for prescription medications, and fees for entering rehabilitation programs. And it’s popularly known that Downtown Presbyterian can point you in the right direction, whether you’re looking for a free clinic, need to use a telephone, or have some possessions that need storing. Whatever your reason, whatever your way of appearing at the door, Downtown Presbyterian is open to you.
Ministering to the Misfit
Sometimes, all you need is some space, and Downtown Presbyterian recognizes this and makes some room. Like a lot of urban churches built in the heyday of mainline Protestantism in America, Downtown Presbyterian is big—too big, in fact, for the exclusive use of the congregation. After too many years of its third floor going unused, the congregation’s leadership discerned the need among Nashville’s artistic community for inexpensive and well-lit studio space. And so they opened their doors once again, and for $25 a month, local artists have a place to create.
“Frequently, artists have a difficult relationship with organized religion,” Locke observes. “And this is a great way to invite people in who just don’t get it.” He raises his arms above his head and draws wide, welcoming circles with his hands. “Just bring it in, folks,” he quips. “Our God is bigger than your anger. Just bring it all in.”
Currently, Downtown Pres hosts seven artists-in-residence, all of whom are welcome during the year to host a show of their own using the church’s facilities. They are also welcome to attend worship on Sundays—or not. There’s no pressure, no sign-on-the-dotted-line to statements of faith, no censorship of artistic subject matter. Locke believes that art tells us something about the world and about the God who created it, and we shouldn’t be afraid of it, even when it “pushes our buttons.” Locke walks to his desk and pulls out a folder of cherished worship bulletins he’s saved over the years, removing one from the pile. On the front cover is a resident artists’ rendering of an alien and a spaceship with the inscription “I want to believe.” This was a bulletin Locke used for an Advent service last year.
“I loved this one,” he says. “It makes us ask, ‘How well do we really know the story? What is it we really believe?’”
What Do We Really Believe?
I slide into the second to last pew in the center aisle of the sanctuary on the first Sunday in Advent, five minutes after the service has began. A cold front is blowing through Nashville, and men with nowhere else to go have huddled on the church steps and under awnings to stay clear of the windy drizzle. Locke is dressed in a robe with a purple stole around his shoulders. An eight person choir stands behind him, and he invites the congregation to stand—”as you are able”—to sing hymn number two, “Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus.” The 40-something woman in the pew in front of me remains seated. No one minds.
The sanctuary is beautiful, if a bit bizarre. As one of the only examples of Egyptian Revival architecture in the United States, it is designated as a National Historic Landmark. Even on this dreary day, the stained glass windows sparkle, the organ and woodwork glisten, and the Egyptian renderings on the walls remind me of an encounter with a Georgia O’Keeffe painting, invoking the colors and whimsy of a desert. The room feels warm and inviting, even with its soaring ceilings and surprisingly average-sized congregation, dispersed throughout the sanctuary. I’m alone in my pew, and so I remove my coat, scarf, and hat, and make myself comfortable.
Locke invites “the youngest disciples” to come forward for a brief lesson and a blessing. A few rambunctious boys bounce to his side, and he tells them that “Christmas is about how much God loves us.” Meanwhile, I peruse the order of worship. “Infants and small children are dismissed to the care of the nursery staff,” it reads. “Older children are invited to remain and worship.” I pick up the “friendship pad” at the end of my pew and notice the laminated card affixed to the inside of the cover. “Children Come to Church and Adults Sometimes Wonder Why” tops one column, followed by the reasons. The second column lists ways adults can helpfully interact with a child in their pew.
The service continues, and Locke preaches from Mark 13 about paying attention to the signs of the Lord coming in glory, of which he includes the presence of those who come to the Wednesday lunches. “Without fail,” he says, “we pray each and every week that God would allow us to see Jesus in those we are about to serve.” Later in the sermon, he references the cover of this service’s bulletin, illustrated by current artist-in-residence, Jodi Hays. It’s not aliens or spacecrafts, but it’s nonetheless thought-provoking, with images of flames, stars, mountains, and winds beneath vaguely human silhouettes. “Are we wide awake?” Locke wonders aloud. “Are we paying attention to the signs?”
As God Welcomes Us, So We Welcome You
The service ends with a charge and benediction, and Locke walks down the aisle to the front doors of the church to greet and shake hands with today’s congregation. The woman in the pew in front of me, the one who remained seated throughout the service, turns and asks if I attend Downtown Pres regularly. No, I reply, I’m just visiting. How about you?
It’s her second time here. She recently moved downtown and likes the convenience
of being able to walk to church. She’s recovering from surgery, though—biopsies of some lymph nodes—so she’s trying to take it easy.
“I was surprised there aren’t more people here,” she says. “Seems like, with all they have going on, they’d need at least a couple hundred.” Not that she’s complaining. “It feels really comfortable like this, though. Intimate, even with all this space.”
Locke finishes receiving people at the door and spots us chatting as he re-enters the sanctuary. He remembers the email he received from this visitor about her surgery and asks how she’s feeling and if she needs anything this upcoming week. She mentions she’d like to join the group on Tuesday that meets weekly for meditation and prayer in the spirit of the Taizé community. He tells her that the service will be held in the smaller chapel around the corner and hopes to see her there.
The Taizé service at Downtown Presbyterian developed as organically as the church’s other ministries, blossoming out of a congregational leader’s desire to organize another time for prayer and worship. Tuesdays around 4:30-4:45, a handful of people make their way to the chapel to pray, to sing, and to sit in silence. It’s a mixed bag of the occasional church member with some tourists, a homeless person, and/or workers from various offices downtown. The service is typically attended by half a dozen people, and once again, everyone is welcome.
The story of the Taizé service is an instructive illustration of how Downtown Presbyterian Church has developed. While some congregational leaders are relentlessly on the hunt for the latest and greatest methods for church growth, planning and implementing programs discovered in books or articles, the ministries of Downtown Presbyterian arise out of the hospitality that permeates the people and the place. The church’s open doors are not merely physical; instead, they are a parable to the diverse community of downtown Nashville. You are fully and truly welcome here, they say. Come as you are.
That Church Downtown
Downtown Presbyterian is distinctive in a number of ways, but one of the most intriguing is how the Sunday morning worship service, long regarded as the primary ministry of many congregations, takes on the easy air of a mid-game team huddle at Downtown Pres. Your neighbors will put their arms around you, and you’re welcome to return the favor—or not. (It’s your call. Just make yourself at home.) In the huddle, you’ll hear the coach reminding his teammates that we’re all in this together, we all have an important role to play, we all have a job to do. You’ll see nods of agreement and hear words of encouragement from teammate to teammate, and then, everyone gets back out on the field.
It’s a big field, and there’s lots of ground to cover. Perhaps your role is to help cook the Wednesday lunch or to set the tables or to clean up afterwards. Or maybe Wednesday is a tough day for you, work-wise, and so you arrive early on Sunday mornings and help set up the 8:00 a.m. breakfast that serves many of the same people. Maybe you welcome tourist groups or organize art shows or make sure everything is ready for the AA meetings on Mondays and Thursdays. You could also help coordinate the parenting classes for the Prevent Child Abuse Tennessee program (PCAT) or converse over coffee with a new friend from the Taizé service. Or maybe you know of an organization or group or person looking for some space to do something random, like the time the National Sacred Harp Convention needed somewhere to meet, or the time someone needed a place to show a film and transformed the church chapel into a theater. Maybe—hopefully, faithfully—you’ll contribute your money, your time, your talents, and your prayers. Everyone is part of the team here at Downtown Presbyterian Church.
“If the guiding ethos is a ministry of welcome, a way to help people feel welcomed is to learn how to speak their language,” Locke says. “So we just keep trying to do that. It’s our hope that, when someone’s life goes all to hell, that person might remember, ‘Oh, there’s that church downtown that does all those interesting things. Maybe they’ll get me.’”
And maybe that’s what prompted a Music City legend, singer-songwriter Patty Griffin, to contact Downtown Presbyterian when she was looking for a space to record her latest album. An article on NPR describes the album as “so mesmerizing, it’s difficult to believe Griffin isn’t a card-carrying member of the Downtown Presbyterian Church in Nashville.” The article goes on to say that Griffin actually used her recording time and space in the church to begin working through her own difficult relationship with religion and faith. She is an artist, after all.
“Just bring it in, folks,” I can hear Locke say. “Our God is bigger than your anger. Just bring it all in.”
And indeed, I can’t help but wonder what Griffin was working through when she composed the exquisite ballad, “Coming Home to Me,” on this album she succinctly titled Downtown Church.
Anytime you say it with heart
Anytime you’re falling apart
When you’re washing the sheets
Any stranger you meet
When there’s somebody waving
You’re coming home to me,
You’re coming home to me.
1. What ministries could your congregation be opening its doors to?
2. Are their people in your community who are being overlooked? What are the greatest needs of those outside of your congregation?
3. Are the members of your congregation aware of every ministry that is happening through the doors of your building?
4. What signs have appeared recently that perhaps you have ignored or chosen not to see? What ways could you be ministering that haven’t been explored yet?
5. Have you overlooked some simple, traditional hospitality to make way for the “latest and greatest methods for church growth”? What small things could you be doing that could have an impact on the people you already have?