The Rev. Violet Little, pastor of The Welcome Church in Philadelphia, is one of seven winners of the 2013 Purpose Prize, which honors people over the age of 60 who use their experience to make a difference against social problems. Little founded The Welcome Church, a new ELCA ministry that serves people who are experiencing homelessness.
“Some have said I am a voice for the voiceless, but that’s not true,” said Little. “People experiencing homelessness have voice; the key is how we can be better listeners.”
At a Dec. 5 ceremony in Sausalito, Calif., Little will receive a $25,000 award from Encore.org, a nonprofit organization that supports people who use their life experiences to work for a society’s greater good.
Little began working with people experiencing homelessness after she got to know women who were sleeping and washing in the restrooms at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station, which she visited on her daily commute. She initially organized a drop-in center at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion in Philadelphia’s center city, known as the Welcome Center.
“People who live on the streets are always being rousted and asked to move on,” said Little.
The Welcome Center offers community members a safe place to spend a couple of hours having tea, napping and more. Little began providing pastoral care there, including hospital visits and even presiding at a wedding. As the center grew, Little organized support from the ELCA Southeastern Pennsylvania Synod, Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion and other center city churches to form The Welcome Church, where she serves as part-time pastor along with Presbyterian and Episcopal clergy. The ELCA has a full communion relationship with the Presbyterian Church (USA) and with The Episcopal Church.
The Welcome Church is mobile — worship services will spontaneously take place in public places, including rail stations or under bridges. Many downtown churches offer Bible studies and refreshment and will provide medical care when needed.
“These are people who know they’re hungry for more than a peanut-butter and jelly sandwich,” Little said.
The Welcome Church offers help finding housing, with local churches contributing welcome home kits to help members settle into apartments. A new social enterprise called Welcome Threads is producing original T-shirts and hand-woven products and offering members job skills and the chance to earn a little money.
On Tuesdays, The Welcome Church gathers at Lutheran Church of the Holy Communion for what members call their Tuesday banquet. “Everything we do centers on the table as a symbol of home,” Little said. “Tea is out, and members bring what they can – some mint, some rescued bread, or cookies, and of course, the sacramental bread and wine.”
Little wants the Purpose Prize to amplify the voice of The Welcome Church community. Much of the award will be dedicated to an “I Have a Dream” fund, through which The Welcome Church will give grants to other congregations “to stimulate people’s imagination of how to live out (the Rev.) Martin Luther King’s vision of justice in their setting,” Little said.
“People think of this as a community of scarcity,” Little said. “But it’s really a community of great abundance, because God is at the center.”
The ELCA continues to make the start of new ministries a priority. Since the beginning of the ELCA 25 years ago, more than 470 new ministries have organized as congregations across this country. Today more than 50 percent of ELCA new congregations are emerging from diverse socio-economic groups, ethnic and multicultural communities and growing young populations.