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Church on the Street

This article was originally published by the Hartford Courant on March 6th, 2018 and is being run here with permissions of the author.

There are no walls in the Rev. Bryan Bywater’s church. The “altar” is a folding table. The “pews” are the steps of Hartford City Hall.  But he has a cross and a chalice. He has communion wafers, dipped in grape juice instead of wine for the benefit of his friends in recovery. To the population he’s serving, that’s plenty.

Bywater, a priest in the Anglican church of North America and a missionary for Church Army USA, has been feeding and clothing the homeless in the region for more than 20 years. And in the past year, he’s been feeding their souls every Saturday.

“We would set our stuff up to hand out, and people would see my collar and ask ‘Will you give us Jesus?’” Bywater told me. “Some churches want to bring the homeless in, but the people don’t want to come in; it’s not natural to them.  “We have a space where they can come, as they are, when they’re comfortable,” he added. “People come drunk. People come high. We’re just here catching people as they walk by.”

If the churches of my youth looked like Bywater’s, I wouldn’t have left them. Probably.

Because his mission is bringing dignity back to a population that has been robbed of it, it’s one that we all need to get behind. Dignity delivered without judgment, and delivered with results that are palpable almost immediately. It’s delivered not through some bloated, wasteful government apparatus, but through something as simple as putting a bowl of beans and franks into the hands of someone who’s hungry. Or praying with Christians who fear walking into a church because of the way they look.

That’s how he came to house the service on the steps of the center of Hartford’s government, in the towering shadow of so much wealth from nearby office buildings.

It’s part of the charm of the whole enterprise, the glaring contrast it presents: Here’s one man who’s inspired so much change and goodwill standing in front of an ornate building filled with people who pledge to do the same thing — with, let’s say, varying results.

The sermons themselves are a dynamic, energetic exercise. Bywater exudes energy and warmth with the laid-back patois of a surfer. He cracks jokes as he cracks Eucharist wafers, telling the group, “You guys are great! We’re gonna get a van and take this thing on tour.” Afterward, he and his volunteers distribute food and toiletries to the congregants.

Before introducing the church-service component, Bywater was known for handing out underwear to the homeless in Hartford. It was another lesson in dignity: Something so small, like a new pair of underwear, can make a tremendous impact, especially for men and women who normally can’t choose the clothing given to them. For people whom the simple decision of “boxers or briefs” is empowering.

“The little things Bryan does for us are big,” Lisa Rodriguez told me. “This brings us closer to God. It helps us get motivated, and it helps take us out of darkness.”

“We’re in bad situations, but it’ll pass,” Rodriguez, who’s been homeless for about a year, added. She lost her job first, and her apartment second. She had no one to turn to, because those close to her were just barely getting by themselves. “It’s not all about addiction, it’s not all mental illness,” she said. “It’s a different situation for everybody.” Now, Rodriguez is in a shelter in Hartford. She’s working with a case manager to get housing, and she has plans to get her degree, to “better” her life, as she put it.

Because the first step toward recovery, toward truly turning a life around, is to admit self-worth. To admit that someone is willing to help you when you’re ready. Only then can you identify obstacles and begin to address them.

When his regulars reach that point, Bywater has a case manager on hand, just one volunteer in a steady corps he’s built up over the past year. His most recent service was staffed by an eclectic cross section of humanity: youth group teens, adult business executives and bankers on their days off, even some formerly homeless people themselves.

“When I was younger, I wanted to change the world,” said Bywater, a former radical socialist who once picked coffee for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and spent years as an itinerant mountain climber in Colorado. “But I realized that it couldn’t be done through enforcing laws or protesting. So I started reading Scripture, and I realized something. The best way to change the world is to change people’s minds and hearts, by having people understand the worlds of others around them.”

Geoff Swanson’s mind has absolutely been changed. The Avon resident and Morgan Stanley employee met Bywater through his local church. When he learned of the weekly services at city hall, he was drawn to them immediately. Now he, his wife and their five kids show up every week. “You don’t realize that we’re all two or three bad things away from this situation ourselves,” Swanson told me. “We have this preconceived notion about homelessness, but we don’t see the reality of it.”

After a few months with Bywayer, Swanson started recognizing the faces standing on the sides of the highway, or huddled on the corners of downtown buildings. “I used to keep driving or walking,” he said. “Now I stop to say hello, to check in on them. It’s about building a community around people who feel like no one cares about them.”

When I left the courtyard in front of city hall on Saturday, it was clear how strong the community Bywater is building is. As men and women milled about talking, some praying, with the reverend and his volunteers, all labels had disappeared. They were just people, all of them devout in their faith.

“I don’t fit inside a church in the traditional sense,” Bywater said. “But my love pours out."

“I’m always looking for the good in things. And I’m hoping to use that to help this church grow. I’m hoping that sentiment is contagious.”

So do I, for the sake of the city, the state, and the world at large.

 

Vinny Vella is a columnist covering Hartford and its citizens for the Courant.  He graduated from Philly’s La Salle University in 2012 with a degree in communication. Before landing in New England, his work appeared in regional publications in his native Pocono Mountains, as well as The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Denver Post.  You can contact Vinny here.