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Mission church in Asheville features rare fresco of real people of their community

Mission church in Asheville features rare fresco of real people of their community
May 12
12:57 2021

By Judie Holcomb-Pack

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it. – Hebrews 13:2

Many churches offer free meals to those down on their luck, but none portrays how they serve the poor and homeless in a fresco painted behind the altar of their sanctuary. Nor do any have their mission featured in a documentary film screened during the RiverRun International Film Festival that opened last week in Winston-Salem.

The Haywood Street Congregation in Asheville is an urban ministry. The small church was founded in 2009 by Rev. Brian Combs, a United Methodist pastor. Prior to the pandemic, several hundred folks would gather each Wednesday and Sunday for food, fellowship and worship. People from all walks of life – from professionals to students, the working poor to the homeless – all would partake of a meal together at “The Welcome Table.” The pandemic forced the church to change how they offer meals, so now boxed lunches are placed outside for anyone to stop by and pick up a free meal prepared by church staff and volunteers.

In 2011, artist Christopher Holt proposed to the Haywood Street Congregation to create a fresco in the sanctuary that would capture the spirit of hospitality that was offered to the community through their Welcome Table. Using an ancient art that involves painting ground pigments onto wet plaster, and utilizing the talents of multiple trained artists, the fresco was begun in January 2018 and completed in September 2019. They adopted their mission: “Affirming sacred worth, restoring human dignity and sabotaging the shame of poverty, the Haywood Street Fresco announces, in plaster and pigment, that you matter.”

There are other well-known frescos in area churches, such as one in Holy Trinity Church in West Jefferson created by artist Ben Long. What sets the fresco at Haywood Street apart is that it is not one of Jesus and his disciples or famous saints, but one of real people who serve or have been served by the church. Artists first sketched pictures of the faces of those who came to share in the Wednesday and Sunday meals and used those sketches to create their images in the fresco. 

The finished piece, 28.5 ft. wide by 11 ft. tall, depicts those who serve on the left side of the fresco, including someone playing the piano, an angel, and a group of people carrying a tabletop with communion elements, and in the middle Miss Mary, the cook at the mission, joining the hands of those who serve with those who are served – a young mother with a baby, a teenager, men gathered around a campfire, someone sleeping on a backpack, and others. At the top are open hands with a rainbow going from one side of the fresco to the other. 

The detail is extraordinary and full of symbolism. It is nearly impossible to view this work and not be touched and moved by its authenticity in representing the love that is shared through hospitality in welcoming “the least of these.”

Rev. Combs expressed it best: “What poverty makes invisible, art makes immortal.”

The Haywood Street mission, located at 297 Haywood Street, Asheville, is open Monday through Thursday from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Guided tours are available Tuesday 12-2 p.m., Wednesday 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Saturday 10 a.m.-1 p.m. and Sunday 1-4 p.m. Contact April Nance at april@nullhaywoodstreet.org or call 828-575-2477, ext. 300, for tour information. Additional information about the fresco, including an interactive map with each individual’s story, can be found at www.visit.haywoodstreetfresco.org. They are a 501(c)(3) and donations are graciously accepted. 

RiverRun Film Festival screened the documentary, “Theirs is the Kingdom” about the Haywood Street fresco this past weekend. A trailer of the film is on YouTube at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KvR7HbvXtdE.

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