South Main ministers to homeless alongside affluent, crafting a space dedicated to authentic Christian love
By Jessica Brodie
There’s a place in Anderson where all the broken can come to find solace and love. There, in a once-closed church that itself now has new life in Christ, they stand together in worship—the homeless alongside those with plenty, the recovering drug addicts alongside those struggling to overcome a need for excess and greed, the mentally ill alongside the spiritually ill. All of them clasping hands, bowed in prayer.
All of them one in Christ.
This is the South Main Chapel and Mercy Center, a United Methodist new church start in a poverty-stricken area of the Upstate where its people intentionally work alongside the homeless and poor to create a God-filled place rooted in love and dedicated to embracing people.
“It’s been the fulfillment of my calling to be able to lead this type of ministry,” said the Rev. Kurt Stutler, pastor of South Main, noting that the church strives to break down barriers and truly be a place of racial, social and economic diversity—whatever that happens to look like. “We’ve become a place people see as their church home, and also a place where people from the community can come help out and be our compassion partners.”
Indeed, said Kim Board, a Candler student doing contextual education and volunteer work at South Main, “We have a very mixed bag of people.”
As Board talks, a well-dressed woman is nearby, sitting with a man in tattered jeans and a faded hoodie as though they are old friends; thanks to South Main and Jesus, they are.
“If you can think of a way to be diverse, it’s here: we are diverse in education, socioeconomics, race, sexual orientation and religious background,” Board said. “It’s really beautiful, because when you go in the dining room you see someone on the higher end, more affluent, breaking bread with someone who’s sleeping in a tent.”
South Main opened in 2014 and completed its third year this summer. The church used to be called Orrville United Methodist Church before it closed in 2012. But thanks to a vision of Anderson District Superintendent the Rev. Susan Leonard-Ray—who thought her district could use a place like Greenville’s Triune Mercy Center—teamed with the hard work of Stutler and others, South Main came together quickly and is today a place of total transformation.
“We end up becoming a whole-person-healing kind of thing—physical, emotional, spiritual and mental,” Board said. “We can take care of every part of people for people who can’t get access to that help anywhere else.”
The neighborhood is lower-income, racially diverse and, as Stutler said, a place widely known where people bought drugs and solicited prostitution. So the church set out to provide services crafted to meet the needs of its neighbors. Not only do they work hard to cultivate a place of love where all feel welcome and wanted, but they also host free meals several times a week (Sunday breakfast and lunch, Monday dinner and a Wednesday noon prayer service and lunch) along with a wealth of free services every Monday night, including a nurse, mental health assistance, vocational training, 12-step meetings and more. Alston Wilkes Society also rents space where it can help former offenders transition from prison back into society. They have plans soon to open a free community shower and washer/dryer service.
“I get hugged by 20 people a day when I come here—it’s just pure love here,” said Ann Cothran, a registered nurse who has been a member and volunteer of South Main for two years. “It’s an amazing church; all God’s children are welcome. It doesn’t matter how you’re dressed or how you talk. If you’re homeless or you live in a mansion, you’re welcome.”
‘We’re all kind of broken’
Cothran serves as a faith community nurse for AnMed Health, and mission work is her passion. But she also loves South Main because it is her church home, a place where she can enjoy the love of Christ in an authentic way.
“I fit right in here,” Cothran said. “We’re all kind of broken, and we all come with our sins. We’re just not all broken in the same way.”
Retired pastor the Rev. Terry Mitchell is also a member of the church and said he has absolutely fallen in love with the openhearted Spirit flowing throughout the place. A working artist for the past 12 years, Mitchell leads a weekly art course at South Main.
“This is what churches should all be about,” Mitchell said, noting Christ didn’t go to the high and mighty; he went to the poor, sick and lame, the people “in the shadows.”
From struggling to sober
Member and volunteer Karen Knowles found South Main after years of being lost from the Lord. But the love she has found at the church, coupled with the support they have given her in her struggles, turned her life around.
“When I first came, I had an alcohol problem. One day at a time, this church allowed me to share delight in the Lord and see people in a different light,” Knowles said. Her husband was going through cancer at the time and has since passed away. Now she is sober and helps chair recovery meetings, and she cannot get enough of the tangible presence of the Holy Spirit, which she said seeps into every crack of the place and fills her and others with a sense of peace and serenity in the Lord. “Because of this church and all the people who rallied around me, I was able to get through this trying time. (Now) I help reach out to other people. It’s a gift from the Lord—life outside myself.”
Member Christopher McBride said much the same. He found South Main about a year and a half ago and now involves himself in any way he can, whether as a greeter or helping with grounds work.
“Once I came in the door, the love was just, like, right there,” McBride said. “I’ve come every week since. I love the church and I love the people. It’s about sharing God’s love from one person to the other. We are about helping people, taking one individual from one level to the next.”
Witness to the world
One church member, Gregory Sims, had been known to church leaders even before South Main opened. Chronically homeless for most of his adult life and struggling with both mental illness and addiction issues, Sims had no transportation, Stutler said. The church gave him a bike so he could get around town, whether to the soup kitchen or the library or to church.
Sims said the help he’s received at South Main has transformed his life, and he does what he can to give back in gratitude.
“I used to be a moody person, but I got support. I was going through stuff, and they still loved me,” Sims said, noting that God led him to South Main, and he can’t imagine life without it. Without the church and its support, he said, “I wouldn’t be the person I am now.”
It’s people like Sims who Stutler said drive home the mission of South Main.
“What a witness to the world,” Stutler said. “People are not just coming to take; people are giving back, too, in whatever way they can. Some clean the building or pick up the grounds. … Folks, even if they’re struggling in life, have gifts, and they want to be able to give back and use them.”
The Sunday morning the Advocate visited, the pews were packed with people—children and seniors, black and white, the shabbily dressed and the chic, the smiling and the serious, yet still all one body, ready to come together in Christian love and worship the One who gave them life.
Stutler raised his hands and called out to the congregation, “When we gather together in this place who are we?”
And as one, the people shouted back, “God’s children!”