Pastor Emily Norris had a vision for The Dwelling, a new church she was planting in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. A combined effort of the North Carolina Synod of the ELCA and the Southern Province of the Moravian Church, The Dwelling began its life on February 1, 2020, to minister to those experiencing homelessness in the city. Pastor Norris had a few years of funding secured and was going to launch the effort with an Easter Sunday service.
“We all know how that panned out,” Pastor Norris told me on a recent call. Indeed we do. The COVID-19 pandemic arrived, and with it, every church was suddenly answering questions that hadn’t been asked for a century about how to sustain congregations. Fortunately for The Dwelling, adaptation is a skill Pastor Norris knew would be fundamental in a ministry that was created specifically for the unhoused community.
So Pastor Norris scrapped Easter Sunday, and instead built a mobile shower trailer. “That was really how we launched,” she said. “We rented a mobile shower trailer as our purchased one was being built, and we started offering showers in different locations around town.”
More than a year and a half has passed in this pandemic, and not only has The Dwelling survived COVID-19, it has doubled the number of public showers available in Winston-Salem, created 26 units of affordable housing and become a hub for equitable service projects for youth.
On our call, Pastor Norris was clear that her church exists mostly outside of the physical space that holds their Sunday service. But that’s the way she thinks it should be. They’re building homes, providing vaccination clinics, providing the most basic human needs to a congregation that’s been waiting.
“That’s the Jesus we follow,” said Norris. “Literally, in the trenches of the mess and the muck, making sure people don’t have to the hard stuff alone.” Pastor Norris covered a lot of ground in our call. It’s clear she has a lot on her mind, every day, trying to run an atypical church like The Dwelling. It’s also clear that she would not have it any other way.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Connect Journal: In your own words, how do you actually start a church like this in a pandemic?
Emily Norris: Before we started, one of the things that we had dreamed to be a central part of our ministry was stewarding a shower trailer. But we thought that would be a little down the road, that we would start with our gathered community. But in a global pandemic when one of the ways that folks are able to protect themselves, especially those that are unhoused, is to make sure they have access to hygiene, showers became our central offering and our gathering space, really. We became relevant really quickly in an unexpected way.
Eventually, I was invited as a pastor to provide pastoral care to some of our community that were sheltering in place in a hotel, and through that we built, unintentionally, this other community.
So we shifted our energy again to renovating affordable housing. We developed relationships with property owners in some low-income neighborhoods, and we gathered volunteers and property owners paid for supplies, and we brought the labor and skills, and we flipped to create 26 units to create housing for folks.
Because we are new, we don’t have the bureaucracy of a lot of established churches. We don’t have the committees and the hoops and all of the policies. We were able to be present, and the spirit was slapping us in the face about where we needed to be.
CJ: The first thing you did as a church was showers. How did you go about solving that as a problem?
EN: Number one: We made the connection really quickly between the showers and our baptismal promises. There is nothing more healing than a shower at the end of the day, when you’re gross and haggard and you get a shower and you think, oh my gosh I feel human again. No one had to do anything or earn anything or provide anything to be able to access showers. The theology of that I think is beautiful. That’s the God that just keeps inviting us back into community and into our baptisms over and over again.
And just practically, every time we run our showers, we have t-shirts and underwear and socks and shower kits. And so, people sign up. They get about 15-20 minutes in the shower. We provide everything they could need—t-shirts, underwear, socks, shower kits—to come out the other side feeling a bit more human. We rely on donations for that. We have a lot of groups that put together shower kits and collect underwear. One of the churches has an Undies Sunday. They collect it for us.
We knew in Winston-Salem there were three public showers total that someone on the streets can walk in an access. That’s it. Three. So we added a shower trailer with three more. We doubled the number of shower stalls in our city that the homeless population can use.
CJ: What does the physical nature of your church look like? Do you have an office?
EN: We are gifted space by a nonprofit that does the social side of our work with the community. We are incredibly grateful for that. We live for free. I have an office there. It’s a community center during the week, and we shift all the furniture around, and it becomes our worship space on Sundays. That was one of the ways that we were able to start and start strong. We didn’t have the overhead of a building. Especially in a pandemic, we didn’t have the complexities of that. But there’s a place where folks know that they can find their pastor during the week.
CJ: You said you didn’t have committees and the more bureaucratic elements that stand in the way of accomplishing your work. Do you imagine that continuing to be the case?
EN: We have a leadership team that’s made up of folks that are currently homeless or have experienced homelessness and some other folks who come alongside that as well. So we do have a leadership team that we think through…what are we doing, where are we going, why are doing that, how are we getting there? We have that. But quite honestly, we will never branch out to multiple ministry teams. We won’t have a finance committee; we won’t have stewardship committee. The minute we do that, honestly, we get away from the heart of who we are of just being this dwelling place that’s not complicated.
CJ: Is the body of your church, the congregants, entirely people who are experiencing homelessness, or have in the past?
EN: I would say 70% of the folks that come either are experiencing homelessness or have experienced homelessness but have transitioned to some sort of housing. Probably the other 30% are folks that came once because they were curious what was happening and then realized that the Kingdom of God looks like The Dwelling. And then they can’t stay away.
CJ: When you are thinking about ELCA communities and churches, what do you want them to know based on what you’re doing? What should the more traditional mainline, white, suburban or rural churches know?
EN: I used to work in that church. For years. I was a youth minister. I think the biggest thing I want other churches and leaders to hear and know is that it matters that you show up. You can go through the motions of doing and having a presentation, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter who you are. We are all broken, and the church has the ability at its best to fill in the cracks, but when we get in our own way about having our worship and our presentation look and feel a certain way, and we get in our own way because we do have these bureaucratic systems in place. We miss the spirit that is so active in front of us.
As a new church that is under development and in a pandemic, we have been messy. We haven’t done it by the book, and it hasn’t been on-paper perfect by any means, but our people know that we are showing up for them every day as their church. That’s what matters. That’s the Jesus that we have literally stepped into the trenches in the mess and muck with, so we don’t have to do the hard things alone.
CJ: You said, people need to know they’re not alone. The pandemic was a moment of historical isolation for many people. Can you talk a bit about how that affected your work, if it did?
EN: I have a different experience of the pandemic to be honest. That isolation was not part of my experience in this at all. I did not have the luxury of sheltering in place, and neither did my people. Having a home to go to is a luxury. And to be their pastor meant I wasn’t in my home. And I do—I have the luxury of going home, but that wasn’t what I was being called to do.
CJ: So how did your team handle COVID-19? What were you doing to be safe, to keep your congregation safe? What was the reality of that for you all?
EN: I’ll tell you this story. Right at the early onset of everything we just didn’t know a lot. We were in the parking lot of our building, and we had taken spray paint and spray painted six-foot boxes in the parking lot. And we said, if you’re in the parking lot you have to be in the center of the box. Do not touch anyone. Don’t be near each other. We just kept saying you need to separate, you have to distance, keep your hands to yourself. And this guy in our community, named John, he looked at me and said, Pastor Emily, you just don’t get it. He said, if we separate, we die. And that sucker-punched me. Because here we are trying to keep people separate so that they don’t get sick and die. And yet my community is deeply dependent on each other for their survival. So it was very hard. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, when you don’t have a place to sleep, when you don’t know where your next meal is coming from, when you don’t have access to toilets, the last thing on your mind is potentially contracting this disease. There are far more real things in front of you that are going to kill you first.
CJ: That sounds like a sucker punch.
EN: My people sleep in tents together to stay warm and make sure that someone isn’t going to come in the middle of the night and rob them. The distance is not a thing.
But for me, I tried hard to make sure I did keep a distance. And I wore my mask. And was diligent in my handwashing. You know, as we learned more our responses shifted. Honestly we did the best we could. We tried to educate people. When the vaccine became available, we had vaccine clinics that came to our location because our people were there, and they trusted us. But at the end of the day, if they separate, they die. It was a really interesting balance of trying to navigate that.
CJ: It sounds like as a community, as a pastor, you have a lot of freedom and an ability to be nimble and reacting to the situations that you’re facing. How do you think other churches can become a little more nimble like you?
EN: If you have a compelling “why,” then nimbleness is the consequence of it. If you can say why you’re doing something and why this is important, then you’ll figure out how to bend and make things happen and to work the systems that are in place. To find loopholes.
CJ: You have a lot going on. What do you consider to be your “why”?
EN: Our why is: we have a God that draws our brokenness in and provides a place for it. That’s completely counter-cultural to what the world says. So, we get to be a church that tells people that their brokenness is actually their belovedness. And we have to be louder than the world.
CJ: This kind of work shouldn’t be about self-actualization, but I want to ask you personally about doing this work. What have you gotten from the work you are doing?
EN: It took me a long time to own that there was a call on my life. I thought for a long time that I needed to do stuff in a typical way, and I didn’t know how to be typical in the way the church has done things. And someone eventually said to me: Emily, what is your hang up? I was like, I cannot do it like everybody else. And they said: The church needs you NOT to do it like everybody else.
CJ: Do you think that translates to more “traditional” ministries?
EN: I think for children, youth, young adults ministers that are doing this work, there is a place for them, there’s a place for you where God is going to use all the things about you that make you atypical to build the kingdom. Because God will use your atypical to build incredible things. Our call and responsibility to young people is to show them the church. Not the picture of the church but the raw and gritty and realness of Jesus. And often that’s outside of the building. That’s really important. We have a physical space, but we do church way more often outside of it than inside of it.
CJ: Do you have any last parting thoughts for folks coming out of the pandemic and thinking about how they want to move forward after this historic global disruption?
EN: I would say it’s going to be tempting to come out of the pandemic and have a whole list of things for your young people to do. Because you weren’t able to do it for a long time. Resist the temptation to “do,” and focus instead on who you want your young people to “be.”