Master of Divinity Student Emily Norris’ Story

Preparing for graduation from the WTS Master of Divinity program in 2020, Emily Norris launched the new church community called The Dwelling in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. The Dwelling is specifically, but not exclusively, for those experiencing homelessness.

Emily shared her excitement for this new venture in partnership with the ELCA Domestic Mission Unit and North Carolina Synod and planned to open the doors to The Dwelling on Easter this year. As the coronavirus began to spread and lockdowns began, everything changed.

Emily turned her ministry into high gear and shared reflections on her Facebook page leading up to Easter. Her reflections are below.

THE DWELLING: BEGINNINGS

Starting February 1st, 2020 I will begin developing a new community of faith in Winston-Salem specifically, but not exclusively, for our neighbors experiencing homelessness. This community has stirred in my heart for years—often feeling like a wishful dream. However, with the support of the Domestic Mission Unit of the ELCA and the North Carolina Synod, The Dwelling is coming to life.

In a world that constantly tells people who are homeless that they don’t belong, The Dwelling will be a church that tells them that the world has it all wrong. That there is holiness in their identity as someone experiencing homelessness, that they share a kinship with God who reminds us that we are all wanderers in search of belonging that can be found at the table – where outsiders are no more.

The Dwelling will be the space to reflect the radical counter-cultural nature of the cross – where shame is glory and identity in Christ replaces the damaging narrative that the world so easily affixes to people in the margins. The Dwelling will be a catalyst of education and advocacy, empowering leaders in the margins to use their story and their voices to shift the narrative around people experiencing homelessness. The Dwelling will be a place rooted in sacrament, where daily bread meets real mouths and water calls us all back to the limitless cleansing of grace. The Dwelling will proclaim loudly that resurrection is real.

COVID-19 UPDATE

I prayed The Dwelling would be relevant.

I prayed this new community of faith would be church for the world.

I prayed this church would meet the distinct needs of our neighbors experiencing homelessness.

I didn’t imagine it would look like this. At least not this quickly. But here we are, this atypical church launching in an atypical world.

Two weeks ago we purchased a mobile shower trailer for our community with an estimated delivery date of mid-May. The world seemed “normal then.” Time wasn’t of the essence. Public places weren’t closed. Our neighbors had at least some spaces that were open to them.

And then the world changed. And our vulnerable neighbors were the unintended casualties of social distancing. The reality, to go home, to stay in, is a privilege. While the world around us closes, our siblings are reminded that they’re on the outside, that home isn’t a physical place.

In the midst of a public health emergency, when our collective health depends on our ability to have a home to quarantine or isolate in, it becomes even more obvious that housing is health care. We can’t keep entire communities healthy in the midst of a pandemic if any one of us is left without a home and sleeping on a sidewalk, without proper hygiene and access to showers, or in a crowded shelter without the ability to slow or stop the contagion.

So we did what the church does best. We responded. (Thank you North Carolina Synod). Two days ago we signed a rental agreement for a trailer to help us through these next few months as we await the completion of our own. But with that came other unplanned expenses: a generator, shower and laundry supplies, the cost to clean and “pump out” the dirty water tanks regularly, rental costs on top of our purchase price, and I’m sure more we haven’t even thought of yet.

But this is what the church does when we’re at our best.
We lead with faith.
We love our neighbors.
And we respond.

It’s times like these that we remember that we belong to one another. Come and Dwell with us.

EASTER WEEKEND REFLECTIONS

Emily shared the following reflections on her Facebook page.

Maundy Thursday

DO YOU KNOW WHAT GRACE LOOKS LIKE?

Grace looks like JH saying to me, “we got every right to trust in God” when I had just said, “y’all have every right to be mad.”

Grace looks like a fight over a place to sit being
self-resolved with a hug.

Grace looks like clean underwear and clean socks and a clean t-shirt.

On this Maundy Thursday, where Jesus broke bread with his people and encouraged us to wash each other’s feet, I invite you.

I invite you to be givers of grace.
I invite you to be receivers of grace.

If you’re sitting at home and feeling the gut-wrenching need to give grace today, my people need underwear, socks, and t-shirts.

If you’re sitting at home and feeling the longing in your spirit to receive grace, listen to the words of JH above.

Peace and Love on this holiest and servant-hearted days.

Good Friday

Let me tell you about Good Friday.
Today, it feels like anything but good.

In fact, it feels mostly terrible.
It feels heavy.
It feels full of injustice.
It feels littered with shame.

Today is the day where we, as Christians, live in the feelings of grief. Where we acknowledge just how broken humanity is. Where we have to own our messiness.

Today, Christ is dead and hope feels lost.

But I’ve got to be honest, this year, “good” feels extra weighty.

A few hours ago, I helped clean out a Tent City near our building because neighbors of privilege, including one of our city’s councilmen, were tired of seeing “the mess on their walking path.”

The “mess.”

We’ve dissolved as a society to seeing our vulnerable neighbors not as people, but as the “mess” that needs to be cleaned up. The police tasked with emptying the city were kind and filled with their own sense of grief and remorse. They simply had to do the hard thing.

In this world that’s being wrecked by Covid-19, our neighbors experiencing homelessness are the unsuspecting victims of embedded bias, misplaced expectations, and the absence of grace.

Good Friday doesn’t feel good.

Good Friday looks like having your tent, your make-shift home, stripped away from you, to be left sitting with nothing, waiting.

Easter must come.
And resurrection must be real.

Easter

Today was supposed to be our first worship service at The Dwelling.

We had banners made to mark the invitation to the holy space.

We crafted a refrain that would become our Absolution.

We had members of our community eager to proclaim scripture, read self-written poetry, and share their gifts of music.

But then the world stopped turning in the ways we’ve become accustomed to. And we all paused.

The Dwelling paused.
Paused on what we thought church was going to look like.

But in our pause, we were invited into a place in the margins that was unanticipated yet faithful to the heart of this church that God is crafting and refining.

Showers.
Food.
Prayer.

Today The Dwelling “gathered”.

We gathered to eat. Because hunger and food insecurity doesn’t play by the rules of Covid-19’s game. And the church has always stepped into the critical places of our world.

As we packed “to-go” plates full of fried chicken, egg casserole, macaroni and cheese, pulled pork, ham, cupcakes, and more we worshiped in our own way.

We exchanged Easter greetings.
We shared a blessing before the feast.
We heard familiar lines, “that saved a wretch like me,” break out as we waited for our turn (spaced 6ft apart) to fill our plates.

Over 100 people ate today.
People we’ve known for a long time.
People seen for the first time today.
People living in tents.
People living in income-based housing who haven’t had a full meal in days.

And we gave out flowers that pointed to the beauty that remains all around us, complete with resurrection words of hope tied to the stems.

And masks.
We gave out masks. Because we’re socially responsible like that.

He is risen, indeed.

April 23 Update on The Dwelling

EMILY NORRIS SHARES THE LATEST EXCITING NEWS

The Winston-Salem Foundation gifted The Dwelling with $20,000 to support our shower ministry for our community! We’ve also secured hotel rooms for our people starting next week for 90 days. When that happens, I’ll essentially start running programming as The Dwelling daily for 120 people – including worship! In theory – all in the hotel will be sheltering in place, so after 12 days we will be able to start gathering. Not at all what I imagined – but my goodness this is the church setting into the margin of the real world.

Learn more about The Dwelling and how you can also visit their community as a service learning site (post-COVID lockdowns, of course!) on their website here.