The Rev. Mary Wetzel ’06 to Receive Suzanne Hiatt Award at 2015 Alumni/ae Days

By Sam Humphrey

­Church is a little different for EDS alumna the Rev. Mary Wetzel (MDiv ’06), vicar of the Church of the Common Ground in Atlanta. Her parish has no wooden pews, stained glass windows, or even four walls and a foundation. Their “church bell” is a gong. Wetzel and her parishioners congregate for service in Woodruff Park, in the city’s downtown area.

Wetzel will speak and receive the Rev. Dr. Suzanne Hiatt Award at this year’s Alumni/ae Days on May 7 and 8. The award recognizes an EDS alumnus/a for work he or she has done within ten years of graduation that reflects Hiatt’s “pioneering, prophetic, and pastoral” ministry. Hiatt was one of the Philadelphia Eleven, the first women to be ordained to the priesthood of the Episcopal Church in 1974—without the church’s official blessing.

Wetzel’s church serves people from all walks of life, but many of her parishioners live on the streets in Atlanta, and find the Church of the Common Ground particularly welcoming.

“Some people think we’re a ministry to homeless, but we are a church community to streets of Atlanta … and we are growing together in recognizing God in each one of us, and that we are called to serve,” she said. Though the outdoor setting distinguishes them from other Episcopal churches, their Sunday service is just what you would expect. The congregation gathers around the Word and the Sacrament, reads from the scriptures, sings from the hymnal, and holds Eucharist.

Volunteer parishioners lead the choir and act as chalice bearers. At healing stations, they offer prayers and blessings for parishioners who need them. For people who live on the streets, the environment is more welcoming than indoor churches, Wetzel said.

“We focus on, ‘How can we build up this community so that they care for each other, love each other, and then spread that word throughout the city?’” she said. “It’s very hard for some people to think that God will love them now, with gifts they have—but God can reach them.”

They also help parishioners transitioning through difficult, particularly vulnerable moments in their lives. At any given time, someone might have just been released from prison, or is moving from the streets into subsidized housing, a boarding room, or an apartment.

One of their biggest social outreach programs is called Common Soles. Once or twice a week, parishioners clip the nails and wash and massage the feet of people who live on the streets. When they can, they give out clean socks. Several times each year, the Diocese of Atlanta donates new shoes to the program.

“We try to be a pastoral and sacramental presence on the streets of Atlanta,” Wetzel said. The program is important for the parishioners, some of whom walk several miles a day. Once they get their feet cleaned, the recipients often want to volunteer, too, she added.

Church of the Common Ground has other mission programs throughout the year, from an annual build with Habitat for Humanity to working at the Atlanta Food Bank and cleaning up streets around Earth Day. They have also raised money for non-profits like Episcopal Relief and Development and Nets for Life.

Wetzel’s church doesn’t have a prison ministry, per se, but at any given time a number of parishioners are incarcerated, so they try to stay in touch with them. The parishioners try to visit those who are in jail or prison when they can, and the church usually has a card each Sunday for churchgoers to write messages to them.

Wetzel seems humble about her work, and was surprised when her friend and fellow alumna Zena Link told her she had won the Hiatt Award.

“I felt really honored, since it was the Suzanne Hiatt Award. I have such respect for those women who were first ordained, and the fact that they really followed their calling. They came together and were persistent, and kept going over the hurdles,” Wetzel said.

“What has been rewarding to me are the daily conversations with parishioners, and realizing how much our baptismal vows play into our ministry. Especially the part that says we are called to seek and serve Christ in all people and to respect the dignity of every human being. I’m learning so much about being loved by God through my relationships with parishioners of the Church of Common Ground.”

Image of Mary Wetzel via