Grace: The Heart of San Antonio

Grace, one of the oldest congregations in San Antonio, built the city’s first tuberculosis hospital in 1913. Now in 2023, their former fellowship hall hosts a homeless day center with free services for neighbors in need and Texas’ only legal needle exchange program.


The downtown church shares its campus, an entire city block, with two nonprofits that serve those with few places to go. Grace Lutheran Church is a beacon of action and welcoming. They embrace their downtown geography, where San Antonio’s homelessness epidemic is most acute. And the congregants embrace their Christian faith, trying to live the Bible’s message that what anyone does for the hungry or thirsty they do for Jesus.


The church rents space and partners with nonprofits Christian Assistance Ministry and Corazón San Antonio.


“It’s beneficial to work with a church,” said Madelein Santibáñez, Harm Reduction Director at Corazón. “It represents hope, healing, a place where people won’t feel judged.”


To be sure, not feeling judged is far from everyone’s experience with churches. But Grace tries to live out the absolute welcome demanded by Jesus.


At Grace, Corazón runs the only day center for folks experiencing homelessness in downtown San Antonio. Daily, they host 200 people. Last year Corazón got 450 clients into housing or rehab, distributed over 75,000 hot meals, and provided 30,000 warm showers, according to Santibáñez.

Grace’s Pastor Bethany Hull Somers (left) takes a selfie with

Corazón staff including Madelein Santibáñez (middle right).

If neighbors in need and the nonprofits benefit from the church partnership, clearly the congregation benefits too – spiritually more than anything.


Barbara Tetzel, known as Baba, grew up at Grace. “My husband and I, we’re 82 and 83. The building itself is very important to us. We’ve been there all our lives,” Tetzel told me in her Texas lilt. “Where Corazón is, my husband and I had our wedding reception there, and it was the first event in that new building.”


Now that building houses a homeless day center with case management and needle exchange.


Hosting a harm reduction drop in center is a mindshift for a congregation that hasn’t had such services before. It’s a bit like turning a suburban home into a Catholic Worker House. It requires considerable reprioritization, and a genuine inventory of values.


Tetzel told the story of a man who had overdosed on the streets near Grace. Fellow clients of Corazón told staff member Brittney, who, knowing where the man lived outside, dashed to him and arrived before the ambulance.


Tetzel, tearing up and with clarity in her voice, said “There’s Christ. She was doing what we all ought to be doing, in holding him till he fully came around again. And that’s why I call her Saint Brittney.”

Saint Brittney (right) from Corazón San Antonio

“A lot of folks might see our work as enabling,” said Santibáñez. “Some people will ask me, what percentage of people that go to your place actually want help? 100% want help! But where is the help? They’re needing housing, we get them a voucher, but then they can’t find a place that will take it.”


Santibáñez, who herself experienced homelessness as a teenager after both parents were deported, said the drivers of poverty are acute in San Antonio. “We still have a minimum wage of $7.25, average rent can be $1,300. 60% of clients on the street in the last citywide survey didn’t have health insurance, and therefore no access to mental health care.”


Many of her clients served our country honorably, but have been condemned to suffer on the streets. “We have four military bases around San Antonio. Since the 60s, there’s been an opioid crisis for generations because veterans came back dependent on pain medication for wounds and that drove opiate addiction in our city. So we’re trying to reduce the harm, all the generational and systemic violence that’s happened.”


Pastor Bethany Hull Somers, who started at Grace in 2020, helped catalyze the new use of space by partnering with Corazón. Although obviously charitable in nature, by receiving rent and co-applying to grants, hosting two nonprofit partners has benefited Grace more than it costs the church financially. Perhaps a lesson to be learned is that sharing according to Christ’s directions doesn’t just stave off spiritual death, but even financial death.


“If we can put ourselves out there and utilize the gifts we have to bring the Body of Jesus out into the world, we’re going to be blessed by that. That’s how the economy of grace works – you give, and you receive in abundance,” Hull Somers said.


“Often I wonder: If Jesus walked into this church, would He understand? Would He get it? Would He make the connection that this was something inspired by and in devotion to who He was and who He is?” Hull Somers asked.


“On Sunday mornings, I’m not sure how He would feel about Grace Lutheran,” the pastor continued. “But Monday through Saturday, I know he would understand. He would say, yes.”

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