Five years ago, Mike Low started Bessie’s House in Kansas City’s Northeast neighborhood, where unemployment is at 16 percent and median household income is $25,000. An average resident has a one-in-twelve chance of being the victim of a violent crime. Any way you measure it, the place is stuck in poverty. But Low sees something different.
“The truly poor are the poor in spirit,” he says. “Otherwise it’s just poverty.” Describing himself as an “urban missionary” and “Kingdom entrepreneur,” he avoids, in his description, “toxic charity,” the sort that encourages dependency. He aims instead for the heart.
Bessie’s House is a turn of the twentieth century one-bedroom bungalow common in the area. Low bought it himself for eight thousand dollars and then spent another sixty thousand of his own getting it up to code. Then he turned it over to Servant Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit.
The house sees between 225 and 300 clients weekly. There’s no intake worker, no registration, no background checks; they need help, he takes them at their word. The annual budget“God’s economy,” he calls it, meaning just what is given in private donationsis $50,000, with another $30,000 in reserves. He refuses to seek city, state, or federal grants. He offers faith at Bessie’s House and wants no potential interference.
Laundry service is available three days a week; women only on Monday’s, anyone else the other two days. Joe, the unpaid resident caretaker, does the laundry; he gets room and board for his effort. (Everyone at Bessie’s House is unpaid, including Low.) If people get their laundry in early enough, Joe gets it back to them by 10:30 that morning, folded and fluffed.
While Joe is doing laundry, regulars eat a warm breakfast or wait their turn for a fifteen-minute shower in the one bathroom. Others chat on the front porch or in the living room, catching up with people like themselves who have become friends.
A food pantry is open two days a month. Why not more? So the clients will learn to schedule their living, just a little bit. They must fit shower and laundry time into their lives. For people unaccustomed to any sort of scheduleand the poor often live with unaccountable chaosit can be a daunting discipline. For others, it becomes something dependable; perhaps the most dependable thing they’ve encountered in a long, long while. Bessie’s House softens one of poverty’s worst effects, the sense of isolation.
“This is my sanctuary,” a woman told me. “It’s everybody’s sanctuary.” She is living with her boyfriend on her sister-in-law’s front porch. The porch was a step up from homelessness. She was hoping they could move to the back porch; it’s enclosed.
Everything closes down by 10:30 a.m. That’s when Bible study starts. Folks are invited to stay; some do, many drift off. Deal is, the people coming can find a shower and breakfast before leaving for wherever they go, and a bus pass if they need one to get them there. More crucially, they find camaraderie and companionship.
Low is a sometime-Lutheran, a layman, and probably a few other things. But he’s interested most in getting his clients in front of Jesus, without being too intrusive. House church worship is every Sunday“Word and Sacrament,” a phrase betraying Low’s Lutheran backgroundand worship times for a neighboring church is on the weekly schedule.
If a client is still around five or six months after first showing up, Low or one of the other volunteers start asking questions about his or her “faith journey.” Are they walking “the Way” with Jesus? He wants to know that, and what he can do to help.
What Low has noticed is pretty simple: “If they are closer to Jesus, the first thing they do is stop making excuses for themselves, and stop thinking like a victim. Next, they find other believers like themselves who know a poverty that runs deeper than mere poverty; and they see they’re not alone in their ‘poverty.’ They see others like themselves, also growing closer to Jesus. This will change them.”
What Low does, I think, is what almost any congregation or parish could do. Christians who celebrate the Eucharist should also seek to touch the lives of the poor with an authentic, genuine, and personal compassion, drawing from the Bread of Life that is Christ to become themselves the bread of life for the world.