Behind the front desk of Ministry with Community, Development Director Gretta Terrentine stands tall and elegantly dressed in a black suit as she talks to a volunteer about today’s to-do list at the daytime shelter.
It’s late morning and Sarah Taylor, the member services associate who staffs the front desk, checks mail; signs people up for laundry, social work sessions and showers; and rifles through drawers of hygiene products.
“Sorry, we’re still out of Chapstick,” Taylor calls out to a waiting member. “But you need a toothbrush, right? We have that,” she says and hands one to the member. She then assists another member in the signup process for the Loaves & Fishes food pantry. Taylor, who has been here since 8 a.m. and will be here until 5:30 p.m., is kind, measured and quick as she attends to the constant influx of members.
This is one five-minute span in one day in one week at Ministry with Community. The daytime shelter, at 440 N. Church St., in downtown Kalamazoo, operates from 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. every day, and Taylor is unflappable amid the nonstop bustle among staff, volunteers and members.
The staff chooses to call those who use the shelter’s services “members” because it is a nonjudgmental term based on one of the basic tenets of Ministry with Community: “We believe in the unconditional acceptance of all. We love, care and nurture without judgment or discrimination.”
This tenet is apparent in the way the volunteers and staff talk to and treat members — many of whom suffer from mental illness, addiction or a combination of both. There’s no sign of condescension, frustration, flatness or anxiety in their interactions.
While Taylor keeps shuffling through the mail (members may use the Ministry address as a permanent postal address) and pulling out personal hygiene items, a member slides to the side of the front desk and waits to be noticed by Terrentine, who immediately lights up upon seeing her. The member is Terrentine’s match in height and build, and, as the two regally tall women hug, it’s easy to forget that the scene unfolding is happening in a place people come to when they’re in crisis.
“I’m just a nobody, but Gretta thinks an awful lot of me,” the member says, her arm hooked around Terrentine. “She’s one of my friends.”
Terrentine beams. “I do think a lot of you,” she says. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” the member responds.
This isn’t the first time “I love you” has been exchanged this morning between staff and members. Staff and volunteers at Ministry openly embrace the act of loving members. While the idea of loving someone who might not have a bed to sleep in come closing time, who might not recover from an addiction, or who may never be able to function without daily community support might make some people uneasy, love is one thing the Ministry staff and volunteers never seem to run out of, unlike Chapstick, so there’s no reason to hold back.
They’ve been there
For many of the volunteers and staff, this love comes from a place of knowing. They may once have been members of Ministry with Community themselves or suffered from addiction or mental illness or been in a state of crisis. Now, with their lives back in balance, they want to give back.
The staff members take their meal breaks right before the big sit-down event of the day: lunch, during which staff and volunteers serve hundreds of members a hot meal family-style. As Taylor steps away from the desk for her break, member services associate Tim Nichols steps in. The desk and Ministry facilities are getting busier and busier as lunchtime nears, but Nichols finds a moment to pull a newsletter out of a file drawer.
“That’s my story,” he says, smiling and pointing to the front page of the bulletin. “I’m already famous.”
I was running the streets, staying out all night — smoking, drinking — anything to stay away from home and school, Nichols’ story begins. The narrative tells of a young Nichols, who was in and out of trouble during his childhood in Kalamazoo until he was charged with 32 felonies in one day at age 14. Nichols moved from a violent home with unstable parenting to the state corrections system, where he spent 12 years. His turning point, the story says, is when he was put in solitary confinement for a year and a half.
Ministry with Community is the one company that gave me a chance when I couldn’t find a job, he says in his story. People with felonies deserve a second chance. Some don’t work, but some flourish. It’s good to take a chance.
Nichols says most people are shocked to learn he was once incarcerated. He is young, stands straight, smiles easily and seems like an inspired and ambitious man. Who would think he once spent a year and a half in a tiny cell by himself?
That’s part of the hope one finds at Ministry with Community: If you can get better, you can get better here. Gwen Lanier, the recovery support specialist, once struggled with her own addiction. Head cook Denita Perry was a member of Ministry herself, taking the very meals she now cooks. Current members help out around the building — cleaning, organizing, administering.
“We try to point members in the right direction,” Terrentine says, explaining that Ministry’s programs and services help members to set personal goals. “But we can’t make them do anything. There’s one tier of members who we’ve known for 20 years. They will always be coming in here; this is just one of the places in their life, due to substance abuse or mental illness or a combination of both. There’s another tier for which this is the place for them during a temporary crisis.”
For those who are here because they need support while out of a job or trying to make ends meet for their family, Ministry might not become home or a place they even come back to, Terrentine says. But for others, Ministry is home, and, whether it means cleaning windows, organizing game time or taking a position at the front desk, these members give back as part of a community.
Ministry with Community provides a long list of member services and supplies (see opposite page). Among other things, it offers an invaluable chance for members to just sit in a safe space, play a game with a friend or use a computer to look for a job. However, one service many volunteers and staff consider a keystone of the shelter’s programming is lunch.
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“Sometimes, if I’m having a bad day, I come in here (the cafeteria) for a minute and remind myself who it is I do this for,” Terrentine says.
Today she’ll be here the whole lunch hour. She starts by meeting with volunteers who are on hand to help with the meal — a group from Borgess Medical Center, two women from the Sisters of St. Joseph, a student volunteer from Western Michigan University and Edith and Bob Rasmussen, who have been part of Ministry with Community since its inception and helped start Ministry on the path to where it is today.
The volunteers circle up, hold hands and stand in a moment of silence before breaking up to work in the kitchen, serve up the food or otherwise serve members. Two volunteers, Bob Rasmussen and Mark Kraai, take their place behind the piano and the double bass, respectively, to provide music for lunch. Today chicken pot pies are on the menu.
Lanier, who staffs the front door, lets in the first 64 people, who sit down and raise their hands to indicate they have yet to be served. On the tables, there are big family-style bowls of salad, pitchers of water and iced tea, and flowers.
Volunteers move quickly, placing plates in front of members, while in the kitchen Perry and her kitchen crew scoop out servings of the pot pie without a hitch. Within 10 minutes, the first 64 people are seated with a hot plate of food in front of them. By the end of the hour, Ministry with Community will have fed between 400 and 500 people. When members finish, they don’t linger — they bring their plates to the waiting cart and make room for more people to have a hot meal. Lunch runs smoothly and quickly, but there’s still time for conversation, hugs, handshakes and banter.
It’s easy to see why on a hard day — when staff arrive at work to find members struggling outside the shelter on cold winter mornings; when a loved member descends into addiction again, disappears or passes away; or when the constant buzz of requests and needs seems too much to deal with as just one person, one group of people, or even one organization — this full cafeteria would be the place to build up hope. There’s energy in this lunch, in this place. And love.