A melted phone occupies a prominent spot in Katy Thoma’s office, much like a piece of surrealistic art. It’s one of the rare reminders of the Jesus Center’s turbulent past that can be found at its home of the last two years, the former Ice House at 13th Street and Park Avenue.
Thoma, executive director of the Jesus Center, reports that the organization’s relationship with the community has improved tremendously since the mid 1990s. Back then, it endured five arson or “suspicious” fires at two different locations.
“The community has a clearer understanding of our mission,” Thoma explains. “We’ve provided the opportunity for people to come down and serve with us. When you bring volunteers in, and they begin to serve meals, walk the neighborhood, put toiletry packs together, teach Bible study, work on the landscaping—it becomes theirs.”
Thoma says that volunteers also come to realize that the homeless aren’t so very different from themselves.
“The difference between the people in the dining room and folks like me is a $35 haircut and a shower,” she explains. “The difference is a combination of bad choices and bad circumstances.”
Over its 20-year history—dating back to when meals were served out of Crock Pots in the back of a thrift store—providing meals to the homeless and very poor has been the focus of the Jesus Center’s mission. It provides breakfast and dinner each weekday, as well as providing food to Faith Lutheran Church for a Saturday breakfast. On average, it serves 4100 meals a month.
The food that’s prepared in the Jesus Center’s kitchen has a very simple standard of excellence. As Thoma explains it, each meal must be good enough to serve to Jesus.
“If he walked in the door, the meal would be worthy of him. Because in fact he does walk into the lives of the people we serve.”
Beyond meals, the Jesus Center offers access to a telephone, a post office box and a bulletin board for messages, local bus tickets and toiletries. Thoma is always grateful for donations of hotel-size shampoo, soaps and lotions that go into the toiletry packs it distributes.
As the renovation of its facility continues, Thoma said the Jesus Center intends to build showers and laundry facilities, which will provide necessary health and social benefits to the homeless.
The organization will also offer shelter to women and children. The intention is to provide shelter long enough for the woman to get “stabilized,” perhaps 30 to 45 days, in order to get her connected to other community services.
In that time, Thoma says the shelter staff and community volunteers will work with the woman on her basic life skills to bring a degree of “restoration” to her life.
Thoma also hopes to open medical and dental clinics inside the Jesus Center with the intention of providing first aid, education and intervention, such as blood pressure or blood sugar checks.
All of these new programs and improvements are privately funded. The Jesus Center has philosophical reasons for not taking government funding, believing instead that it’s the churches’ responsibility to take care of the poor.
In addition to its operating budget, the Jesus Center has raised $700,000 for the purchase of and improvements to its building. Thoma says the organization is still about $140,000 short of where it needs to be to complete the project as planned, but she has faith it will happen.
So while Thoma may say “money is not an issue” for the organization, community support is nevertheless the key for the Jesus Center to fulfill its mission. That support can take the form of cash contributions, volunteer support and, coming this fall, donations of clothing. Food donations, however, should be directed to the Catholic Ladies Relief Society, since the Jesus Center prepares meals in institutional quantities. The exception would be donations of coffee, fresh eggs and produce, which it always welcomes.
Thoma says the Jesus Center is very careful with the money it’s given.
“When you’re in business, you have a responsibility to your shareholders that they get a return on their investment. The bottom line is profit. But when you’re in ministry, doing what we do, the bottom line is relationships. Your donors expect a return on their investment, and what they expect is to see lives changed."