Arloa Sutter still remembers the homeless man she met 20 years ago, one of thousands she's since helped. He wandered into the church-run storefront center she'd opened a few months earlier to provide hot coffee and a warm lunch for the street people in her Chicago neighborhood.
He complained that his feet hurt. So Arloa helped him remove his broken shoes and grimy, foul-smelling socks, then gently lifted his cracked and bleeding feet into a tub of warm water she'd brought over to him.
"As I knelt on the floor washing his feet, it hit me," she says. "I was in the presence of something beyond me or his stinky feet. I experienced an epiphany: This is what Jesus called us to do, to wash each other's feet. People try to sanitize that, but in the process, they miss out."
In the years since that "aha!" moment, Arloa, 57, has continued to meet Jesus in his "distressing disguise," as Mother Teresa once said. What started as her response to the street people who came to the church her husband pastored, asking for money or a warm place to spend a winter afternoon, has grown into Breakthrough Urban Ministries in East Garfield Park, a crime-ridden neighborhood with an unemployment rate of 23 percent. As founder and executive director, Arloa now oversees two shelters, a job placement program, outreach to women in prostitution, and a youth and family program that includes sports programs, tutoring, counseling, and Bible studies.
Growing up on a farm in Iowa, Arloa says she always wanted to minister in the city. After attending Moody Bible Institute, where she "fell in love with Chicago" and first encountered homeless people, Arloa worked with delinquent youth in the Chicago area. Then she, her husband, and their two young daughters moved to Keokuk, Iowa, to pastor a church. Five years later, they returned to Chicago to pastor First Evangelical Free Church, located in a neighborhood that had a large concentration of street people.
That led Arloa to open the storefront drop-in center. Church members sometimes brought a hot lunch for the homeless to eat, but if no one showed up with food, "I'd heat up a couple of cans of soup and serve that," she says.
Often her guests at the center asked for money, so Arloa got creative. "I noticed the street behind our church was a mess—papers blowing around, garbage. I told them if they cleaned up the street, I'd pay them."
Soon the Andersonville Chamber of Commerce noticed homeless people cleaning up the neighborhood. The chamber president told Arloa she'd sponsor her program. "That was the beginning of our CleanStreet program," Arloa says. "Now we have more than a dozen street cleaning contracts around the city, as well as employment training and placement services."