Cooking Up Compassion

Spokane's impoverished women find hope and a paycheck in Christ Kitchen

Jan martinez was only 26 when a stranger broke into her home, put a knife to her throat, and raped her. Suddenly her safe little world changed forever. "After that night, I was terrified to answer the phone or get out of the shower. Nothing took away my consuming emotional pain," Jan says two-and-a-half decades after her encounter with the never-caught man who brutalized her.

So Jan did something she never would have done before the rape: She turned to God. "I'd been hostile to Christianity in the past, so it was nothing short of desperation for me to consider finding help in a church," explains Jan. "What I found after questioning who God was and studying the Bible was a merciful Father who wept over sin and death, but who allowed life's consequences to draw people to him. I found my Savior."

Fast forward 25 years from that fateful night to a recent Thursday morning at Westminster Presbyterian Church, located in one of Spokane, Washington's poorest neighborhoods—an area residents refer to as "Felony Flats" for its high crime rate and low income level.

"The reason I relate to these women is because the trauma I experienced is similar to their own."

Many of the 40 or so homeless women who enter Christ Kitchen (CK), the church's unpretentious dining room, know little about Jan, its energetic 50-year-old director, except one thing—Jan loves Jesus. And that love is at the heart of Jan's unconventional method of providing what many impoverished women need most—a way to make a little extra money and gain emotional and spiritual healing.

She does so by paying some 125 poor and/or homeless women the Washington State minimum wage of $7.16 an hour to assemble gift baskets that rival those found in trendy kitchen boutiques. The baskets, stuffed with calico and raffia-bedecked dry-food products, are marketed to local churches and via the Internet. Buyers know that not only do their purchases employ women in poverty, but they also deliver tremendous taste and quality under playful product names such as "Prayerful Pintos" (locally grown pinto beans and flavorings that make a great filling for tortilla wraps), or "Heavenly Blue Corn Hotcakes" (a slightly crunchy pancake mix that's sky blue due to the ground blue corn from which it's made).

Any woman who arrives at Christ Kitchen promptly at 8:30 a.m. on Thursday mornings "clean, sober, and ready to work" earns a day's wages. Often that makes the difference between a full refrigerator and an empty one. Jan's hour-long Bible study—which she also pays them to attend at the start of the day—makes doubly sure women leave Christ Kitchen richer than when they arrived.

The idea for christ kitchen came to jan in a fit of exasperation one day in 1997. A counselor in private practice, Jan and her husband, Felix, a successful pathologist, were hooked on serving the poor globally. But Jan began realizing "the mission field is between my two feet." While still maintaining her counseling practice, she began donating counseling time at Christ Clinic, a free medical facility in Felony Flats. What she found there startled her. "Women in low-income areas of Spokane told tales of rape and battering no different than those of the women I met on a short-term missions trip outside Katmandu," explains Jan. "It may be obvious, but the reason I relate to the women at the Kitchen is because the trauma I experienced before coming to the Lord is similar to their own."

While Jan saw some spiritual changes in her impoverished clients at Christ Clinic, she became increasingly frustrated by their lack of interest in Bible studies. "I'll bet they'd come if we paid them!" she said jokingly to her volunteers one day as they discussed ways to entice reluctant women to come to a Bible study. It wasn't long after that insight that Jan closed her private practice to devote her efforts full-time to develop Christ Kitchen.

Jan's brainchild is now a seven-year-old nonprofit company that grosses $70,000 a year in sales, which Jan promptly pours back into wages for her women. She pays herself no salary. Donations from individuals and churches help pay for the Bibles she makes sure each woman receives. A casual, grassroots network of Christian women caters a free, home-cooked meal for the employees each Thursday. For many of the workers, it's the only meal they'll have that day; Thursday's teaching and fellowship is the only bridge to God they find.

Jan says she feels led to "deliver church" to her city's poorest women because they don't attend church services, friendship coffees, or faith conferences. "These women say, 'I don't have the clothes for it,' which means, I won't be accepted there. At Christ Kitchen we meet the women when they come to the well, point to the Bearer of Living Water, and create a community of women who understand and help them draw the water."

And that they certainly do—as Sheryl Whittekiend attests to. One of the first employees to wander into Christ Kitchen, the now impeccably dressed 50-year-old admits she was "blown away" by getting paid to sit through a Bible study.

Sheryl had been abusing drugs for more than three decades. Now seven years clean and sober, she says, "After I got out of treatment, I went to the Kitchen to check it out. I felt so comfortable there. I thought, Oh, my gosh, I can talk and cry here. I came into Christ Kitchen a wandering little girl. Now I've grown up." Sheryl explains her weekly commitment to Christ Kitchen proved a springboard for regular church attendance, two other Bible studies, a motorcycle ministry, and prison outreach. "I've learned to soften my soul, to talk gently, and to love every woman who comes through the doors of Christ Kitchen."

Jan adds that part of the beauty of CK is when seasoned workers such as Sheryl catch the contagiousness of Christ, then model it to newer employees.

"Sheryl told me to 'look at yourself in the mirror,' " explains 59-year-old Bev Davis of the moment she "caught Christ" from fellow worker Sheryl. At the time Bev was so emotionally battered by an abusive ex-husband that she believed his lies that she was fat and ugly. As a result, she hadn't looked in a mirror in years—not even to brush her hair. It took all her courage, but she followed Sheryl's advice to see herself as Christ sees her. "I now look in the mirror," she says with a smile, "and the image I see says, You're OK."

"You're ok." it's a message jan repeatedly conveys as she moves from table to table in the CK dining room each Thursday after Bible study ends and work begins. She makes sure each woman gets a personal "hi" and a hug, then asks, "How can we pray for you?" With her focus solely on the women, Jan no longer is haunted by her life-changing rape.

"My life's story is a drop in the bucket," says Jan. "It's the courage and perseverance of women like Sheryl and Bev that any story should be about."

Jan looks out over the roomful of women whose lives and traumas are so different from—yet so similar to—her own. It doesn't bother her that the women know little about the cataclysmic event that brought Jan to the point where she stands before them today, Bible in hand. In fact, she's designed it that way. All she wants them to come away from Christ Kitchen knowing is the same thing she learned as a result of that terrifying night so many years before: No matter what you've been through, God cares. And he can take even the ugliest events and turn them around to create baskets of blessings for anyone who reaches out to him to find their answers. tcw

Ronna Snyder is a freelance writer who lives with her husband in Idaho.


WANT TO HELP THE POOR?

Interested in reproducing a CK-like nonprofit business to give impoverished women a way to make a little extra money, pick up job skills, and meet Jesus? For free prototype business plans, contact Jan Martinez at 509-325-4343; 5708 S. Glendora, Spokane, WA 99223; e-mail her at janbow@msn.com. Or support her efforts by selling Christ Kitchen products through your church, Bible study, friends, and neighbors. For more information, visit CK's website at www.christkitchen.org. —R.S.




Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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