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."
Many who received help now are part of the team that's making a difference in East Garfield Park. Some of the kids who've gone through the program not only are out of the gangs but also are going to college.
Arloa says putting feet to her faith every day allows her to experience God's presence in real ways. For instance, Breakthrough saw a need for a women's shelter. They found an old brick building in East Garfield Park so rundown the sky was visible through the roof. Arloa didn't know how she could afford to renovate, but that week, she got a call from a suburban church saying they wanted to do a large-scale service project. They donated $350,000 and thousands of volunteer hours to renovate the building. Breakthrough signed a long-term lease on the building owned by Joshua Missionary Baptist Church. Today the building houses the Joshua Center, home base to Breakthrough's offices, women's shelter, and its youth and family programs.
Breakthrough depends on God's provision to keep its doors open. While sometimes donations are financial, sometimes they're what only God knows is needed. For example, one winter night a homeless man stopped by the men's shelter wearing only jeans and a sweatshirt. Arloa had no coat big enough to fit the man. Just as she was about to turn him away, a man from her church came in. "God told me to bring you this down coat," he said. Arloa looked at the extra-large winter coat, took it from the donor, handed it to the homeless man, and said, "Jesus sure loves you—look what he gave you."
Running a ministry like Breakthrough isn't easy, but Arloa's life hasn't been easy, either. She and her husband went through a painful divorce in 2000, and raising her children in a tough neighborhood was challenging—both her daughters have friends who are now in prison or have been murdered. Drug addicts she worked with for years sometimes relapsed, never to be heard from again.
"So many times it's been tempting to quit. But it's a calling. I know I'm supposed to be here," Arloa says with a joyful smile. "I've got a family of coworkers. We laugh, we struggle, we work really hard. But it feels so good at the end of the day. And we see miracles every day. Being a part of this has transformed us all!"
Arloa says working with the poor is "loving Jesus. We can't love him with just our personal piety or prayer. That's needed, but it's not enough. We need to follow him to the fringes of society, bring his love to the masses. While we aren't all called to live in East Garfield Park, we're all called to reach out in love to our neighbors. You can't be a Christ follower and not care about people without coats."
For more details about Breakthrough Urban Ministries, go to www.breakthroughministries.com.
Keri Wyatt Kent is a TCW regular contributor who lives in Illinois.
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