Loving Women out of Poverty
By Rebecca Hansen
Comfort, tranquility and warmth fill Jan’s home. The wall of windows looks out to gardens cascading down to a wide river. Many years ago that same river brought a young girl to her who had floated down it, escaping a near death beating. Dripping wet in the middle of the night she walked up through the gardens to a place of love and warmth as Jan welcomed this stranger into her home and comforted her as they waited for the authorities.
Jan had been near to death herself in 1980 as she awoke in her bed with a knife at her neck and a rapist’s heartbeat on her chest. “You are going to die.” he told her. She survived that evening but soon depression and fear eroded her life as alcohol numbed the devastation. She began to crumble inside. Not living in faith, the only net that stopped her fall was Felix (her husband now).
Like the Samaritan woman that Jan eloquently tells the story of in her book Christ Kitchen: Loving Women Out of Poverty (Deep River Books), Jan too was at the well seeking out “living water.” Her hopes were to find help in a church until a friend asked her, “Why do you think God wanted you raped?” Already hostile to Christianity, she vowed to never go to church again; yet, she decided to make a bargain with God. “Okay God, if you caused rape, I’m out of here. But I don’t know if you did so I’m going to read through your Bible and find out!” She started in Genesis and when she reached Leviticus, where the rape laws are, she discovered that He hates rape and has compassion for its victims. Her rage and anger began to dissipate because she knew that God was going to take care of it in a much bigger way. She began to fall in love with the Lord.
Now filled with an overflowing passion for the hurting, dark world, she desired to share the comfort she herself had received (2 Cor. 1:4). With a master’s degree in counseling, she became a psychotherapist. In 1993 Jan began her work at Christ Clinic, a volunteer medical clinic for the working poor. It was there that she worked with the homeless, the prostitutes, the abused and the addicts.
Seeing the Samaritan woman in so many of her clients at the clinic she began to feel a pull to introduce the women to the One she had fallen in love with. So she began a Christ-centered job-training mission. Christ Kitchen is a place which brings comfort, tranquility, and warmth to beautiful hurting and broken women.
In Jan’s journey since her rape, she searched parts of the world looking for Samaria, only to find that it was right down the street from her home. And the Samaritan woman was a dripping wet girl at her front door and a woman walking through the doors to receive love at Christ Kitchen.
On behalf of JBU magazine, I had the wonderful gift of visiting Jan in her home in Spokane, WA, and meeting the amazing group of women from Christ Kitchen. I sat down with Jan to hear more about her story and the mission that is so dear to her heart.
JBU: Have you been able to find forgiveness toward your rapist and if so, how were you able to get to that place?
Jan: When I first began to heal, I didn’t even think about forgiving a rapist. That seemed absurd. But as I made my way through the Bible, I discovered God is a God of justice. He doesn’t want anyone to perish, but He also has a plan for the impenitent. I needed to understand that the Lord is in charge and won’t let violence or evil win in the long run. That understanding allowed me to begin to trust that I don’t have to seek revenge and helped me feel safe. Slowly (it took years) I understood God’s love for the most pathetic evil-doers. The best teachers were little children of incest who would tell me they loved their fathers, but just didn’t want them to hurt them anymore.
JBU: How do you see God taking your own encounter with evil and using it to help the women you minister to?
Jan: God found me in the deepest, darkest pit of despair and brought me out of it. He set my feet on solid ground. I KNOW that if He could do that for the likes of me, He can do that for anyone. I want to speak that life into women who have no hope. I want to believe it for them until they grab onto it themselves.
JBU: What was your plan when you started Christ Kitchen?
Jan: I did not have a plan. I was a therapist at Christ Clinic and just wanted to have a Bible study for women who felt unworthy to walk into a church. Never did I think I was starting a business. God had to keep that little detail a secret for a while because He knew what I would have thought of it–“like, are you kidding, God?” But, when I realized that money and work were the only things that brought the women in, we started making a line of gourmet mixes. Sometimes I still say to God, “I’m just a therapist. What am I doing selling beans?” But He knew that in our little business of selling beans, He was doing His big business of saving lives.
JBU: Tell me about the work that is done in Christ Kitchen.
Jan: The literal business is creating delicious food and gourmet mixes. We have 37 different mixes that we sell in our shop and online (christkitchen.org) around the country. We also have a restaurant and catering business. We employ the women to create and prepare the products for those three avenues of income.
JBU: What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced with this ministry?
Jan: It’s challenging working within the foreign country of American poverty. We created a business that must accommodate the issues that our women bring in without catering to them. We’re a business that works with broken people. Our business and our ministry hold a unique tension.
JBU: What “feel” do you want Christ Kitchen to have?
Jan: When I’d go back home my father would always come to the door, open it wide, and say “Jannie!” and I would just fall into his arms. That’s always how he welcomed me home and that is what I want people to feel when they come in the door of Christ Kitchen. I want them to feel loved. We may not even know you yet but we’re going to love you. We work hard to have a place where women don’t automatically know each other’s background. Christ Kitchen has become a place that transcends barriers of class, race, or opportunity, where those issues don’t contend for power. It doesn’t matter where you’ve come from; we are all being healed by God so we can come together and serve. We are like the Luke 8:3 women: having been healed by Christ, we’re on the road with Him, serving and working together.
JBU: Share a little bit about the women you minister to.
Jan: The byline on our logo says: “Hope for women living in poverty.” We say “living in poverty” because financial poverty is a temporary condition and it clarifies who we minister to. Many of our women, after they have been transformed will say, “I am not poor!” Ironically, they have no money, but they are saying they are not impoverished spiritually. They describe themselves as “rich in the Lord.” Financial poverty really becomes a secondary issue. We are all in the process of becoming stable and Christ-dependent no matter what our bank accounts say.
Most of the women we hire have lived through incredible violence. It seems to be the difference between American poverty and poverty in other countries. The level of violence in American homes is so severe and covered up that you don’t see it very often. Few understand the extent of what these ladies have lived through.
JBU: What specific steps do you take to help these women move out of poverty and become more self-sufficient?
Jan: The first phase, “On your feet” works on stability and Christ dependency. We do that through Bible study and discipleship. Prayer and living out the Word is a constant. So it may look like we are just tying bows or mixing ingredients, but important issues are always being attended to: “How are they getting along with the other women at the table?” “How productive are they?” “How are they following the rules?” There is a lot of flexibility with the schedule but job training is always going on. We have a lot of grace with new women and then we mentor and let natural consequences live out.
When the women first come in, many don’t believe they can work anymore. It’s like their whole sense of self is destroyed. We simply ask if they can do something simple, like “can you put these stickers on here?” And they do. Then they move to the next table or into the food kitchen. Stability increases by adding a little more stress and seeing how they do. Many of them are surprised. They say, “Hey, I am good at this!” I believed it the first day they walked in, but their concept of themselves is that they are “bad” or unworthy. So we just keep praising their competence. Incompetent or negative behavior is dealt with gently at first, but gradually confronted and held accountable. So that is discipleship. That is job training. At another job they would be fired, but we know what their life is like so we just start small. We have learned how to encourage them.
The second phase is “On your way” which is our study using “Jobs for Life” curriculum. It’s a 16-week course/Bible study at the end of which the person has a job. This involves many mentors who walk through the course with them.
JBU: Share with me an example someone who has “moved on.”
Jan: There is a woman named “Laura” who said, “My mother screwed me up and I screwed up my kids, but I’m not going to screw up my grandkids! I have my grandkids come over for snacks after school. They do their homework and then we do Bible study. That is what I’m going to do for the rest of my life.” That is the definition of “moving on.” “Laura” is in a wheelchair now and dying of multiple sclerosis but her life has meaning now. She just glows! She is bringing the Lord to her grandkids, who, in turn, have started influencing their parents, so that they will not need to be “on the system” as the next generation. That is moving on!
JBU: What has working with these women taught you about love?
Jan: The women have taught me a depth and breadth of love I never knew before – that I can love without parameters. Their love for the Lord is all-encompassing. It reminds me of the story Jesus told the Pharisee about “who loves me more?”—the one with a huge debt canceled or the one with a smaller debt?
JBU: If laziness is a major misconception regarding the poor, then what is the truth?
Jan: These women are the most unlazy women I’ve ever been around! At Christ Kitchen we help women become stable, healthy, fully-functioning people ready to serve the Kingdom. Many women just need the space, love, and encouragement to become who they were made to be. This enables them to heal from past traumas and dramas and begin to turn their lives around. We see them reuniting with their children, leaving abusive relationships, becoming clean and sober, and becoming productive citizens. We know it takes a long time to restore dignity so we’re in it with them for the long haul.
Sometimes our misconceptions about the poor actually keep us from attending to God’s Word. When you begin reading Scripture with an eye towards God’s love for the poor, you begin to feel convicted for your own lack of love for them. Deuteronomy 15:7-8 says, “If anyone is poor …do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need.” Some worry if you do this you will be taken advantage of, but God is not worried about that. He’s worried about our hearts. He wants us to be open-handed.
JBU: What are your thoughts when encountering those who have negative opinions of those who are poor?
Jan: I know they don’t know God’s heart. God wants us to be obedient to His plan. There are over 2,000 verses about poverty in the Bible and how it relates to justice. We are accountable to His Work, even if we don’t hear about it from the pulpit. “Pure, undefiled religion,” says James, “is to care for the widow and orphan.” Jesus’ first words as Savior were, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor.” When the apostles commissioned Barnabus and Paul, all that they asked was that they should remember the poor. Faith in the one true God has always been about caring for the needy. If you ascribe to a sloppy theology, you might miss this.
JBU: Why do you say you have to get used to suffering to work with the poor?
Jan: The lives of the poor are filled with despair and hardship and trauma. We pray a lot because there is so much to pray for. The lives of the women are too often desperate, chaotic, unpredictable, and tragic. They get sick without health care, their teeth abscess, their trucks break down, they get into fights with each other, their kids get put in jail, and their men lose their jobs. Few have ever been loved, or even have the slightest idea of what agape love looks like.
JBU: What was your hope when you wrote your book, Christ Kitchen?
Jan: I wanted to tell the story of what God is doing among the women I get to work with. It’s a story of miracles! I also wrote the book to shine a light on the misconceptions of poverty we have in the U.S. We don’t like our poor. We don’t have compassion for them. We do for the poor in other countries, but the American assumption is that our poor are the undeserving poor. Because there is so much available in the U.S., we wonder, “Why don’t they take advantage of our opportunities?” The next assumption is “It must be laziness.” I wanted to help people understand the results of violence and family pathology that these women have lived through. Mostly I wanted to woo believers into loving the poor because Jesus loves them. I pray women in the pews might become inspired and equipped to minister to their sisters in the back alleys of their towns.
JBU: How do you start up a ministry like this?
Jan: I wrote the book with that question in mind. I explain both ministry and business principles that would guide the reader into starting something similar. My desire was to simply offer a Bible study to women living in poverty who never attended church. I had to come up with a viable means of creating income in order to pay their wages. Christ Kitchen has grown into a successful business, but our underlying motivation always will be to bring the Word to a hurting world. I’m sure that is the reason God has blessed the business.
JBU: You have shown wonderful obedience to God and the effects of that is seen clearly at Christ Kitchen. What has God placed in your heart recently?
Jan: God has created a vision in me of a Christ Kitchen-type ministry in every town in America. There are millions of hurting women throughout our nation who have never heard the Good News and they live within a few blocks of our churches! We women of faith must reach out to them. The Christ Kitchen model offers an idea of how to do that. To that end, I am starting a foundation that will offer expertise, mentoring, and some initial small grants to help fund such ministries.
JBU: What is your heartbeat for how women can begin making a difference with the neglected people in their communities today?
Jan: My prayer is that every time the local news announces another drug bust, a murdered child, a battered woman, a suicide, our hearts would fill with pain so severe that we would land on our knees and pray for intervention; pray for miracles. If only the saints would enter those crack houses, dirty motels, bar rooms, and jail cells. The mission field in this country is vast. You needn’t go to Africa to become a missionary. There is an unchurched, underserved population a few miles from your home. Every single one of us can make a difference somewhere loving women to Jesus!
Becky’s Story – “If it wasn’t for Christ Kitchen, I would be dead.”
If it wasn’t for Christ Kitchen, I would be dead. My life was about drugs and alcohol, domestic violence, and terrible relationships. A man had broken my back when I showed up at Christ Kitchen in 1998 at the age of 41. I’d chosen drugs over my children: heroine ruled my life. I was alone, isolated, angry at the whole world, and in more pain than words can describe. I believed I deserved everything I felt.
At the same time, throughout this devastation, God planted seeds that sparked hope. One seed was my friend Kari. She never pushed the Bible on me, but I watched her. She brought me to Christ Kitchen, another seed, where I felt loved and accepted. I listened to the Bible studies and was able to work until I was ready for back surgery. Over the next 12 years, God knew I could not trust people, so He used the symbol of feathers to make sure that every time I found one, I knew He was there and wasn’t leaving.
My hell reached the max when I learned my daughter had been arrested for murder. I screamed at God, “I’m not that strong! I can’t handle this!” I checked out. I tried to commit suicide. Thankfully that didn’t work. The heartache was unspeakable. It changed my family and a whole community was left in pain. For the next few years I thought maybe my purpose in life was to fight the death penalty for my daughter.
Finally, a therapist in treatment got me to talk about all this. God began to show me that it was possible for me to come back to life. Christ Kitchen kept popping up in my mind, so I finally called Kari and came back to work at Christ Kitchen. I finally surrendered everything to God.
I now work full-time and have benefits! I would never believe you if you told me God would put me to work as a cook in a kitchen because I’ve never cooked! But, I’m pretty good at it. He does have a sense of humor! I now have a new, beautiful life I never thought would ever be possible.
Today my purpose is to serve God. This means to serve Him in EVERYTHING I do and say, to love others as He loves me, to walk in His presence, to speak His truth. I love everything about my life today. The Kitchen and Kari gave me that touchstone many years ago and today I know it saved my life.
I still have a long way to go, but I know that all things are possible with God!!
My daughter is out of prison today and is working for the Carpenters Union and is also walking with God.
All Things are Possible with God!