The work of TRM Ministries requires many collaborations and partnerships to be the hands and feet of Jesus serving people experiencing homelessness. One of those partnerships is with Cornerstone, an organization focused on providing transitional and affordable housing. Let’s start at the beginning …
I came to the Rescue Mission in April of 1986 and soon found that the Rescue Mission was facing some very serious financial challenges. Things were so bleak that it looked like we might actually have to shut our doors. We struggled along until October of that year before finally beginning to see a financial turnaround. It looked as though 1987 would be a better year, however, while we were struggling financially, there were other things brewing.
During these early days it was primarily me and some homeless folks running the Rescue Mission. At the same time another organization was starting up in Topeka - the Topeka Family Shelter. Father Etzel, a priest from Meriden, came to Topeka to establish this new shelter focused on sheltering homeless families. The Rescue Mission already had a small shelter for homeless families and never considered that there was a need for another organization to serve homeless families. This new shelter was run primarily by the Catholic church while the Rescue Mission was primarily funded by Protestant churches. I soon learned there was a division between the Catholics and the Protestants and a competition began to swell – there was real concern and outright resentment for this new organization starting up. Why would they do this to the Mission?
It didn’t take me long to recognize that Father Etzel had a heart of gold. He and I developed a working friendship and one day he recommended that I meet with a group of regional priests and priests from the Topeka area. I agreed and will never forget the experience. The day of the meeting I walked into a house owned by the Catholic church. Picture a room filled with all these men dressed in black suits and white collars . . . and me. I wasn’t Catholic. I wasn’t one of them. I felt they were also uncomfortable wondering how I was viewing them. In the middle of all this uncertainty was Father Etzel. He was an incredible ambassador for Christ, an incredible ambassador for unity. Tough questions came my way regarding things they had heard about the Mission. Miscommunication and misperceptions abounded. Father Etzel stood in the gap of these misunderstandings and misinformation. In an incredibly gentle way he helped to bridge an expansive gulf. His intervention opened up an opportunity for me to get to know some of the priests and set the stage for future collaborations.
After this meeting, Father Etzel and I began to process and consider what would be best for our community. We arrived at the idea that Topeka Family Shelter, currently known as Cornerstone, would be well suited to be transitional housing for people coming out of the Rescue Mission. Together we began to build a system in our community. I’ll never forget when TRM built the first building. We had a dedication banquet and after I finished speaking and showing pictures of what had been accomplished, Father Etzel, dressed in his cassock and collar, came running up to me and in front of a banquet room full of over 400 people, threw his arms around me telling me how much he loved me and how honored he was to be able to work with me. The relationship between our two organizations was cemented in love and collaboration.
Over the years Cornerstone has been nothing less than stellar. One of my most memorable moments happened one winter when a couple and their tiny daughter came to the Mission. What I didn’t know at that time was that they also had three older daughters that had been removed by the State. They were methamphetamine addicts. Because of their meth addiction they were a very difficult family to serve. The father’s poor behavior resulted in me removing him from the newly formed Hope Center, our family shelter, multiple times. He said I kicked him out eight times before he finally had the light bulb come on. During their stay their tiny 1 1/2-year old daughter Amy and I became very, very close. She was so tiny I could carry her around on one arm. It took months of working continuously with this family to help them realize the opportunity for a different future. Their hard work resulted in them moving into one of Cornerstone’s first brand-new transitional four-plex housing units. I attended the dedication they were having for this transitional housing. I walked into a home full of people and some refreshments. It was an awesome, beautiful and clean 2-bedroom place in central Topeka. As I walked in, little tiny Amy came running up to me, threw her arms around my knee and gave me a big old leg hug. She looked up at me with her big brown eyes and said, “Barry come with me.” She took my hand and walked me into anther room. There was a bed. There were some dolls, a bedspread, pretty curtains and some decorations on the wall. “This is my bedroom!” she said. I’ll never forget that day. It was one of the most memorable, if not THE most memorable moment of my 32 years of working at the Rescue Mission. To see that little girl happy . . . . well, fast forward to 2017, that little girl graduated from Seaman High School and I’ve continued to keep up with her family.
Stories like Amy’s wouldn’t have been possible except for Topeka Rescue Mission and Cornerstone coming together – bridging gaps in love and respect. It wouldn’t have been possible without a priest named Father Etzel from Meriden who showed his love in spite of opposition. May God continue to bless the relationship between our two organizations and make it possible for us to all continue helping others realize a different and brighter future.