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'Real' people are just half a mile away

Joe Kramarz challenges Americans to go “an extra half mile to encounter real people”—be it in Mexico or Spokane.

On his first international mission trip 10 years ago—after doing some volunteer mission work in Spokane—he stayed with a mission team in a Presbyterian church on the island of Cozumel, 12 miles from Cancun, a half mile from the coastal boardwalk tourists would visit from cruise ships anchored off-shore.

Joe Kramarz

Joe Kramarz brings mission home.

After a day of pouring cement for a community center, Joe took time off to go to the tourist area and relax.  Watching tourists paw through tee shirts and other tourist items to take home to say they had been to Mexico, he wanted to invite them to walk with him a few blocks to see the “real Mexico of people living in stick houses with hammocks hung from wooden beams and hibachi cookers in corners, women selling tortillas on the street while their children play in the dirt, and people struggling with life.”

Silently he sat in the shade and realized there are also half-mile walks people could take in the United States.

Joe challenged himself to find ways he could take that half-mile walk in Spokane when he returned, crossing “a million miles of separation from where Christ calls me to be,” he said.

Joe Kramarz

Joe Kramarz involves others.

For some members of Whitworth Presbyterian Church, where he is mission chair, that half mile is bridged by bringing homeless people into the church.

The church has participated in the Interfaith Hospitality Network for seven years.  As the church’s coordinator, Joe and three assistants recruit 55 volunteers every 12 weeks to set up and take down roll-away beds in church school rooms, to supply and cook food, to sit with families at meals and to stay overnight as hosts.

He estimates that more than 100 church members have been involved.  Some help each time; some help only on occasion.

“I like it because it’s a way to be directly involved with people,” he said.

Because his church has about 1,000 members, there is no need for a support church to share the work.

With experience in both global and local spheres of mission, Joe finds that churches and individual Christians involved globally are also involved locally, helping people with food, housing, emotional support and listening—in contrast to the view of those who think churches ought to keep support limited to missions close to home.

For him, mission seems to propel mission. 

A Whitworth Presbyterian member, Dick Carpenter, realizing that homeless families needed furniture and household goods when they found permanent housing, started the New Start Warehouse on North Foothills Dr.

People with furniture to donate call, and volunteers pick up the items.  Later, volunteers deliver items families choose.

“You couldn’t pay me to help do it,” Joe said of lugging furniture up to a second-floor apartment. “I do it because of my faith.”

He gladly volunteers, because his reward comes when children jump up and down on their new-to-them beds, exclaiming, “It’s mine!  It’s mine!”

For 35 years, Joe sold hospital equipment in Detroit, in Chicago and, after 1973 in Spokane.  He retired in 1995, returning to work again from 2000 to 2002.

In 1996, he helped Northview Bible Church bring together supplies for a medical clinic for Romania.  He collected used medical equipment from hospitals when they were upgrading their equipment and no longer needed it.

Joe and his wife, Becky, a retired registered nurse, went with the group delivering the clinic.  In 1997, he went again, taking two lab techs from local hospitals to train the Romanians.  He also delivered some dental equipment.

“The dental equipment was important, because the two major U.S. imports to Romania have been soft drinks, which eat people’s teeth, and toothpaste.  Younger Romanians drink the soft drinks to their detriment.”

Joe Kramarz in Honduras

Joe Kramarz meets Honduran children.

Three years ago, he went with Whitworth College students to Honduras to build homes for coffee workers.  The students had approached the mission committee for financial support.  He volunteered to go as one of the adults, along with other church members.  The group of 12 spent almost two weeks building 25 cement-block houses.

“We encourage Whitworth students and our members to bring us ideas for mission projects through our Partners in Mission program.  We provide supplies and scholarships for half the cost of transportation.”

During many years that Joe traveled around the Northwest meeting people in his sales job, he did not travel the half mile.

His first mission project was with Whitworth students who go Saturday evenings to the Otis Hotel and other low-income hotels on West Third to hand out sandwiches and visit people, hoping to lead some to Christ.

“Over one Christmas break, students were gone, so they asked adults to fill in.  When they invited me, I at first felt: ‘Who me?  Go there?  Meet strange people?’  I was scared when I began knocking on doors.  Since then I have learned to trust.”

He went and the people touched his life.  That was his first step into that “half mile” in Spokane, coming from the suburbs, never knowing of the life of people in downtown Spokane.

One time a man who answered Joe’s knock was so drunk he put his arm around the man to hold him up, while the student spoke to him.  The next time, the man was not drunk.  The third time, he asked for a Bible.

That man had a master’s degree in psychology and had attended a Christian college, but experienced personal difficulties, became alcoholic and lost his family.

“In four weeks, we saw a complete transformation in him.  He moved from the hotel to a better place,” Joe said.

Another time, Joe was in a tavern visiting with some of the Otis residents, and a man who was drunk asked people there to pray for him.  They knelt in a circle and asked Joe to say the prayer.

“I asked the Holy Spirit for words,” he said.

In 1999, Joe also went on a mission trip to Cuba through Covenant Presbyterian Church in Austin, Tex., where a former pastor at Whitworth Presbyterian, Jim Singleton, served.  That church related with a Presbyterian church in Havana. Joe met some women from a Presbyterian church in Santa Clara and hoped to return to help restore a Presbyterian camp there.

In 2000, he was among 18 men from Pacific Northwest churches who visited the camp to build a new kitchen and sidewalks.

Joe was born into a Catholic family, reared in a Baptist church, married a Methodist and became Presbyterian.  He joined Whitworth Presbyterian in 1975.

“I honor all churches, but have found a home at Whitworth Presbyterian.  After careful analysis of North Spokane churches, we chose it because it was the closest to our home,” he said.  “The vibrancy of the faith of the men there drew and held me.”

For those who question giving beyond the local level, Joe offers a reminder that “Jesus said to go out into the world,” which includes both the local and global parts.

He added that everywhere is local for someone.

Recently a more-than-50-member adult Sunday school class raised more than $8,000 to build a skill center for Muslim women in Ghana, a project they learned about from a member involved in Partners International, which has its headquarters in Spokane.  Some class members now want to go there.

 “It’s a state of mind and heart to care for people in Mexico, Honduras, Cuba, Ghana or downtown Spokane,” he said.

For information, call 466-0321 or email

By Mary Stamp, Fig Tree editor - Copyright © November 2005