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Christ Kitchen continues to expand food services and create job opportunities to empower women

By Shannon St. Hilaire

On Thursdays, women recently released from prison or coming from clinics, the street or battered homes, participate in Christ Kitchen’s Bible study and workdays.

The women assemble cooking mixes, which they sell as gifts, and help prepare food for their restaurant and catering business.

Jan Martinez
Jan Martinez with soup packages in Christ Kitchen

Most of the women attend both the Bible study and workdays to stabilize their lives through healthy relationships and work, said founder and executive director Jan Martinez.

She developed the idea for Christ Kitchen while counseling women who came to Christ Clinic from 1993 to 2000.

Jan hopes that Christ Kitchen will someday be self-sufficient and able to support its sister organization next door, the Christ Clinic.

“Through bean sales, we could support health care,” she said, explaining that supporting the clinic will come only after Christ Kitchen begins to make a profit and support its program through product sales.

Having more sales would also put more women to work, she said.

Currently, two thirds of the income is from sales and one third is from donations, Jan said. It costs $1,750 to hire one woman for a year.

Some women only come to Christ Kitchen to work and do not attend the Bible study.

For the first five years of operation, few of the women went to church. However, Jan noted that they are open to hearing about faith and do not blame others for their situations.

Every woman comes to Christ Kitchen for a different reason.

Some are retired and working to supplement their fixed income. Some use it as a way to a new life, and a few become managers within the organization.

 Most women work part-time because they are also mothers. They often experience the tension and balance between work and home, said Jan.

Some women have moved on from the program and come only for the Bible study.  The 35 women employed often bring friends to the Bible study.

“They go out of their way to help women not suffer the way they have. They are ambassadors to populations that don’t set foot in churches,” she said. “Many of the women do not go to church often because they feel unworthy.”

When they begin to find stability, the women “often join faith communities they like,” she said, “but it usually doesn’t happen until their lives are in order.”

Christ Kitchen is a place for women to develop skills and  loving relationships with each other, which is important for women who have a history of looking for love in unhealthy relationships, she said.

For relationship and other advice, many women turn to the Bible study, said Jan, who shares scriptures she believes are relevant to the women’s lives.

The women work with Jan to come up with new ideas for the business. There are 35 products on the menu. The cookies are popular and sometimes decorated with a company’s logo or used at weddings instead of cake. The women also make holiday-themed cookies.

Often the employees help the volunteers more than the volunteers help them, she said.  The longer the women work in the kitchen, the more skills and ideas they have.

Christ Clinic is planning a new event, a cookie-making day on May 12 for Mother’s Day.  Families can decorate pre-made cookies in the shape of hats, watering cans and other designs with frosting and sprinkles. They can decorate either at the warehouse or buy a kit to use at home.

Christ Kitchen will organize the same activity for Father’s Day.

Some women sell their art at the restaurant. The proceeds from the products, which include greeting cards, business cards, crotcheted items, and T-shirts, go directly to those who create the items.

 Many lack confidence that they can be good workers, she said.

“When they first arrive, women often feel unemployed and unemployable, but then they make friends, begin to eat healthful foods, quit smoking and find gifts they didn’t know they had,” she said

Jan clarifies what she learns in her work through teaching a course at Whitworth University on the church and its ministry to the poor.

The class is based on the 2,100 scripture references to poverty—“otherwise it is just my thoughts,” she said.

It is painful for the students, whose “eyes are opened to the poor and the unchurched,” she said.

As is common for those who do not grow up in poverty, many students feel guilty and want to help, she said. Often, they volunteer at Christ Kitchen.

With her students, she shares her belief that, in addition to the services and goods the church gives, it is also necessary to build relationships with those in need.

“We must walk beside people in order to see transformation,” she said.

It is a bigger commitment to build relationships with people from different socioeconomic backgrounds, said Jan, who believes the church has the ability to transcend superficial barriers and lead people to common ground.

“We learn God’s work here, and we learn how better to minister,” she said, observing that many people can relate to suffering from domestic violence even if they have a hard time understanding those who experience poverty.

From her missionary work abroad, she believes there is a difference between poverty in the U.S. and in under-developed countries.

She noted that many immigrants she meets at Christ Kitchen, despite having suffered from wars and violence, have an intact family, work ethic and desire to prosper.

“They want to use the services and move on because of their intact structures,” she said.

 “It looks worse in other countries, but in the U.S., the level of violence in homes is overwhelming,” she said. “We simply don’t realize what people have been through.”

While people often believe that poverty in the U.S. exists because of laziness, she believes that is only part of the issue.

“The women here are the most industrious people I have ever met,” she said, noting that violence and lack of stability cause the women to believe they are incapable of work.

In addition to leading Christ Kitchen and teaching, Jan is writing a book based on her doctoral dissertation that looks at similar programs throughout the country.

For her dissertation, she did research on 18 organizations that “bring women together for work and fellowship,” she said.

Jan encouraged the directors of the organizations, four of which followed the model of Christ Kitchen, to “create a business indigenous to their area,” she said.

She said each organization found two factors create transformation in the women:  “the Lord and mentorship,” she said.

Some groups use English language classes, literacy or business to draw women in, but the emphasis is working on stability.

“The women continually learn how to find balance,” she said. “They can’t do it alone.”

For information, call 325-4343 or email