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Serving justice

Christ Kitchen founder says meals create community

Jan Martinez founded Christ Kitchen, a Spokane-based work and empowerment program for low-income women. (Colin Mulvany)
Jan Martinez founded Christ Kitchen, a Spokane-based work and empowerment program for low-income women. (Colin Mulvany)

Jan Martinez, 57, grew up in an upper-middle-class home in Denver, but even as a child, she exhibited what is known in theological circles as a “preferential option for the poor.”

For the past two decades, her life’s work has centered on Christ Kitchen, a work program she created for women in poverty that goes far beyond the food they package and sell.

In a recent Wise Words interview, Martinez talked about her personal tragedy, as well as the graces she’s been given, that led to the creation of Christ Kitchen.

• My mother’s family and my dad’s family – their grandparents – were all circuit riders. They were pastors who got on horses and rode from town to town. One was a Methodist and one was a Presbyterian, and they’d tease my mom and dad at family gatherings that they had a “mixed” marriage. That’s about how mixed my family got.

  • My mom asked a Navajo woman to live with us. Her name was Della. She was a very gentle woman. We were WASPs who were raised to run the world.

When I was about 11, issues about money popped out as hypocritical in many ways. One was seeing how Della was treated, and it wasn’t unkindly, but it was different because she was “less than.”

Now I can describe them as class issues, but I didn’t know it then. I was just mad. I asked my mother at 11 why she would worry about money when the Bible told us not to.

• When I was raped (at 26, at knifepoint, in Albuquerque, N.M.), everything fell apart. Nothing saved me from the rape, literally. And that threw me for a loop because if you are raised to run everything, then you think you can change any circumstance. I couldn’t change that it happened and couldn’t change that I was so depressed I didn’t want to to get out of bed. Nothing made it go away.

My friend said to me, “Why do you think God wanted you raped?” I just froze. I was searching for healing. I started reading Genesis. I said, “OK God, I’m going to read through your book and if you cause rape, I am out of here.” I read the Bible cover to cover every year, and I did that for many years.

• When I began researching Christian traditions dealing with poverty, hospitality was bringing to the table people who could never repay you and in every other setting would never sit at the same table with the wealthy.

The Christians put them at the table and fellowship happened around food. And this is what we find with the volunteers who come (to Christ Kitchen) from churches all over town. They bring food every Thursday, and we all share a meal. It’s creating a sense we can really be a community that transcends barriers of race, class and socioeconomic status.

It’s only an hour once a week, but it starts a conversation both ways. We all have kids and all our kids screw up. We do prayer requests at lunch, and everybody has the same problems with their kids. It’s a time of learning. The volunteers become better advocates for the poor and for social issues. Some have never known anyone poor.

• A friend came for the first time when (Christ Kitchen) was in the West Central neighborhood. She looked around and said, “Jan, why are they so fat?”

If you only have a theory of poverty, you think of starving Biafrans and Somalians who don’t have enough to eat. American poverty is so different.

I said to the friend: “We eat small amounts and exercise to have our bodies be strong. And they eat to feel full. Some of them from not being full as children, but also because greasy, sugary food makes you feel happier, fuller.”

• Our issues in the middle class have a lot to do with accomplishment. And that entails “stuff.”

These (Christ Kitchen) women will say, “I have to pray to the Lord about it.” And they have $38 in their account and there’s no more money. They have a sense they’ll get through it anyway. There isn’t a worry that all their stuff will be taken away because they have no stuff.

The women have each other to get through these horrible things. One of our volunteers broke seven ribs in a terrible fall. We all sent a card around and prayed for her. One woman said, “Jan, I took that card up to Karen’s house. She helped me so much when my baby came.” They minister to each other in a real way.

• It’s not about me giving and them taking. This is a shared relationship.

They are kind to me in ways that isn’t competitive or wondering where we are in some scale. They are also in-your-face angry, it isn’t always sweet, but then they’ll say, “I was terrible, wasn’t I?”

They can judge their own behavior honestly. I began to be freed up from “impression management.” I’ve learned to be much more honest.

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