Bethlehem Baptist Church (BBC), in Minneapolis, has punched a hole in the stereotype that well-to-do folk are all xenophobic snobs, the latest evidence being its newly-opened thrift shop, Hidden Treasures, located at 2915 Pentagon Drive, Minneapolis.
Start with an upscale church, BBC, just outside downtown with parishioners who, nine out of ten, commute from suburbia. In 2005, the decision-makers bought up not just the land next door, but the property adjacent to that, too. Everybody at 1205, 1205 1/2, 1203 and 1201 South 7th St. got ready to start packing their bags. With a heavy heart: the dwellings weren’t the lap of luxury by any means – in fact, were pretty run down – but, it didn’t cost an arm and a leg to live there. Those who had no place to go freaked. Then, the other shoe dropped. Instead of knocking buildings down and putting up a parking lot or condos, Bethlehem Baptist Church chose to invest in the community. Around a million bucks worth (purchasing the property alone cost $800,000), providing not just affordable, but, indeed, low-cost housing.
That was then. Now, BBC has opted, through its ministry partnership with Masterworks of Minneapolis, to go itself one better. A little more than half the housing is occupied by Masterworks employees – most of them formerly incarcerated or otherwise stability-challenged folk who, in some instances, are literally getting a new lease on life. For instance, a fella we’ll call Terry is out of the joint, works at Masterworks and lives in one of the apartments. “It’s a blessing,” he readily states. “Not just a break. It is a blessing.”
As an offshoot, the church opened Hidden Treasures Thrift Store in April. Staying the course of altruism, every dime spent at the store goes into ministry. Seventy-five percent goes to international ministries, including such undertakings as working to restore damaged ecological systems in devastated areas of Kenya; efforts to restore the lives of girls who’ve been victimized and abused by human trafficking; and providing help for AIDS-afflicted orphans in Africa. The remaining 25% is put to use here in the States.
Hidden Treasures, you realize as soon as you walk in the door at 2915 Pentagon in St. Anthony, is not your garden variety, run-down looking thrift shop filled mostly with junk you wouldn’t want anymore than whoever dumped it. It’s not crammed willy-nilly so that you can’t turn around without tripping over or bumping into something. The place, attractively spread over 95,000 square feet, looks for all the world like a sizeable, very nice retail store with attractive goods that simply happen to have dirt-cheap prices.
It’s staffed by both Masterworks employees and regular citizens, including volunteers. Says Masterworks executive director and Hidden Treasures general manager Kurt Swanson, “We have five cashier-processing positions, two co-managers and two [stock clerks].”
Masterworks, of course, must be lauded for giving ex-cons the benefit of the doubt. As Terry says, stating the painfully obvious, “It’s good for someone comin’ out of jail or prison to have a shot at getting’ back on their feet. Because any other means, nobody would really hire a person comin’ out of prison.”
Good intentions or no, it goes without saying that Hidden Treasures’ mix-and-match staffing has its tricky aspects. For instance, as manager Amy Sotis reflects, “My initial reaction to knowing that I’d be working with formerly incarcerated people was that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to relate to the people I’d be working with. That there would be a disconnect with our life experiences that would make it tough to work together.”
Before shifting over to the store, Terry was on the construction crew at Masterworks. His boss there, construction supervisor Jim Waldemar, just like Amy, wasn’t quite sure about things at the outset. “At first”, he says, “I did have concerns and fears, but I quickly realized they were mostly born out of ignorance. These men don’t fit neatly into a stereotypical category. They are individuals with hopes and dreams. It is a privilege to get to know each man and to hear their life story. It is my desire to encourage the men to look past the barriers and injustices to see new and exciting possibilities.”
For that matter, Terry had his own trepidations when he got to Masterworks and when he started at Hidden Treasures. “You never know how people gon’ look at you. What they think. Whether they’re gonna be scared to be around you.”
It’s working out, though.
“I have definitely been proven wrong in regard to [my] worry,” Amy acknowledges, “We are all in the same need of grace from God and second chances from people. All of our Hidden Treasures employees who have formerly been incarcerated have turned over a new leaf and are eager to pursue a new path. I am glad to be a part of this journey with them.”
And Terry appreciates being judged for who he is now, not what he has done in the past. “I like the people. It’s a nice environment. We all get along.” He states that, bottom line, the main priority is handling his responsibilities. “I’m a workin’ person. I believe in doin’ my job.”
He’s downright enthusiastic when it comes to Jim Waldemar. “Working with Jim, Jim was showin’ me skills when we put some of the construction together for the Hidden Treasures building, doin’ [things like] the floors and fixtures. And painting. You have to get the job done and you have to do it right. Not just put paint on the wall or ceiling. I have learned a lot under Jim’s supervision. And I applaud him for that.” There’s another man from Masterworks at Hidden Treasures, who chose not to speak to me.
There aren’t any women presently employed at Masterworks of Minneapolis, though there have been a few in the past. “Some of the men”, Kurt explains, “have committed sex crimes. So, you run the risk of their being triggered.” And, quite naturally, there are women who wouldn’t feel particularly comfortable working side by side with someone who, for all they know, might’ve been locked up for rape. Here, the addition of Hidden Treasures Thrift Store helps. “At [the store], we are proactively opening up the door to women client-employees who are in need of a second chance.”
Toward that end, Kurt does not anticipate any problem finding personnel once the openings materialize. “In 16 years, [Masterworks has] not had to run an add. We get referrals from churches, treatment programs, social service agencies, and we are now just known on the street so we get a fair bit of walk in traffic. Normally, we have dozens of applications in the folder.”
Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the TC Daily Planet.