All in the family

The ham is carved, the stuffing is steaming and the rolls are buttered and passed around the table. It's a traditional Sunday after-church meal, and overseeing it all is the head of the family, Kimberly Bennett, seated near a stack of Mother's Day cards she has just been given.

This isn't her real family. It's the one she's put together, drawn from outcasts and strangers and the down-and-out from the neighborhood.

They're all gathered at Kimberly's Helping Hands, an east side social services agency with no fixed mission other than helping anyone who arrives in need. Bennett designates the weekly meals "Dining with Kimberly" because she thinks the term "soup kitchen" has a negative connotation. Besides, "we don't have any soup here," she says. Anyone who shows up is allowed to eat. More than a hundred people often do.

Around the table on a spring afternoon were several of her own foster kids, folks from the group homes she operates, the hungry and the homeless who roam the streets of the neighborhood, and those who are physically or mentally challenged in some way and don't really fit in anywhere else, except in this improvised community. They sit contentedly at the table after dinner, reveling in the company of others just happy to be someplace where they're looked after. Serving them dinner were the church's ministers, parishioners and volunteers.

Bennett, 48, thinks her upbringing prods her to assemble these surrogate families. "I'm an only child," she says. "I grew up with a mentally ill cousin and I can just remember always getting him what he needed. Some people say because I was an only child and I didn't have siblings and a house full of kids that's why I like keeping a lot of people around me, a lot of needy people. I don't know if there's something to that. Could be."

The evidence supporting that theory includes the six special-needs children she and her husband, the Rev. Germany Bennett, adopted from a family who had been split up and scattered to different homes in the area, as well as the special-care homes she opened in her own neighborhood. "I actually can stand on my porch and see five of my homes," she says. 

There's a home for young men across the street, care homes down the block, a senior home two doors to the north. The housing market collapsed and she saw an opportunity. "I was blessed as far as foreclosures, so every one that popped up on my block I bought it."

Kimberly's Helping Hands began four years ago, when the couple bought a burned-out shell of a building at State Fair near I-75. Her husband founded his church here, the True Oracles of God Ministries, and she opened her mission in a little back room with just enough space for freezers and stoves against the walls and two fold-out tables in the middle of the room.

To get the attention of the neighborhood and announce their presence, they brought farm animals to the parking lot one day and threw a festival featuring llamas, ducks, rabbits, a pig and a horse the kids could ride up and down the grassy alley that bisects the block. The astonished neighborhood residents flocked to the spectacle. 

"The first day we came here we actually had over 400 people in the parking lot," she says. "I had the choo-choo train, the bouncer, I had the giant slide and I had the animals, so that brought everybody that was around so they could get to know who we are."

It became an annual event. "If it wasn't for us bringing this, the kids would not know what kind of animal these are. I mean, they actually get to hold them and to pet them, and you hear the kids say, 'What is that?'"

Kimberly's has since become the go-to for the neighborhood's struggling and homeless, who come for food, clothing, shelter or simple company. Despite that most are poor, the diners who gather for Sunday meals here dress up, each in his or her own way. They still adhere to ingrained rules calling for formality at a church, giving the meals the air and look of a holiday gathering.   

The organization also provides computers for job seekers, showers for the homeless, school supplies for kids, and advice for those seeking it. They offer temporary shelter for those with nowhere to go, including teenagers who come after school because they're hungry and there's no food at home. Some of their parents, Bennett notes, are often absent — physically or otherwise.

"The mom has allowed their house to be turned into a dope den, or the mom is strung out and she's not home, and the kids are fending for their selves until protective services finds out."

A few take food and run without eating it, often to sell or trade for drugs. "So we got the weed man walking through the parking lot one day, eyes bloodshot red," Bennett recounts, "and I was like, 'You're not coming to the pantry this week? We got some good bratwurst,' and he was like 'I got so many in my freezer it's a shame.' So people that got them here through the pantry went and sold them for a hit or a rock or something, and he told me he had a freezer full of my bratwurst."

Times are always tough in this part of town, but the past few years have been worse. Donations have dried up, forcing Bennett to cut some offerings, reducing Friday meals from weekly to twice a month, and put on hold her hopes to expand the back room closer to the alley where a kid got shot a while back, and where the Bennetts let the victim's friends scrawl memorials on their wood fence. The little room is so cramped they feed groups in shifts. The pantry gets some money from United Way, but that's for food only. Donations are needed to cover everything else they offer.

The couple doesn't proselytize as a condition of getting aid, Bennett's husband insists. "It's not about salvation all the time, even though that's my business as a church," the 49-year-old pastor says. "This is the most important thing — being able to connect with the problems of the community and seeing what you can do. If we can just change some lives, more than anything else that's important."

Bennett too says she avoids lecturing aid recipients. "Then they'd steer away from you," she says. "Now, we have a mother of the church in here. She'll say, 'When are you coming to church?' to the people, and when they see you they'll say 'Is Mother Rutherford in there, 'cause I sure don't feel like hearing that story,'" she says, laughing. "She plays that role."

Mother Bernice Rutherford, 76, sits off to the side at a little table, resplendent in a white Sunday dress, looking over the gathering. She holds a helium-filled balloon that declares her a wonderful grandmother. "So many people have no jobs, are out of work," she says in a low, sad voice as she surveys the dinner tables. Her house is next to the church. "This was a godsend when they came over here, 'cause a lot of people here are in bad shape."

As the meal winds down, some guests filter outside after hearing that a photo is being taken of Kimberly and Germany.  They pile atop each other as they try to fit within the frame, eager to be included in the family portrait with those who, for some of them, are the closest thing to family they have.

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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