Church Opens Unique Business in Distressed Baltimore Neighborhood

November 21, 2017 | Posted by Demian Farnworth

Editor’s Note:

To celebrate the announcement of the 2017 Kaleidoscope Fund grant recipients, we are sharing the 2016 recipient’s stories over the next two months. See all 2016 stories here as they are published.

-LCEF Editorial Team

For years Rev. Martin Schultheis and Emmanuel Lutheran wanted to serve inner-city Baltimore, particularly since the Lutheran Church lacked a presence in the region. There weren’t a lot of obvious options. Until protestors flooded the streets in April 2015 over the death of 25-year-old Freddie Gray.

It was at this point that different churches around the area, including Emmanuel, looked hard at how they could comfort the region. In fact, Emmanuel wanted to get involved in Sandtown, Grey’s neighborhood.

“We wanted to do something that wasn’t where we just popped in every Saturday morning,” Schultheis said, “and went back to our homes that evening. We wanted something long term. Permanent. And we kept asking what that would look like.”

As they explored ways to help Sandtown, they learned there were a ton of resources for women, particularly single women with children. However, resources for men were rare.

“This is when we discovered our sweet spot,” Schultheis said, “the intersection of the Gospel and the greatest need in the area: employment for the men.”

The unique product

Emmanuel began focusing on job training and workforce development with a vision to also plant a local congregation in the area to implement the Gospel side of their plan. Planting a church would communicate to Sandtown residents that Emmanuel was serious and committed to helping their community.

“It means we have skin in the game,” said Schultheis.

Once they had the Gospel-side of their plan covered, the other part was two-fold. First, implement a 10-week Christian work training program called Jobs For Life. Second, create a business to actually put those training skills to work.

But what kind of business?

Schultheis knew the community didn’t have the financial resources to keep a business afloat, so they needed to create a product in the neighborhood and export it out. The product they landed on was chocolate.

Why some people love their jobs

Some worried that the demand for people with such specific experience making chocolate products was small. However, leadership team member Marlena Gabriel, who has versatile experience in the food industry, suggested that “Familiarity with some aspect of the food industry can potentially translate, in a helpful way, to other jobs directly or indirectly related to food. One can gain transferable knowledge, skills and practices from one experience that can perhaps be applied to other roles within the food industry, including the foodservice sector, or within other industries as well.”

Tina Jasion, another member of the leadership team, added, “this is not just a chocolate business—it’s a small business with all the associated skills and aspects, which translates well to other businesses.” Working in the kitchen, she said, would teach them how to deal with food, cleanliness and deadlines.

Schultheis made it clear the Sandtown ministry wasn’t just about getting people employed anywhere. It was important these men get jobs that fit who they were.

“People who actually enjoy going to work,” he said, “tend to keep their jobs much, much longer.”

The next step to establishing the Sandtown ministry was securing the property to set up the kitchen and worship space. In late March 2017, Emmanuel signed the lease for the property, which was a bright yellow building right in the business district of Sandtown on 1824 Penn. Avenue.

The Kaleidoscope Fund,” Schultheis said, “allowed us to acquire the building and renovate it, as well as purchase the equipment we needed” to manufacture the chocolate.

Emmanuel would be renting and renovating the first floor of the building. One half of the space would be dedicated to the kitchen. They would use the other half as a gathering area for the job training, Bible studies and Sunday worship.

In late November, the church submitted building permits and requests for bids. The renovation is expected to be finished by June 2018.

Doors opened by God

As Schultheis and his team were exploring Sandtown, they talked to the people on the avenue. This included residents, business owners, drug dealers and police officers. Even though the area was considered by many to be dangerous, the people who lived and worked and played there were the most open to change.

There were endless opportunities opening up that made it obvious God was behind the Sandtown ministry.

For example, one of the owners of the property they were renting from turned out to be a Christian and bent over backward to make the deal work. God also opened doors through the architect from Nigeria in the Emmanuel congregation who wanted to help above and beyond what he normally would do for a client.

Eric Fair, a middle school teacher at Emmanuel Lutheran School and a member of the congregation, also had connections in Sandtown from when he taught in the community. These connections with the residents brought street credibility to the ministry. Fair will serve as an instructor for the Jobs for Life program and help with spiritual leadership.

LeChelle Jones, a parent of an Emmanuel Lutheran School student, who had connections in Maryland with major employers and nonprofit experience volunteered her time as well in the early stages. She agreed to help with job fit and placement as participants graduated from the program. She has now been hired to serve full-time as director of workforce development for the newly formed nonprofit, Faith and Work Enterprises, for which Schultheis now serves as Executive Director. Jones spends her time walking the streets of Pennsylvania Avenue talking, praying and building relationships while also recruiting men to join the program.

But it’s not easy.

“What you have to know,” Schultheis said, “is that [Pennsylvania Avenue] is probably the biggest open-air market for drugs in Baltimore.”

In her role, Jones performs the intake interviews with the job-training candidates, a rigorous process that includes job history documentation, a criminal background check and two referral letters. After months of discussions, interviews and evaluations, she is ready to train the first group of men who range in age from 18 to 31.

Sharing the love of Christ in Baltimore

At this point, total funding raised for Sandtown is over $190,000. The Kaleidoscope Fund grant provided over a third of that amount, while a church in Farmville, Va. (four-hour drive from Baltimore), donated another $20,000 when they heard what Emmanuel was doing. The very same Farmville church also spent many hours prayer walking with Schultheis and his team around the area. Support has also come from an LCMS Stand With Your Community grant, as well as from the Southeastern District.

The team knew that the chocolate product had to reflect Sandtown character. So the ubiquitous row houses of Baltimore appear on the wrapper design and the bar itself. Schultheis’ team named the business Pennsylvania Avenue Chocolates to give a sense of pride and ownership to the neighborhood participants.

The chocolate production equipment is maintained at family-owned Wockenfuss Candies until the renovations at 1824 are complete. Owner Paul Wockenfuss acts as a mentor to the Sandtown ministry on the chocolate production side of the business.

So far, over 1,500 chocolate bars have been produced for marketing purposes at this time.

Spending resources on the training and employment of men in inner-city Baltimore to change the community is exactly the kind of ministry the Kaleidoscope Fund was intended to support.

Congratulations Rev. Schultheis and Emmanuel Lutheran for sharing the love of Christ in the Baltimore area!


Demian Farnworth
Senior Content Writer for the Lutheran Church Extension Fund.