BLOOMINGTON - When Tom and Bonnie Lentz opened Jesus Coffeehouse about seven years ago, many residents in the Olde Towne Neighborhood were skeptical.
"People were really suspicious of what this was going to be," said Carolyn Steele, president of the neighborhood association.
After all, Jesus Coffeehouse was sort of a refuge for homeless people, especially in the cold winter months when there was nowhere else to go to stay warm during the day.
Undaunted, the Lentzes started getting involved.
And now, Steele said, "They are a big part of our neighborhood."
The partnership has grown through the years and will take another step this summer when the ministry, now called Jesus House, and the neighborhood association begin offering Friday Night at the Movies at Friendship Park. In the winter, the Friday night youth activities will move indoors at Jesus House, 724 W. Washington St., Bloomington.
It's part of an effort by the Lentzes to expand their focus to help the neighborhood's younger generation.
Valerie Dumser, vice president of the Olde Towne Neighborhood Association, also hopes it will encourage more family unity. "We'd like to see families come," she said.
"There's an issue with young kids in the neighborhood wandering the streets with no parental guidance," said Bonnie Lentz. "Kids need acceptance and love. They need positive things in their life."
Lentz is hoping the new effort not only will help kids but make the neighborhood a place where residents aren't afraid to go outside after 6 p.m.
The west-side neighborhood is dear to Bonnie Lentz's heart. It's where she grew up in what she called a "dysfunctional family" that included an alcoholic father.
"My destiny was really to be nothing," she said.
She found herself in the world of drugs and alcohol and stayed there even after meeting and marrying Tom in 1984.
But something inside her kept saying, "There was more to life … that there was some purpose. I began a journey to find that purpose," she said.
It all came together in August 1986.
While working at the former College Hills Mall, she was invited to a Bible study group by an employee of another mall store.
"I had been reading books about all the (religious) movements," she said. "I didn't know until then that Jesus was a man. I thought it was just a cussword. It intrigued me."
After six months of invitations to the group, Lentz finally accepted.
"When I walked in, I walked into the presence of God," she said. "I just surrendered to a power higher than me."
Her husband had already experienced an Epiphany a year earlier, but kept it to himself, she said.
"We started living each day by faith," said Bonnie Lentz.
On Christmas 1987, they decided to put lights around a "Jesus" sign and hang it on the porch of their house at 401 W. Monroe St.
"The sign was an expression of who we were," said Tom Lentz.
It attracted the attention of many of the homeless who lived at Safe Harbor homeless shelter just a block away.
"People began knocking on our door asking for help, assistance and clothing," said Bonnie Lentz.
The Lentzes had found their mission in life.
'Prove to me there's a God'
They took in one or two people at a time and started changing lives. One was a 20-year-old suicidal man who challenged them to "prove to me there's a God," said Bonnie Lentz.
"We talked and shared scriptures," she said. The man is now married with two kids and a successful career.
After a couple of years away from the Twin Cities, the Lentzes moved back and again started helping people from their home. In 2000, they teamed up with another couple and opened Jesus Coffeehouse at the West Washington Street address.
"When we had kids, we'd walk by and look in the windows (of the building) and think, 'This would make an awesome coffeehouse,'" said Bonnie Lentz.
Their experience had told them there was a need for a day shelter for the homeless who had to leave Safe Harbor in the early morning hours.
"We wanted a community fellowship for those who don't walk through church doors on Sunday," she said. "A place where we all could be the same no matter where you were born."
Jesus House, and the 20-year-old mission of the Lentzes, has changed as needed over the years. It reduced its hours a couple of years ago after Compassion Center was in full operation in the basement of the Second Presbyterian Church. Compassion Center, which opened in the spring of 2004, offers a variety of services to the homeless.
The Lentzes have added a food pantry and a clothing pantry at Jesus House and offer church services on Sunday and Bible study and choir practice on Tuesday.
More than a dozen Twin City churches have embraced the the couple's efforts and take turns providing a meal for those who worship at the Jesus House on Sunday, or providing supplies.
"I think Jesus House has been just a persistent place where people find God's love that perhaps have no other place to gather and find it," said the Rev. Tim Schrag of Mennonite Church of Normal, one of the churches that works with Jesus House.
"I have a lot of confidence in the big hearts and savvy approach of Tom and Bonnie Lentz," he said.
Steele said Jesus House has ended up working really well with the neighborhood.
"A lot of people from the neighborhood go there," she said. "It's not just homeless. It's a part of the neighborhood, a very important part. Kids know it's a safe place. If we see someone that needs direction, we send them to Bonnie."
"It provides a lot of services that a lot of agencies provide but you don't have to jump through hoops," she said.
Tom Lentz said it's just who he and Bonnie are.
"It's a natural part of our lives," he said. "It only makes sense if you find something that makes a difference, you want to share it."
BLOOMINGTON - Tom and Bonnie Lentz are expanding their missionary work to Nashville, Tenn.
They leave today for the "God Almighty" restaurant, a homeless ministry run solely by a 60-year-old woman named Fannie Aolar Hart, commonly known as Pastor Hart.
Bonnie Lentz said the building she uses is torn and tattered and needs some work.
"We're going to assess what's needed and also take food from the Midwest Food Bank," Lentz said.
They plan to return to Nashville later this summer with a crew of people to do whatever work is needed.
Meanwhile, gospel singer Ashley Cleveland, who has performed at Jesus House in Bloomington, will work with her Tennessee church to help raise money for building materials.
The mission of Tom and Bonnie Lentz
1987 Tom and Bonnie Lentz begin helping the homeless from their house, called "Jesus House," at 401 W. Monroe St.
1993 The Lentzes leave the Twin Cities, but friends continue Jesus House.
1996 Tom and Bonnie return to Bloomington and continue their missionary work out of the home.
2000 Jesus Coffeehouse is started at 724 W. Washington St.
2002 The coffeehouse begins offering daytime shelter for the homeless seven days a week.
2005 Compassion Center covers all the daytime needs of the homeless, allowing the Lentzes to drop the full-time day hours and focus on Sunday programs, Bible study and choir.
2007 The outreach expands its focus on the youth with the start of Friday Night at the Movies.
Jesus House needs
To make a donation, contact the Jesus Coffeehouse at (309) 820-9098, 724 W. Washington St., Bloomington, IL 61701, or at firstname.lastname@example.org. Following are Jesus House needs:
- Cleaning supplies
- Paper products including cups, plates, paper towels and toilet paper
- Snack foods, individual size
What: Friday Night at the Movies; "Shrek" is the first one to be shown
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Friendship Park, Allin
and West Jefferson streets, Bloomington
Sponsors: Jesus House and Olde Towne Neighborhood Association