Adell Walker arrives an hour before lunchtime. The clangs of the kitchen’s industrial-sized pots and pans carry across the large, idle dining room. There is no sign on the front door that faces Division Avenue, but that’s okay. Most of the people who will come here – to God’s Kitchen – know this street, because it’s the only place that they have to go.
Mr. Walker used to be one of them.
“Once upon a time, I was homeless and I came here and ate,” Mr. Walker says. He developed long-lasting relationships through the food and fellowship that he found at God’s Kitchen and felt so connected to the mission that he eventually asked what he could do to help.
“It’s pleasing to God if you give and help others. I try to do the things that are pleasing to Him,” Mr. Walker says. “I set an example that you can get off drugs and alcohol, and you don’t have to be homeless. I set an example that if He did it for me, He’ll do it for you.”
Every year, Catholic Charities of West Michigan serves more than 156,000 meals through their God’s Kitchen program. A daily hot meal is available in the Heartside neighborhood of downtown Grand Rapids (303 Division Ave. South) on a walk-in basis, with no questions or qualifiers. Mr. Walker has been a volunteer here nearly every day for 15 years. “I do a variety of things,” he says. “During serving hours, I usually just mingle in the dining room with people who are eating – just talk and make sure everything goes smoothly.”
After growing up in West Point, Mississippi, and attending Mary Holmes College, Mr. Walker moved to Michigan to work for Lacks Enterprises – a family-owned auto parts manufacturer that currently employs nearly 3,000 people in West Michigan. After his second 5-year stint at Lacks Enterprises, Mr. Walker quit, moved back to Mississippi, but then returned to Grand Rapids a short time later.
“I didn’t like it down south. That’s when I started doing a lot of drinking, getting high, became homeless. There were a lot of days that I needed people to talk to,” he says. After Mr. Walker returned, he spent 3 months eating at God’s Kitchen before he became a volunteer.
Although he searched tirelessly for a year, Mr. Walker struggled to find stable employment in Michigan. He felt defeated. One day, he recalls, he didn’t even want to get out of bed. “But something just made me get on up. It wouldn’t let me just sit there,” he says. Mr. Walker eventually found the energy to get to the dining room just in time to be there when a man who wore a crisp, white shirt and black slacks walked through the front door. The man expressed interest in supporting God’s Kitchen to Mr. Walker, the only other person in the room, and introduced himself as Richard Lacks, Jr.
“I couldn’t believe it. I told him that I used to work for his father and his grandfather when he was just a little kid,” remembers Mr. Walker. “He asked me what I was doing, and I told him I just volunteer around here to stay active because I’m job hunting.”
Mr. Lacks, who had become CEO of Lack Enterprises, pulled out his wallet, gave Mr. Walker his business card, and told him to apply to work for him. The next day, Mr. Walker did just that. Before leaving the employment center at Lacks Enterprises, he pulled Mr. Lacks’s card out of his wallet and asked to have it attached to his paperwork.
“You know him?” Asked the receptionist.
“Kinda sorta,” answered Mr. Walker.
Within a week, he had a job. “A lot of people like that little story,” Mr. Walker says. “That was nothing but God working. I didn’t want to come that day, but he made me come, and I walked straight into a job.”
He remained a God’s Kitchen volunteer through the eight years before he retired from Lacks, and the years since, rarely missing a day. It’s now 30 minutes before lunchtime, and the kitchen’s first guest slowly opens the front door and enters with the help of a wooden cane.
“Good morning, Andy,” Mr. Walker greets him. “How are you, sir?”
Andy smiles. Decades of West Michigan’s infamous harsh winters and hot summers are etched in the lines of his face. He is thin.
Andy points to Mr. Walker and says, “He’s a good one” to anyone listening. “He’s the mayor of Division Avenue. And he’s my best friend, too.”
To learn more about volunteering and find where you're needed, visit hwmuw.org/volunteer.
Mr. Walker was featured in Heart of West Michigan United Way's ArtPrize 2015 collaboration with Adam Bird, Champions of Change. Look for more stories of local Champions of Change at ArtPrize 2016.