Chef has part-time ministry in downtown Lexington to serve homeless

Perhaps like many ministers all over town on the first Sunday of 2009, Pastor Jesse Morris urged his congregation to use the new year as a chance to start anew.

Morris wasn't talking about run-of-the-mill New Year's resolutions to exercise, eat less or pray more. He was talking about rebuilding lives.

At Morris's Inner City Breakthrough Ministry, which ministers to Lexington's downtown homeless — many are struggling with alcohol and drug addictions — his was a message of hope and of a better life that resonated with everyone in attendance.

"You gotta know that last year don't count. Last year is a year that has been done away with. It's gone," he said from the pulpit. "Put your yesterdays aside, so they do not affect your todays and tomorrows. Today our message is that God's love will get us out of our mess. We are broken, but God can put us back together again."

His words were met with a lot of heartfelt "Amens."

Spreading the message of God's love with those who need it most has been the goal of Inner City Breakthrough Ministry since Morris and his wife, Stephanie, founded it a year and a half ago.

"Our job is to go out to the streets and compel them to come and introduce them to [Jesus,] a man who can change their lives," said Jesse Morris, a former prize-winning amateur boxer and renowned barbecue chef who found Christ in 1995 on the streets of his native Chicago after his own struggles with drug abuse. He previously owned Old Happy Days Barbecue Smokehouse restaurants in Lexington. His Sloo Good barbecue sauce was sold in area Kroger stores.

Each Sunday, the ministry offers two morning services, at 8 and 10:30 a.m., with a free hot breakfast of pancakes, eggs and sausage biscuits served at 9:30 a.m. Attendance is 30 to 40 people each week, Morris said.

For the Morrises, it's not the size of the congregation that matters. It's the spiritual and life changes they see taking place in those who attend.

"We may not have the biggest congregation, but we've got the biggest heart," said Morris, who works during the week as lead chef at the Beaumont Centre Kroger.

"We've talked to fuller churches, and they haven't had nobody come to Christ in two or three years. Every week we have somebody coming to Christ. There is always someone calling out for the help of the Lord. Repenting. Wanting to see a better day."

The couple said they've witnessed 75 to 100 people who have found Christ through their ministry so far. Many of their members have put addiction and homelessness behind them and found jobs. Since August, the Morrises have signed leases to help three members find apartments. One now has a steady job as a kitchen manager at a downtown restaurant and went home to see his family at Christmas for the first time in 10 years.

Their goal is to minister to their congregation's mind, body and soul, said Stephanie Morris, an administrative assistant with the University of Kentucky's Office of Research Integrity.

"We help them get their lives back. Find God. Find jobs. Find a house. It's the whole ministry. We build you from the ground up."

The Morrises, who met and married in 1995, had operated Old Happy Days Barbecue Smokehouse in Harrodsburg, then in Lexington on Main Street and later on Winchester Road and finally in Bellerive Plaza. In 2002, they had begun feeding the homeless a free warm breakfast on Sunday mornings at their downtown restaurants, often serving more than 100 people at a time, Jesse Morris said.

In addition to feeding those who came, Jesse Morris — previously an associate minister at Canaan Land Family Worship Center in Richmond — would also preach. He'd tell those who came, "The food will pass, but the word will last."

The Morrises eventually moved their feeding and gospel ministry to operate out of the Nathaniel Mission on DeRoode Street. They ministered there for a year and a half, but they felt they needed a place of their own, which could be truly non-denominational.

When the Morrises decided to close their restaurant businesses in 2007 after financial hardship, they saw it as a sign that God was calling them to expand and focus on their ministry.

The name of the new ministry came to Jesse Morris directly from God, he said, so he knew God had a plan for the couple to minister downtown.

But they had to find a place the ministry could call home.

First Baptist Church on Short Street eventually offered them the chance to utilize an unused sanctuary for their Sunday services, and after paying $10,000 out of their own pockets to renovate the severely water-damaged space, the Morrises were ready to launch their ministry there.

"We tell everyone, come as you are. A lot of them have been out smoking crack all night. They come in messed up. I say, come on up front. I hug them. We love them. We teach them," Morris said.

"There's no condemnation here," Stephanie Morris said.

Michael Van Etten, whose addiction to drugs led him to be homeless repeatedly for a year or more at a time, turned his life around after meeting the Morrises during their ministry at Nathaniel Mission. He's now rebuilt his life and was recently named an associate minister with Inner City Breakthrough Ministry.

"God has put me in a place where I can be a vessel to help others be restored by serving as a witness of how he restored me," Van Etten said.

Another church member, William Nelson, arrives at the ministry each Sunday at 7:30 a.m. to help prepare the breakfast. While Morris was speaking at the pulpit about starting anew, Nelson was in the sanctuary's adjacent kitchen, whisking pancake batter.

A former addict, Nelson had been living on the streets of Richmond for 2½ years before completing the recovery program at Lexington's Hope Center. He's been sober for 13 months.

He said he feels his work with Inner City Breakthrough Ministry helps keep him out of trouble and allows him to "feel a usefulness" in himself today.

"My heart's not callused like it was," Nelson said. "God's found a way to soften my heart up so I can help other people."

Morris said his ministry welcomes anyone — from all walks of life and all socioeconomic levels — to come and worship. On a recent Sunday, the congregation was evenly split between black and white, young and old.

But as his congregation grows, he will continue to focus on ministering to the homeless and to the down and out, he said. He feels that's his calling from God.

"The traditional church won't accept untraditional people," he said. "We're about transforming lives. We're about giving people their life back."