LOUISVILLE—Phil Schultz believes the hardest heart can change, and that homeless men and women have unlimited potential.
He believes it because it’s been true in his own life.
Last December, Schultz became executive director of Jefferson Street Baptist Center, the oldest rescue mission in Louisville. His dreams for the men and women who come through the doors are big.
“The homeless are not second-class citizens. They are made in the image of God,” Schultz said. “They are capable of doing great things. I don’t want guys to leave here and work at McDonald’s. I want them to own McDonald’s.”
Right now, the day shelter is a construction site as the 59-year-old building, with 50 years of deferred maintenance, is being refurbished to better meet needs.
At “Jeff Street,” men and women can store their belongings in a secure room, take a shower, wash their clothes, attend a Bible study, have breakfast and lunch and get into the Life Change program, a six- to nine-month program with an emphasis on discipleship.
Renovation includes new showers with greater privacy, a place to get a haircut, more space for the 2,500 who use the Jeff Street address for their mail, and comfortable places to rest and study during the day.
Schultz knows rescue missions. He managed one in New Hampshire, another in Pennsylvania and has visited 60 different missions across the United States.
And he understands the issues these men and women face.
Raised in a German-Irish family in Philadelphia, his father died of cancer when he was 6 years old. His mother and several members of their large multi-generational family battled alcohol and drug addiction. He began selling marijuana at age 8 but heard the true story of a changed life from an older brother who came home one day and said that he had given his life to Jesus Christ.
For the next 14 years, Schultz watched how he lived. Family life was tough.
“I could barely read and write because of family situations,” Schultz said. “I wasn’t dumb. I just needed a chance. That’s why I see promise in everyone who comes to Jeff Street today. I believe God can do anything. He’s done it in my own life.”
After high school, Schultz moved to Montana to escape problems, then to New Mexico with another brother. When they fought, he lived in a park, surviving on water from the public city sprinkler system.
It took years to crack the thick veneer Schultz built around his life.
It began when he watched a man die of a heart attack at the New Mexico State Fair. It continued when he saw a teenage driver run over a cyclist. In July 1987, Schultz was hit by lightning at the garden center he was managing. A florist who had been trained in first aid found no vital signs and told 911 dispatchers that he was dead.
“Supposedly, that lasted 15 minutes,” Schultz said. “I have no memory of what happened. But when I woke, I felt spiritually naked and vulnerable. I knew then that I had no idea what it means to be a follower of Jesus. For the next year and a half, I struggled with God. But in April 1989, I got on my knees and gave my life to Jesus Christ.”
Schultz was hungry to know more. In 10 years that followed, he finished three degrees at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, was pastor of a church in Lexington, and worked on another degree at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville. He was interim director of a rescue mission in New Hampshire and a hospice chaplain for 50 patients when he heard about Jeff Street.
He believes without a doubt that God is using all of the past in the present.
Schultz teaches the Overcomers in Christ program because it’s something he loves to do.
“I tell my group all the time that I love them,” he said. “What keeps me getting up in the morning in what can be a discouraging ministry is the 10 percent who are really grabbing it, really understanding and eating up what you’re sharing. We see deep impact in lives and restored relationships.”
Renovation is part of a bigger plan to reach more men and women.
“We have done a lot of cost savings and restructuring,” Schultz said. “I’m excited about 2014. We have 17 in our Life Change program. That’s more than ever before. I believe we can breathe hope and vision into people’s lives as they believe that God has a wonderful plan to prosper them and give them hope.”
In the last nine months in Louisville, Schultz has seen hard and soft hearts among the homeless.
“Hope is possible in the hardest life,” he said. “London was getting bombed every night during World War II when Winston Churchill went to a school where everyone was sad and depressed. He said, ‘Never, never, never give up.’ That inspired a school and a nation. That’s what we’re called to do here.”
Learn more about Jefferson Street Baptist Center at www.jeffersonstreet.org.
Established as Union Gospel Mission in 1881, Jefferson Street Baptist Center is supported by individuals and churches throughout Louisville and Kentucky. Since 1943, under the leadership of Clarence Jordan, Jefferson Street has been a ministry of the Long Run Baptist Association. It also receives support from Long Run Baptist Association and the Kentucky Baptist Convention through gifts to the Eliza Broadus Offering.
Used with permission from The Southeast Outlook, story by Ruth Schenk with photos by Stephen Powell. Jefferson Street Baptist Center is a primary missions partner of Southeast Christian Church in Louisville.