Along this rough stretch of South Street, hope can be an elusive commodity, something just out of reach from the more destitute Akron residents. But at the Hope Cafe, the doors are always open to anyone, regardless of where they come from. Operated by the Akron Bible Church, this small coffee house hosts free meals, AA meetings and Bible studies, among other services for residents to whom many have turned their backs.
Outside the walls of this modest building are violence, drugs, prostitution and despair, but inside is a sanctuary — one that’s as spiritual as it is physical.
Pastor Randy Baker, from Akron Bible Church, understands firsthand what this neighborhood’s residents are going through: he was raised in this part of Akron, and at one time he ran these same streets. He was hooked on crack cocaine, riding his motorcycle ride outside the doors of this East South Street cafe. Now he serves as a needed mentor for those who have lost their way.
“This area here is where I raised hell, and now we’re giving back,” says Baker, who got his life together in 1995 and became pastor of Akron Bible Church in 2001.
But Baker hasn’t fully abandoned some parts of his past. Akron Bible Church conducts a weekly biker’s “Sunday School,” and his street sense helps him connect with the people who find their way to the cafe.
“The rougher the better for us,” he says about his outreach. “We want to see transformation. We’re right here on the cutting edge. And we want to be ready when they’re ready.”
Baker looks beyond the inherent violence and sees people in pain, who have nowhere else to turn.
Like Fred Morehead, a neighborhood drug addict who a year ago was beaten up badly and left for dead. Morehead says he cried out to God not to let him die, and he’s been involved with this ministry ever since. “I’m walking proof that God does work. I’m a prayer warrior down here; I pray with people,” says Morehead, whom Baker affectionately nicknamed “Front Row Freddie.”
Like other patrons here, Erin Hirsch frequently volunteers behind the coffee counter. He owes a lot to Baker.
“I’ll never be able to pay back what the Hope Cafe has done in my life,” says Hirsch. He once owned his own business, but an addiction to crack cocaine caused his career and life to go up in flames, literally. Finding Hope Cafe has helped Hirsch in his ongoing recovery.
Chaplain Bob came to the cafe in 2004 with “nothing but a backpack.” After serving time in prison in Florida, he moved back to Akron and got involved with drugs and other illegal activity. He had nowhere else to turn; but it’s helped him reach the hardened people of this neighborhood.
“We extend ourselves to the limit for these guys,” he says. “I know where they’re at. I’ve been there.”
The small cafe is attached to a house, where some men are allowed to stay overnight, some doubling up in rooms during the colder months.
Chaplain Phil Talty runs a ministry for the homeless, visiting encampments throughout Akron. “I go out to the camps, I take hats, gloves, socks, hoodies and tarps,” says Talty, who has been involved with Akron Bible Church for four years. The frigid winter is an especially vital time for people who are homeless.“I found out in these four years we have serious poverty here. A lot of homeless women, children.”
On a recent subzero night, Talty saw a homeless woman with two small children outside in the cold, and after he invited them in, he found out they had been sleeping in a nearby parking deck.
Talty’s ministry reaches out to people he refers to as “the least of.” But the “least of” are the most important to his work. “East South Street is a very violent community: a lot of despair and pain here. Somebody has to be here. Who would Jesus reach out to? The least of.”
Talty points out another unique aspect to this coffee house, which has been in the neighborhood since 1986: “No one’s a paid employee here.” People reached by this grassroots ministry are typically so thankful, they volunteer their time here serving others. And operating on a shoestring budget like Akron Bible Church does, there are no resources for paid cafe staff.
Twice a week lunch is served for free, and every Friday Hope Cafe gives out a free dinner. Talty points to some bread across from him. “I know some people if that bread wasn’t there, they’d have nothing to eat. And sometimes that’s all we eat is bread.”
As much appreciation as this ministry has, Akron Bible Church and its neighborhood services operate on a shoestring budget, and the cafe is in need of repairs, along with support in the form of donations, food, clothing and other items. Contact Akron Bible Church, 783 Brown St., to donate or volunteer. For more information about Hope Cafe, call 330-253-HOPE (4673) or visit the Facebook page. A rally for the homeless will take place at Akron Bible Church Feb. 21, noon to 2 p.m.