Bread of Life’s Bold Beginnings: The Untold Story
By Victoria Welker
Being located in Pioneer Square, Bread of Life Mission occupies one of the oldest, most charming corners of Seattle. Our neighborhood has seen its share of drastic change over the years; in fact, some of you may be aware that our current building was once the site of a brothel. The name ‘Matilda Winehill’ that is etched permanently high above our mission door is evidently a tribute to a woman from the mission’s former life, according to an L.A. Times quote by Tym Goodwin, a mission director of years past. While this is certainly an unexpected detail about our building’s past, even this does not compare to our own bold and inspirational history as a mission.
A Woman’s Touch
Bread of Life’s beginnings date back to 1939, ten years into the devastation of the Great Depression. Though the mission has always been a men’s shelter, it was actually founded by a woman – Mrs. Mavel Sherman. This is a striking concept, especially when taking into consideration that women rarely occupied leadership positions of any kind during this era. Certainly the idea of beginning a brand new mission to serve the jobless, homeless male population of downtown Seattle must have been intimidating to a woman of that day. But God guided the growth of the mission through her inspiring efforts. Little else is known about Mavel, except that she suffered from health issues that forced her to appoint a new director later that same year: Miss Jennie Conrad – another woman.
Jennie Conrad was a remarkable person. Born in Holland, she was saved in a Salvation Army overseas and devoted years of her life to serving this same organization in various locations throughout the Unites States. Once she assumed her position at Bread of Life, she held onto it for 35 faithful and fruitful years. In the early days of her service, she fell in love with a recovered alcoholic, Reverend Jack O’Hara, who had come to the mission seeking assistance. They were married in 1943, and the two were equally, unreservedly committed to the mission during their life together.
The prominence of Mavel and Jennie’s positions in leadership is not the only progressive aspect of our past. In looking back on our mission photos that span our seven decades of history expansively, another key observation is apparent: images of chapel services and events dating as far back as the 1950s capture racially integrated groups of homeless men, which was virtually unheard of at the time, locally and nationally.
A 2013 article in Seattle Magazine, written by Knute Berger, states that “For most of the 20th century, [Seattle] was restricted and segregated, if not literally gated.” The city’s resistance to change lasted well into the ‘60s, when Bread of Life had already been welcoming it for years. The article also reads, “In 1964, Seattle voters soundly defeated an ‘open housing’ ordinance that would have let anyone live anywhere. It lost by more than 2-to-1. The city was segregated, and a large majority wanted it that way.”
We are proud of our mission’s courageous position on integration in its early years, not only because it challenged the norm established by the majority of our city, but also because it contrasted many other nationwide missions and government public housing facilities at the time. In the ‘30s, under President FDR’s New Deal program to address homelessness, the government utilized many facilities for emergency shelters as part of Federal Transient Services, according to the Encyclopedia of Homelessness, Volume 1. Also according to the encyclopedia, “Some exceptions aside, segregation on the basis of gender, household (single versus family) and race was generally the rule in such facilities.”
The mission’s beginnings directly dictate our current identity as an organization. Because of our early directors’ devotion to hard work and to serving the Father despite social risks, we are as driven as ever today to share Christ with our community and assist our neighbors with love. Part of our vision for doing so includes acquiring a separate property for our LifeChange Program members and Resident Volunteers, as well as our staff. We have recently come one step closer to achieving this goal by moving our staff to a secure office within close proximity to the mission building, but allocating an entire campus for program members and staff would allow us to dedicate our current building wholly to our guests, making it a 24-hour shelter.
We are blessed with a vast array of uses for our building — from devotionals and work therapy with our program members to providing mail services, hot meals, lockers, clothing distribution, health referral resources and chapels for our guests — that we must currently limit the operation of our day and overnight shelter to designated timeslots to accommodate all of our other services. While we are thankful for how God is working through our current arrangement, we cannot help but believe that we would be better able to extend dignity and respect to our guests if we could avoid having them leave our mission in the morning, carrying all of their burdensome belongings with them and trying to evade the elements, only to have them return later that same day. Even for our guests that work during the day, a 24-hour mission could provide a stronger sense of acceptance and freedom for them to come and go as desired.
With your prayers and your support, we can see this vital part of our vision come to fruition. Please join us in our effort to restore the hope and dignity to our homeless guests that they so deserve.
Berger, Knute. "Seattle's Ugly Past: Segregation in Our Neighborhoods." Seattle Magazine 1 Mar. 2013. Web. http://www.seattlemag.com/article/seattles-ugly-past-segregation-our-neighborhoods.
Chase, Lee. History of the Bread of Life Mission. 1990. A Mission with a Heart - A Gospel of Love Where God Reigns Supreme. Seattle.
Levinson, David. Encyclopedia of Homelessness. Vol. 1. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2004. Print. Pages 183, 501.
Meyerowitz, Joanne J. Not June Cleaver: Women and Gender in Postwar America, 1945-1960. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1994. Print. Page 111.
Morrison, Patt. "Original 'Skid Road' : Homeless Add a Sad Note to Gentrified Seattle Area." Los Angeles Times [Los Angeles] 24 Mar. 1987: 1-2. Web. 7 Aug. 2015. <http://articles.latimes.com/1987-03-24/news/mn-299_1_skid-row/2>.