Food and conversation conduits for connecting with society’s wounded

| Bridget Ryder | July 6, 2016 | 0 Comments

‘Doughnuts for Jesus’

Chris Engelmann of St. Mark and Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul hugs a homeless man June 15 in downtown St. Paul across the street from the Dorothy Day Center. He is carrying doughnuts donated from a local bakery to offer to those he meets. Some call him the Doughnut Man. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Chris Engelmann of St. Mark and Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul hugs a homeless man June 15 in downtown St. Paul across the street from the Dorothy Day Center. He is carrying doughnuts donated from a local bakery to offer to those he meets. Some call him the Doughnut Man. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

Part eight in a 14-part series highlighting local Catholics who live out the corporal and spiritual works of mercy

Chris Engelmann’s T-shirt summarized his Saturday afternoon: “The church has left the building. Gone out reachin.”

At 2:30 p.m., the parishioner of St. Mark and Nativity of Our Lord in St. Paul, and former manager and part-owner of the Days Inn on Prior Avenue in St. Paul, pulled up in front of Sugar Rush bakery on University Avenue in Frogtown.

“This is the source of all our love: doughnuts for Jesus,” he said, walking into the Nguyen family’s doughnut shop, now closed for the day.

A hand extended with a doughnut rarely gets refused, so Engelmann, 57, uses the Nguyen’s donation of leftover doughnuts as “bait,” his reference to Jesus’ instructions to be fishers of men. Along with doughnuts, he gives out friendship, encouragement, practical help and the Gospel all under the umbrella of The World Effort Foundation, his family’s nonprofit.

This isn’t a weekend pastime for Engelmann; it’s what he does almost all day, every day, exemplifying a spiritual act of mercy: bearing wrongs patiently.

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Engelmann explains the Sacred Heart of Jesus to Jamale Bivins June 15 in downtown St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

In this case, it’s the wrongs many people have inflicted upon themselves, often after being wronged by others.

“I have somehow found a desire and drive to serve,” he explained. “My favorite Scripture [verse] is, ‘Whatever you do for the least of these you do for me.’ Where do you find the least? They’re not hard to find. You just have to not be afraid to go to the places where they’re at.”

Engelmann isn’t afraid. That’s why on March 1 he was at the bus station in Minneapolis at 11 p.m. doling out doughnuts, conversation and crosses. Among other travelers, he met a runaway teenager on her way home to reunite with her parents, and he blessed her journey with a Benedictine cross. Then on his way out, he offered a man standing by the door an apple fritter. The man only took one for later, increasing Engelmann’s suspicions that he was under the influence of drugs. Back in his truck about to leave, Engelmann saw a woman cross in front of him and walk up to the man.

“I could tell by what she was wearing she was working the streets,” he said, so he got out and approached.

His initial offer to help was refused, but he didn’t give up.

“Every time you hurt yourself, you’re hurting Jesus,” he said to her. “Do you know Jesus?”

Mary Smith remembers that night, too. She was struggling with a cocaine addiction and wearing a little dress “trying to make some money.”

“He was going around asking people if they knew Jesus. It stopped me in my tracks. I was like, ‘I know Jesus, I love Jesus,’” she said.

Engelmann offers free hotdogs June 15 to homeless people gathered in downtown St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/ The Catholic Spirit

Engelmann offers free hotdogs June 15 to homeless people gathered in downtown St. Paul. Dave Hrbacek/The Catholic Spirit

She went back to talk, and Engelmann gave her a ride to her aunt’s house where she would be safe. In the car, she told him her life’s story, including her childhood abuse, and about her grandmother who tried to protect her and took her to church.

Engelmann has stayed in touch with Smith, helping her over obstacles to reorient her life. He has also become friends with her two grown daughters.

“He helped me get my life back together,” she said in June, the day before she started a treatment program.

According to Tracy Williams, who works with youth escaping sex trafficking with the Minneapolis-based Family Partnership’s PRIDE program, Engelmann has helped approximately 10 women get off the streets. She attributes it to his presence in just the right places.

“The places they go, he’s at. They happen to run into Chris, and he’s a very conversational person. He speaks the Word to them and sometimes he’s able to connect with them on other areas that he’s experienced in his life, and he lets them know there’s a way out,” Williams said.

Usually Engelmann will put them up in a hotel for the night and then contact Williams, who follows up.

In March, Engelmann also met Annie Kinzer, 31, and Tim Krolick, 32. They were in Minneapolis walking down Nicollet Avenue, high, drunk and soon-to-be homeless, on their way to spend their last $5 on cigarettes.

They were in a live-in treatment program, but had spent the night partying with a guy who had promised them and several other people apartments. Engelmann came down the street with doughnuts. He also noticed that Kinzer was wearing a pentagram charm — a satanic symbol — on her choker, and offered to buy it from her.

“I said, ‘Here’s the necklace.’ It didn’t mean much to me,” she recalled.

Besides doughnuts, Engelmann gave them his phone number and promised to get them Benedictine crosses. Though they were unaware of it at the time, something changed for them in that moment.

“Taking that necklace from me, he took a weight off my shoulders. I don’t know what it was. To me he was a person who actually believed in us,” Kinzer said.

Two days later, their bender got them kicked out of the treatment program, and they discovered the promise of an apartment had been a lie. Luckily, Kinzer found them the last two places at another program in Coon Rapids.

A sober month later, Krolick saw the number for the “cross guy” on his phone and called. Engelmann couldn’t believe it. He drove to Coon Rapids to give them the promised crosses. In June, the two were still progressing, Engelmann said.

Engelmann spends a lot of time in St. Paul, too. On a Saturday afternoon in June, his personal investment in the neighborhood was clear. Leaving Sugar Rush in his white truck, he exchanged waves with a man walking down the other side of Lexington Avenue. Near Interstate 94, a man named Brian with a homeless sign took advantage of the red light to run up to Engelmann’s truck.

Even from the road, Engelmann could tell he had stopped using methamphetamines.

“Hey, how are you? Do you want a doughnut?” Engelmann asked.

Brian’s eyes lit up and he nodded his head.

“I am doing good. I’ve gained some weight,” he replied and ran off with a doughnut just before the light turned green.

When he turned on St. Anthony Avenue, Engelmann saw several adults and a couple of children standing in a driveway. He parked and got out with a box of doughnuts. Just then, another man joined the group.

“Is that Chris? How are you doing?” said Dewey Simmons, 37, reaching out his hand.

At first, Engelmann didn’t recognize him, but then he remembered the day a year ago when they met at the Days Inn. Simmons was a guest at the hotel because he was in between houses, and he and his wife were in a difficult spot. He passed by Engelmann coming out of the pool. Simmons had a penny in his headband, and Engelmann noticed his despondent face.

“Every penny is an angel,” Engelmann repeated a saying he had heard years ago.

It launched a long conversation.

“I’ve been picking them up ever since,” Simmons said to Engelmann of the pennies. “You’re right, though. I’m doing better.”

While everyone munched on a doughnut, Engelmann passed out Sacred Heart badges he keeps in his truck.

“This is not something to be worshipped. It’s a visual aid. It represents all the love of Jesus,” he explained.

Engelmann offered a prayer and then played a verse of “Amazing Grace” on his harmonica. Then he was off to his next stop, Run N Fun sporting goods on Randolph Avenue.

Engelmann became friends with owners Kari and Perry Bach when he was running competitively. Now the Bachs let Engelmann have their closeout shoes for $69 a bag. Any blemished shoes they give to him. Engelmann passes them on to people in need.

The first recipient of the latest stash was Margaret, who asked that The Catholic Spirit use only her first name. On that Saturday afternoon, Engelmann also brought her a dresser to help furnish the apartment she moved into two months ago. He had already supplied the bed, television and television stand.

Engelmann met the older woman when she was living in Minneapolis at Exodus House, Catholic Charities’ transitional residence for vulnerable adults. There he runs “Coffee, Doughnuts and Conversation” with Sister Joan Tuberty, a Franciscan Sister of Little Falls. It’s an informal group that Sister Joan asked Engelmann to help her with about two years ago.

There residents can talk about personal issues and build community, but Sister Joan, a psychiatric mental health nurse, and Engelmann always try to integrate the faith into the discussion.

Sister Joan first met Engelmann at a Bible study at St. Olaf in Minneapolis several years ago.

“I saw he could connect with the people who are troubled because of his own personal background. He listens and relates,” she said. “It’s like he arrives and a conversation gets started. He’s also lighthearted and playful, which is a wonderful gift to bring to work that’s kind of heavy.”

Born in Japan to American parents, Engelmann went to six different schools by the time he was in the eighth grade. The family settled in Minneapolis, but, fed up with his mentally ill stepfather, he left home at 14.

“I was a troubled youth,” he summarized.

He was also an atheist. Then, in 1986, he had an intense experience of the love of God the Father. At 28 years old, he left his old life behind and got a job on the construction crew remodeling the Days Inn. Shortly thereafter he met his wife, Patrice, with whom he has three children — Serena, 32; Anthony, 25; and Michael, 18. In 1987, he attended his first Mass at St. Mark in Merriam Park.

He eventually worked his way up to manager and part owner of the Days Inn, as well as the former Twins Motor Inn across the street.

In 2011, his faith deepened. That year he was training for an Ironman triathlon and praying rosaries during his long workouts. He also turned off the television and radio, cutting out the sports and news that were with him almost constantly.

“I went to the desert,” he explained. “I had no white noise anymore. I was seeing things clearly.”

In the silence, he found the Sacred Heart of Jesus. He had been introduced to the devotion in 2011 by Father Humberto Palomino, a member of the Pro Ecclesia Sancta order and pastor of St. Mark. During the Ironman in Oklahoma, he taped a Sacred Heart badge to his arm.

Concentrating on the pain of Jesus over his own pain helped him push to the end, he said, but it brought him more than mental toughness. He increasingly felt a call to serve the least.

Working in hotels, he met many people down on their luck, and though he had always done what he could, he now concentrated more than usual on using his position to help — employee discounts for a family with a child in the hospital, free showers and laundry service for homeless people, and rides home on the hotel shuttle bus for stranded travelers. The words “all in” resonated in his heart.

Engelmann will be the first to admit he lacks balance, so when the Days Inn was sold in 2014 and he had the opportunity to dedicate himself to outreach, he did. He has been picking up doughnuts daily from Sugar Rush since then. There are three additional aspects of the ministry right now — transitional services to help people with furniture, Gifted Souls to give away shoes, and intervention services to help in difficult situations.

Deacon Don Kramer and his wife, Nancy, owners of North Dakota-based I. Keating Furniture, have connected Engelmann to furniture wholesalers in the Twin Cities who supply the furniture that he gives to people he meets in one long chain of human connections, often made on the streets.

“Chris knows that charity is not about handing somebody something. He knows it means you go to them, you look them in the eye, you try to understand their suffering and you try to bring the light of Christ to them,” Deacon Kramer said. “He’s doing great work with people who are really on the fringes of making it or not.”

Engelmann has a number of plans to expand the ministry, but he has done a lot of good already.

With a laugh, Mary Smith, the woman he met in March, said, “Those doughnuts for Jesus really work.”

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Category: Featured, Year of Mercy