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Rooted in Christ

Our Eastern region winner transcends Maine stereotypes

Val Nguyen and Alice Kellogg Photo by James Allen Walker

Rooted in Christ
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Parts of Portland, Maine, resemble a touristy postcard. Sailboats dot Casco Bay and lighthouses stand guard along the rocky coast. People jog or walk their dogs past brightly painted Victorian homes. Dimillo's floating restaurant offers lobsters for $36 a pair.

Down Munjoy Hill on the city's east side, faded houses provide a different backdrop. A Salvadorian restaurant offers papusas and tamales. On a Thursday morning outside a two-story red brick and grey stone building, people from Cambodia, Vietnam, Congo, and Somalia line up with Iraqis, Indians, and Eastern Europeans.

Some wear American-style clothes. Others prefer headscarves and brightly hued dresses that drag the ground. They are waiting for a Christian ministry called The Root Cellar to open its doors.

The Root Cellar (therootcellar.org), an interdenominational Christian ministry, opened in 1984 in a Munjoy Hill dirt-floored basement (thus the name). It was at first a teen center with activities for the poor white kids who lived in a neighborhood dubbed in 1994 by U.S. News and World Report "the second largest white slum in America."

A decade later the neighborhood began to change. Refugees, fleeing civil unrest and violence in their own countries, came to Portland and settled in Munjoy Hill. Since 2000 Portland has become an international refugee center, in part through the work of Catholic Charities. The Root Cellar also changed. The teen center still operates, but it now has a multiethnic flavor.

Now, when the doors open in the morning, the line moves forward with a buzz of different languages. At a waist-high red stop sign, people check in and receive a black trash bag, which they can fill with clothes and household items. Donated shirts, pants, shoes, bedding, books, and toys fill tables and racks. Some shoppers indiscriminately cram their bags with stuff. Others pick through the clothes, checking sizes and styles before dropping them inside their bags, one or two things at a time.

Walls display flags from dozens of countries and a large stone cross. A plaque reads: "This building is a gift of love from the Christian community to our neighbors of Portland's east end." Volunteers, including many recent immigrants, help stock the tables before taking their own place in line.

On Friday the same room transforms into a grocery store. An even larger crowd comes. Shoppers receive a number and lunch-chicken, French fries, salad, and chocolate cake. They shop when their number comes up, filling their boxes with fruits and vegetables, meat, and bread from tables that held clothes a day earlier. A nurse practitioner offers free blood pressure checks.

Local farmers and stores donate the food, which feeds as many as 400 people each Friday and provides groceries for 119 families. The value of the donated food each week is $8,000. Next week the lines will form again. Clothes and food bring refugees in the door. Then comes the opportunity for challenging, personal, and spiritual help.

Because many refugees experienced persecution and corruption in their home countries, they don't trust government. They turn to the Root Cellar for all kinds of help. Area residents come in when they have a car wreck or when their children join a gang. They come when they are confused with the amount of junk mail they get and want to know if it is OK to throw it away. "When some need pops up, we jump on it," said Kurt Holmgren, the Root Cellar's current director.

Newcomers need to learn English, so the Root Cellar offers English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. Newcomers need jobs, so the manager of the cleaning crew at a local hotel volunteers to teach a jobs seminar. Newcomers need a driver's license for some jobs, so the Root Cellar sets up lessons, using cars belonging to volunteers. Over the last four years, the Root Cellar has helped more than 200 refugees find jobs.

One, Audai Naser, arrived from Iraq knowing how to do one thing well, bake bread. He built his own makeshift tandoor oven to display his skills. The Root Cellar helped him secure small-business loans to open a tiny storefront bakery, where he works from early morning to late evening. Now he donates traditional Iraqi flatbread to the Root Cellar for its food distribution day.

The Root Cellar provides a safe place for people to talk about terrible things. A woman from Burundi describes having to watch as men stuck a knife through her daughter's eardrum. A man from Burundi talks about surviving an attempted rope strangulation in prison. He had to have surgery to repair the damage. An Iraqi couple and their surviving children arrived in Maine one December after witnessing the shooting death of their 9-year-old daughter. They were wearing flip-flops and T-shirts.

The Root Cellar tailors help to the particular needs of each refugee. Mario Kani of South Sudan, 45, lost his right leg in July 1996 when a mine blew up his Land Cruiser as he navigated a river crossing. Kani's search for better medical treatment brought him to Portland. He volunteered at the Root Cellar as he waited to find paid work. He now works full-time for a trucking company and has been able to ship nine hospital beds and eight wheelchairs to hospitals in Africa, where many patients must bring their own bedding or sleep on the floor.

When Kani learned about a van destined for the junkyard, he paid $1,500 to have it repaired and shipped to a church in Zambia. He asks, "Why can I not help somebody?"

The Root Cellar has also helped Kani reconnect with two children he left behind in Sudan. He hadn't seen them for 13 years, though he telephoned weekly and paid their school fees. Two years ago, with the help of the Root Cellar staff, Kani completed the paperwork to bring his children to the United States. In April he drove to New York City to pick up his children, now 13 and 16. He knew they wouldn't recognize him, so he brought pictures of himself posing alongside a familiar older woman the children knew in Sudan.

"I had to introduce myself," Kani said. His first words to them: "I am the dad.'"

The Root Cellar serves a multi-religious population-Christians from Sudan, Muslims from Somalia, and Buddhists from Vietnam-while maintaining the centrality of the gospel. Executive director Kurt Holmgren says his staff asks God to help them be bold: "Our main purpose here is the proliferation of the gospel. If there is ever a time we are not deliberate about the gospel, we want to make sure we are brought back to that."

Before each clothing and food distribution day, Root Cellar staffers pray with volunteers. One week, after Holmgren read and talked about Psalm 40, the volunteers prayed in their own languages. Portland refugees speak 40 different languages, and the prayers included three recognizable English words, repeated by many: "Root Cellar" and "amen."

The Root Cellar doesn't have to worry about government interference because it doesn't accept government money. Last year, the organization received about $1 million worth of non-monetary donations from churches and local businesses. A paid staff of four oversees programs, including a three-room dental and medical clinic that sees hundreds of patients. Nearly 200 people regularly volunteer. About 200 families take part in some kind of program each week.

Some neighbors are reluctant to come to the Root Cellar, so the group goes to them. During the summer, volunteers carry grills to a park near a government-housing complex. Over hamburgers and hotdogs, staff and volunteers interact with neighbors who haven't yet made their way to the center.

"When I first started here I would have said, 'Let's get people on their feet so they can move out of this neighborhood,'" Holmgren said. "Now I say, 'Let's get people on their feet so they can make this neighborhood a place that people want to come to.'"

Money Box

Contributions and other revenue for The Root Cellar in 2010 totaled $1,242,570, with expenses of $1,316,034.

The organization at the end of 2010 had net assets of $1,838,088.

Executive director Kurt Holmgren received a salary of $52,380.

This year's budget: $375,000.

Listen to a report on The Root Cellar on WORLD's radio news magazine The World and Everything in It.

Vote for the 2012 winner and read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2012 on WORLD's Hope Award page.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.


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