Feeding a Higher Purpose
The sign above the door of the restaurant at the corner of Trade and Church says "King's Kitchen." The large wooden cross standing watch over the kitchen suggests that the "King" here has a name.
King's Kitchen in Charlotte, N.C., is Jim Noble's third restaurant. He owns one in Winston-Salem and another in Charleston, S.C. But King's Kitchen is different from the rest, for here, as the website says, Noble's "passion for food feeds a higher purpose."
"We started a ministry about 17 years ago called King's Table," Noble explains. "We'd get area restaurants to provide food for other ministries serving the poor, and King's Table would underwrite the costs. The whole thing kept growing, and one day my wife said, 'This still isn't enough,' so we started King's Kitchen."
The restaurant, which opened in 2010, has a three-pronged approach. "First, we're a public restaurant," says Noble. "We focus on being a really good restaurant serving Southern cuisine—fried chicken, mashed sweet potatoes, collard greens, corn bread, etc. Second, we take the proceeds and give back to the community to feed the poor. And third, we offer a program to train and employ folks living on the street here in Charlotte. The people you see working in the kitchen and serving tables—they're a combination of regular employees we hire through traditional means and men and women off the streets who are learning how to live again."
But it's more than a job Noble is serving up. The King's Kitchen Restoration Program is a year-long course that offers Scripture-based principles to help those employees who need to rebuild their lives. Applicants must be willing to attend Bible study every day and serve in some capacity at a church every Sunday. In exchange, the program pays participants to work a full-time job at the restaurant and teaches them financial management and social and leadership skills.
"We teach them how to walk in victory, how to see themselves as God sees them," says Noble. "We're helping them spiritually to renew their minds with the truth. A lot of these folks have been told that they're no good, that they don't count, that they don't matter. They've been told they're stupid and that they'll never amount to anything. A lot of them have been told negative things their whole lives, and we're just trying to encourage them with the Word of God and with what God says about them."
Noble and his wife, Karen, started the program after the restaurant opened and they discovered that providing jobs for the homeless was not enough. "We had people that just came in, got a job, made some money, and then went out and got into trouble again," he explains. "We started the program to help people change their lives, beginning with how they view themselves, and helping them see themselves as God sees them, so that they can get and keep a job when they leave us and not fall back into trouble."
Noble says he and his team are learning as they go because they have so few ministries they can look to as examples. He takes some of his cues from the Dream Center in Los Angeles. "They help 50,000 people each year," explains Noble, "offering everything from foster care intervention to shelter for survivors of human trafficking. We have the restaurant, and we have the program, but there are some other things we want to do as well to help those folks who are otherwise ignored in Charlotte."
Providing housing is at the top of Noble's list. "We're looking to buy some places soon so we can stay with folks going through the program 24/7. Right now, when they're working at the restaurant and going through the program, they're on their own for where they spend the night, which leads to problems."
Setbacks, Noble says, include falling back into drug and alcohol addiction and abandoning the program prematurely. "We had one guy who fell off the wagon and had to go back to the local addiction treatment center, which he really didn't want to do, so now he's back living at an abandoned car wash. We have another guy who's living in a tent right now. Yes, there are shelters here in Charlotte, but it's rough in those places, you know? So, I think the next step is finding housing for the folks going through the program so they have a better shot at truly rebuilding their lives."
What keeps Noble upbeat when the inevitable setbacks occur? First, he reminds himself often that he cannot change people—and certainly not against their wishes. "They have to want it. We all have the right to choose life or death, blessings or curses."
Noble also draws strength from the Bible. "The Word of God is our hope. And that hope is not just weak wishful thinking. The word 'hope' in the Bible means an intense, joyful expectation. There is no other source of hope except for the truth. Regardless of what someone has gone through or if they trip in the process of getting better, there's always hope for them to get their life back together, but it will come through faith in the Word of God. If you don't know what God's promises are for you, it's easy to be full of despair in this world. But if we can instill hope—a joyful expectation of good—in the lives of the people who come to us, then all of this is worth it. We all have been through trouble. My problems may be different from these folks', but help comes the same way—through faith in God through Jesus Christ and through his words."
And for those times when Noble does get discouraged, he reminds himself that serving the poor is not a suggestion. "It's a command from God," he affirms. "We're all expected to do that, whether it's easy and successful or not. Sometimes people get hung up on who and what to blame for homelessness, and we end up pointing fingers rather than working to solve the problem. People are homeless because they're out of money. Now, they may be out of money because they spent it all on drugs, but is that worse than the guy who isn't faithful to his wife but has a great job? The difference between us and a lot of other folks is that a lot of us had a better place to start from. Sometimes the guys on the street started life in poverty. They didn't start with any kind of cushion at all."
Noble thinks the church, at times busy pointing fingers, has too often shirked its responsibility to the poor and left others to tackle the problem. "I think sometimes the church has allowed the government to take care of the poor, when really it's the church that's supposed to have been doing that all along. The churches have within themselves the ability to take care of the poor if members would pay their tithes. If every church in this town adopted one or two homeless people, we could clear the streets. God does not will any man to be in the street. God does not will that any man be sick or lost. But there are sick, and there are lost, and there are people in the street, and so the church is here to help."
In fact, Noble is hoping to partner with other churches and ministries to do just that. "We're starting to give away more than we make each year, so we're looking to team up with other groups to further this work." And even though the restaurant opened in 2010 when the economy in Charlotte, which is heavily invested in the banking industry, was just beginning to rebuild after the housing bust, King's Kitchen has been able to make money, which, of course, it gives away to charities and churches serving the hungry. "So far," Noble says, "We've been able to turn out about $200,000 a year in food and services."
And the success rate of the King's Kitchen Restoration Program? "I'll be able to answer that better after a couple more years. The program is still pretty new."
Matt Rogers is a classical music radio host for WDAV in Charlotte, N.C., and the author of Losing God: Clinging to Faith Through Doubt and Depression (InterVarsity, 2008) and When Answers Aren't Enough: Experiencing God as Good When Life Isn't (Zondervan, 2008).