It all started as an experiment.
“It was born out of a terrible faith crisis that my husband and I were going through,” Jamie West-Zumwalt said.
“I grew up as a pastor’s kid and he grew up as a missionary kid, both in very conservative evangelical Christianity. Then we married and because it’s just the next thing you do in that world, we went right into ministry ourselves.”
After spending a couple of years as missionaries in Taiwan, West-Zumwalt and her husband started an organization that trained missionaries, which they spent more than two decades running.
“In the middle of all of that our faith just began to crumble. We had some really painful things happen with people in our relationships and in our religious circle, and it just was not doing what we had been taught our whole lives that this religion was supposed to do. We were spiraling with doubt and confusion and trying to re-examine all of it, while at the same time still trying to lead other people in this thing that we had started. In the midst of that, we decided to do an experiment. We opened up this little coffee shop in Valley Brook with the purpose of answering two questions. The first being can you even do the stuff that Jesus taught? Can you even live that way? Loving one another, taking care of people that are in need, forgiving people who hurt you, loving your enemies, like the most difficult things? Can you even live that way? Then the second question was if you can live that way, does it make any difference? We didn’t know what we thought anymore about heaven and hell, and life after this life, so does living that way make any difference here, in a community? So that was the experiment,” she said.
Joe’s Addiction opened in 2006, a small yellow building in a red light district that would serve as a space to love, feed and care for homeless residents of Oklahoma City powered by equal parts compassion and coffee. House-roasted gourmet coffee for a small donation, or for free if you just need a cup and some community. As word spread, so did the space, moving across the street to 1725 SE 59th St. in 2020.
“Some people can’t afford a dollar. Some people love what we’re doing and will pay $40 for a latte, so that helps us out financially,” West-Zumwalt said.
There’s a shower on site as well as three washers and dryers as well as a free store.
“It’s like a thrift store, only everything’s free. We open that on Fridays and Saturdays. Then there’s a lot of other organizations in the city that we network with to provide connections to services so people can get to help with mental health issues, help with addiction, recovery, support and housing opportunities for those who are experiencing homelessness. As all of that has gotten into place, over the last year the number of people that are coming and hanging out at Joe’s has more than tripled. This time last year we were serving about 40 people at lunchtime, and now we’re seeing anywhere from 100 to 120 people. Many are coming on the bus, they’ll stay at City Care at night and then if they’re able to get a bus ticket, they’ll come across town and stay with us during the day.”
The walls of Joe’s Addiction are lined with colorful portraits of leaders like Gandhi, Martin Luther King,Thích Nhat Hanh, Jesus and a man named Bo.
“Most of the ones you’ll see are famous people that we do a lot of teaching about,” said West-Zumwalt, who gives a sermon each week. “And Bo you wouldn’t know because he was the first one of our Love Gang that passed away. That’s what this tattoo is about.”
Jamie points to a small heart tattoo at the top of her left cheek.
“We started a new gang here in the neighborhood called the Love Gang and Bo was a part of starting that. He was a very, very violent person who had a lot of gang involvement, a lot of prison time in life. We decided we’re going to love our enemies and so as people make a commitment to do that, they take the tattoo. There are 37 tattoos now. It’s a symbol of just trying to do the best we can to love our enemies. So we put the tattoo on all the famous people including Jesus. We have our own sign for love gang which means I fucking love you. We took I love you and fuck you and we put them together and so this is what we say here,” she said.
Bo has since passed but he remains a strong presence in Joe’s Addiction. His photo, along with many others lost over the years, grace the Memorial Wall. The tribute brings a sense of peace to guests and allows them to grieve and honor the memory of their friends. In 2022, Jamie would add ten new photographs to the wall.
“This year has been a really rough year. Part of it is because we’ve grown in our population, but really it’s just been a really rough year. We have 10 people that will be adding to the wall for this year,” West-Zumwalt said.
The city’s homeless population has increased in recent years in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic, rapidly increasing costs and decreasing housing. As more people find themselves in unfortunate situations, Jamie and her small team of volunteers rise to the challenge to meet their needs, taking the time to learn the names and stories of all who walk through the door. She welcomes everyone regardless of their background or how they got there. Much like the man who inspired her mission, Jamie has faced a fair share of opposition.
“In the beginning, I was an outsider coming in with very different life experiences from the people in this neighborhood,” West-Zumwalt said. “It’s interesting how all of us have judgment, we all have our minds set — even if you’re not a religious person — about what is right and wrong, what’s acceptable and what’s not, and who is acceptable and who is not. In Joe’s Addiction, when we started letting just anyone be here including people with felonies, people who are homeless, people with sex offenses, all of those kinds of categories of people, it caused a lot of strife and struggle in the community, so it’s been an interesting road to walk together but we have stuck it out and worked through those issues. Many people in this neighborhood have been here from the beginning when we opened and now we have what I feel like is a really good relationship working together and serving the neighborhood together.”
As the attitudes in the surrounding community have shifted, Jamie and Joe’s Addiction has become a beacon of hope for those living in Valley Brook.
“This is a very difficult area, a very depressed area. A lot of generational poverty. Many issues, including mental health problems have been generational, so I feel like the success is that we have created a community of people that are taking care of each other. And it’s not just people from the outside like me that come in and offer services. But we together take care of each other. One lady in our neighborhood lost her mom in 2020 to COVID and the community here has taken care of her and her children. It takes a village and we’ve created a village here,” she said.
A careful observer of the people she serves, Jamie’s ultimate dream is to meet people where they are and help them find a permanent space within the communities where they feel most comfortable, among the families they’ve created.
“I’ve always been a dreamer and I dream far beyond what is financially possible … Right now, I’m just trying to figure out how to pay the bills with what we’ve got going right now, but I’m gonna say this out loud — I’m dreaming of creating supportive housing. Many of the people that are part of our community I’ve watched get housing through other sources but they end up back out on the street. For many of them, it’s because the housing they get is far away from the community of people they’re connected to overall. When they get into that housing, they don’t find a new community … I see older women in our community, very naturally take on mother type roles with young girls and create those sort of symbiotic relationships where they support one another. So we’ve seen people get housed and moved outside of their community, and they’re desperately lonely, they’re out by themselves, they don’t have all the services that they need to do life. We’ll see them choose to just abandon their house to come back down to be near us because that’s where their community is. They’d rather be outside in the cold than be all the way over in Bethany because nobody knows them there. I want to help them keep that sense of community,” West-Zumwalt said.
In 2018, Jamie wrote a book chronicling her great experiment. Beloved Chaos: moving from religion to Love in a red light district details her journey and the many lessons learned along the way. But did she find the answers to the questions that started it all?
“Definitely, but not perfectly. We just practice every day. We mess it up regularly, as all of us do. When we do, we just have to apologize, ask for forgiveness, get back up and do better the next time, and then it has made a difference. We’ve been embedded in this little community for 16 years and it’s been a long road of building relationships, trust and belief in each other, and just caring for the community,” West-Zumwalt said.
Love is Jamie’s sermon and embodying it is her mission. She hopes all people find purpose in ways that serve both themselves and their community.
“I feel more love here than I do anywhere else,” West-Zumwalt said. “But not everybody is supposed to do what I do, I think each of us needs to find our place. I love the idea of fixing the world’s needs but we also need to follow what we desire, what brings us life. Where those two things meet might be the very place where you’re supposed to be.”
Learn more about Joe’s Addiction and Outrageous Love at www.outrageous.love