By Rebecca S. Jones
HOUSTON – St. John United Methodist Church-Downtown has emerged into one of the most socially conscious and culturally diverse religious facilities in the city. From an initial membership of nine established in 1992, St. John’s has seen over 32,000 members to date.
Having no prior religious background, Pastor Rudy Rasmus and his wife, Juanita have collectively transformed the landscape of Downtown Houston in an exponential way. St. John’s unique spirit, continuous activism in the community and undying passion for helping society’s most disenfranchised, has caused it to remain as a significant institution in the community.
Rudy Rasmus is the only son born to Mildred and the late Rudy Rasmus. A native Houstonian, he grew up in a typical urban community adjacent to the Heights known as the West End. Though he was the only child, he was quickly embraced by his peers due to his wit and outgoing personality. However, the better part of his early life was spent in Allen’s Food Market, a neighborhood grocery store owned and operated by his aunt Hattie Mae Allen. It was there that he first learned many of the essential principles upon which the vision of St. John’s Church is guided by today, through the practices of his aunt.
During a recent interview Rasmus reflected on three of the most impactful values he learned from his Aunt. He said, “From the chronically drunk man outside in the back of the building; to the very dressed up maid or butler who worked in wealthy homes in the area; my aunt treated them all the same – with unconditional love.” Secondly, he witnessed the power of truthfulness and transparency as he watched her interactions with family, friends, customers and everyone she encountered. “She operated with a fierce degree of truthfulness; subsequently she also lived a relatively transparent life, whereas the people closest to her really knew who she was,” he added. Finally, he saw how Hattie often extended her compassionate heart and resources to loved ones and friends and never put limitations on her ever-growing circle of friends.
Having been exposed to such an environment early on, a precocious Rasmus began operating the cash register around the age of eight. Within a couple of years, he had matured enough to begin driving his aunt around the city. All things considered, the lessons he learned and his experience at the grocery store proved to be a microcosm of the world.
Going Thru Changes
By the late 60’s Rasmus had relocated to Dallas to explore other options. Upon his return to Houston in 1980, he worked to help fulfill a longtime dream and vision of his father. Consequently, they opened a motel and liquor store in the same community he was reared in. Rasmus would go on to operate those businesses and others throughout most of his adult life.
As time passed, Rasmus continued along his journey. On one rare occasion, he found himself in church for a funeral. While there, he was awe-stricken by a young woman who entered the sanctuary. Immediately, he asked his mother about her, she directed him to the stunning lady’s aunt, who then pointed him to her mother. Once he was introduced to Juanita, he found out she was an insurance agent. Reminiscing, Rasmus shared, “In those days, I was the quintessential bad boy and she was the good girl; so, our talk was mostly about her selling me some insurance and me getting a date from her.”
At the time, Rasmus was unaware that his brief encounter with Juanita would later become the beginning to a path of change for Houston as it was known and himself. Initially, the pair dated for a short time. Well actually, it was more like one date.
He said, “She turned out to be the first woman I ever trusted; in that same context, I felt really compelled to keep her safe. They way that manifested, we stopped dating, because my life was very different in those days and I knew she was safer away from me than with me. But a year later, I was really compelled to call her, we went out to lunch and a few months later we were married… That was 34-years ago.”
As newlyweds, the couple decided trust should be one of the grounding factors in their marriage and relationship. With that, Rasmus took a leap into what had been untrodden ground for him. He trusted Juanita enough to engage her faith and faith experience. Subsequently, he started attending Windsor Village United Methodist Church under the leadership of Pastor Kirbyjon Caldwell. Rasmus enjoyed attending church and he really liked the Pastor and the people there. However, he continued going there for five years as a non-believer. Pastor Caldwell never judged him due to this factor, instead he embraced Rasmus and they developed a long-lasting friendship.
A Call to Serve
Amidst attending Windsor Village for four years, Rasmus was invited to a small men’s group Bible Study by Mr. Willie Lane. Every Tuesday night, the men would study in the back of a Chinese restaurant. It proved to be an awakening experience for him and by the end of the year, he became a follower of Christ. Rasmus stated, “Almost immediately, I felt a call to serve in the same community that I had in many ways helped to destroy.” Nonetheless, he conveyed to Pastor Caldwell that he had answered a call to ministry. The Pastor remained silent, from that Rasmus gathered that he was unwilling to “influence him from his position of power and authority”. As time went on, Rasmus continued to “stay the course” and also “discovered more about what a call to ministry was”.
While maintaining and focusing on his enterprises, Pastor Caldwell called him in one day. He explained to him that the church was in the process of taking on another campus in downtown Houston. His desire was that Rasmus and Juanita would help him in the initiative. During the first visit to the respective campus, no one really saw any potential in the building. Rasmus said, “But when I drove up on the curve, I envisioned a lot of homeless addicts at the back of the building waiting for a meal wagon to open the doors and serve them cold spaghetti. I called Juanita after I saw that vision and told her ‘this was the place’. I knew from the first day that, that building and that place, was the place that we were called to serve at.”
Serving in Love
From Pastor Caldwell’s obedience to follow the unction of the Holy Spirit, to the Rasmus’s humility and willingness to serve, the birth of St. John Church-Downtown was underway. Accordingly, Pastor Caldwell gave them the keys and the ministry was incepted. St. John Church was established in 1992, with the vision of, “Tearing down the walls of classism, sexism and racism and building bridges of unconditional love, universal recovery and unprecedented hope.” In addition to a weekly explosive worship service, the Pastors also founded the Bread of Life, Inc., a nonprofit organization. Through this effort, they began serving a hot meal to homeless people once a week.
In the first couple of years of serving there, Pastor Caldwell ultimately bestowed the full management of the campus to Pastors Rudy and Juanita Rasmus. By the third year, the thriving church had grown exponentially, accommodating countless of people from every social, cultural and economic background.
Holding true to its vision, the ministry continued to serve the community. From serving one meal a day; to a couple of meals a day; to serving a meal every single day; eventually it expanded to serving 500 hot meals a day. This selfless tradition continued for the next 20 years. Today, the project is still as active as ever, distributing over 14 tons of fresh produce on a weekly basis to needy families in the community.
While divulging the Bread of Life’s history, Pastor Rasmus also interjected the following. “Now, we still had worship service on Sunday’s and those were electrifying because, there was so much mixed diversity in that room. Some of the poorest people who slept on the sidewalk by the church, to wealthy people like Beyoncé and her parents and everyone in between. We had a rich, diverse group of people there and it was just a beautiful experience from one day to the next and it still has been.”
Over the years, the ministry continued to grow and expand their services in varying capacities. St. John’s has become one of few faith communities in the nation providing HIV/AIDS testing to churchgoers on Sundays through its innovative “Get Tested Project.” The church also established an OB/GYN clinic for homeless women. In 2000, the ministry helped to raise capital and teamed up with Kelly Rowland, Beyoncé and Tina Knowles to build the Knowles-Rowland Center for Youth. It was a school designed for children living with HIV/AIDS, which operated for a decade.
Furthermore, after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the church realized there was a new population of homeless in the Houston area. Therefore, St. John expanded its mission by building apartment homes for the chronically homeless.
Through generous support from a collaboration of government agencies and a significant donation from Tina Knowles-Lawson, Beyoncé and Solange Knowles, the ministry built its first permanent living complex for formerly homeless women and men. Named the Knowles-Temenos (Greek for “Safe Place”) Apartments, it is a 43-unit Single Room Occupancy development. Since then, the Temenos Community Development Corporation’s portfolio also includes: an 80-unit Temenos II Apartment community for the previously homeless; and a 15-unit Temenos III Apartment project for the most vulnerable homeless in Houston.
Tentatively, the ministry is working on creating the St. John’s Academy, an urban boarding school for young men who are aging out of foster care. It will be housed on the grounds of the former school founded in 2000, the Knowles-Rowland Center for Youth. To that regard, Pastor Rasmus believes that the dormitory is extremely important for the community.
“Thousands of young people across Texas are tied up in the foster care system; and what we are finding is that young men aging out of foster care, in large part are being set up for incarceration. So, our goal is to create an academic and housing environment, which supports the forward progress of that demographic.” – Pastor Rudy Rasmus
Today, St. John is one of two campuses. St. John-Downtown led by Pastors Rudy and Juanita Rasmus is located at 2019 Crawford St., 77002. Pastor Connie Jackson leads St. John-Northwest located at 6696 Antoine Dr., 77091. For more information about St. John contact (713) 659-3237 or visit their website at https://www.stjohnsdowntown.org/.
On a Personal Note
Today, with a focus on social impact investing, the Rasmus’s Bread of Life organization, owns and operates Eco Life Employment LLC, a digital employment and staffing agency for men and women with troubled past lives and the amazing KMAZ 102.5 FM radio station.
Aside from serving in the Greater Houston and surrounding areas, Pastor Rasmus has coordinated domestic and global anti-hunger initiatives in conjunction with Beyoncé’s concert tours and travels extensively developing and supporting programs around the world for people experiencing poverty. He is the author of three books, Jesus Insurgency: The Church Revolution from the Edge, Touch: Pressing the Wounds of a Broken World and Love Period: When All Else Fails.
This past May, the 63-year-old Pastor accomplished a Doctorate degree. Equipped with the mindset, “it’s never too late”; he conducted research and completed his dissertation based on, “The Intersection of Black Millennials in the Church: What caused us to lose them, and what if anything can bring them back?”
Before the conclusion of our interview, Pastor Rasmus shared a couple remarkable details about his parents. Five years prior to his father’s passing, Pastor Rasmus was elated to experience his conversion under his leadership. With the same enthusiasm, he recognized his mother, who at the age of 88, is one of his most faithful members’.
In the happily ever after. He is the blessed husband of Pastor Juanita Rasmus, who has worked diligently by his side, since day one. Together they are the proud parents of two outstanding daughters, Morgan and Ryan, one phenomenal son-in-law, Hamilton Harris and an amazing grandson, Jaden.