It wasn’t until Sherry Quakkelaar entered the splash pad that people let their guard down.
During the heat of 2016’s summer, Sherry and her husband, Dan, who had decided they were called to plant a church devoted to racial and cultural reconciliation in Milwaukee, would show up at Carver Park with a table filled with hot dogs, brats, and cool lemonade — a way to make new friends and begin building a church community. But the Quakkelaars were white and strangers in the neighborhood, and their invitation of free food and conversation was usually, though politely, declined.
After attempting conversation with a few moms, Sherry kicked off her sandals and waded into the splash pad, greeting a few kids as she went. All of a sudden, one leery mom approached Sherry and struck up a conversation.
“That was our breakthrough moment and our breakthrough week,” Sherry says.
Moms and kids began coming over to the table for food and fellowship. Then members of the homeless community. At one point, one of the mothers stared Dan in the eye and asked him when he was going to start bringing the Word.
“Like now?” Dan asked.
“Well, yeah,” she replied. “You’re a church, aren’t you?”
That was the nudge Dan needed. Every Saturday after that, food and fellowship were combined with an open-air sermon, and Friend of Sinners mission church was born.
It’s About Time
Dan thought he was ready for pastoral ministry when he and Sherry met and married at age 21, nearly 30 years ago. Instead, he served in the military and then had a 20-year career in media marketing.
Then came the economic recession in 2008. Dan lost his job and nearly all of their net worth. It was then that Dan turned to Sherry and told her he thought he should go to seminary.
“It’s about time!” she told him. Before a final decision was made, the session at Northwest Presbyterian Church (Dublin, Ohio) where Dan was a ruling elder asked the couple about their desire to enter vocational ministry at this stage of their lives. Sherry distinctly remembers the senior pastor asking her if she felt called to be a pastor’s wife.
“I don’t know that I’m called to be a pastor’s wife,” she replied, “but I’m called to be Dan’s wife. So where Dan ends up, I go.”
That’s all anyone needed to know.
After five years in St. Louis, where Dan attended Covenant Seminary, the Quakkelaars headed back to Wisconsin, to start Friend of Sinners mission church from scratch … right on the edge of one of the poorest ZIP codes in the country: 53206.
What does church discipline look like with [Lamar], who is living with a woman who is married to another man, and yet, is perhaps the first loving, hard-working example of a man that this woman and her children have ever met?
Facing the Odds
According to one ranking system, Milwaukee, and the 53206 ZIP code in particular, is one of the worst cities in which to be an African-American. The achievement gap between black and white students is one of the highest in the nation. As of 2012, more than two-thirds of African-American children in the ZIP code lived in poverty. And as of the last census, more than half of black men in their 30s and early 40s have spent time in state prisons.
Although Friend of Sinners sits technically in 53212, which is more racially and socioeconomically diverse than 53206, the struggles bleed over.
“What Dan is doing is really outside the norm,” says Chris Vogel, director of the “On Wisconsin” network, a relatively new PCA church-planting effort across the state. “You have a guy in his mid-50s, second-career, and he’s going into an inner-city context. He looks like he just got off a Harley, and he’s trying to bridge not only the racial divide but also the socio-economic divide. He’s been told he shouldn’t do what he’s doing because he’s crossing too many barriers.”
Leon Brown, pastor of Crown & Joy Presbyterian Church, a multiethnic church plant in Richmond, Virginia, has spent a lot of time coaching Dan through the dynamics of church planting in a multiracial context. “It requires the right person to plant a church that is not typical PCA,” says Brown, who is one of the PCA’s 60 African-American teaching elders. “To go into an area that is not white and middle-class — that takes a certain kind of man. Dan is the right man.”
Unexpected Family, Disheveled Discipleship
Despite all the potential barriers, Dan and Sherry have come with a willingness to learn and help. And they have discovered that the streets of Milwaukee are more welcoming than they imagined.
“In this area that has a reputation for being evil and crime-ridden, populated by people who are lazy, and where you’re supposed to find all of the stereotypes — I’ve found men and women who are family-oriented, loving, accepting, willing to share meals, and share living space. I’ve found men and women who are hard, hard-working,” Dan says.
They’ve recently befriended Lamar. A former maintenance guy for a motel, Lamar was dismissed after he lost some toes in a lawn-mowing accident. Today, he picks up odd jobs where he can to support the family of a woman he loves, who happens to be married to a deadbeat husband. Lamar and the family are homeless.
“Anybody else looking at them would say, ‘If you just get your act together, you can succeed.’ But it’s way more complicated than that,” Dan explains.
In relationships with people such as Lamar, Dan meets the added complexity of knowing how best to address discipleship. For example: What does church discipline look like with [Lamar], who is living with a woman who is married to another man, and yet, is perhaps the first loving, hard-working example of a man that this woman and her children have ever met?
“The stereotypes fight against these good, solid people who are living in situations that any session would look at and say, ‘That’s sin that requires church discipline.’ It’s messy — that’s the best way to say it.”
In a typical messy week, Dan and Sherry might find themselves going to the hospital to minister to a woman who was just stabbed by her son. Or providing transportation for a woman who makes her living as a prostitute while she delivers all the food she has to shut-ins. Or making hearty, healthy meals to fill empty stomachs and create connection points.
“Food opens doors,” she explains. “It brings defenses down to the point where there is usually meaningful conversation. And in that meaningful conversation, you learn more about the other person, the other culture. You connect on a deeper level when there is food involved.”
It’s in the food and drink, the hospital visits, and relationships forged, that conversations about faith happen and God shows up.
“I’m supposed to be preparing sermons and Bible studies and counseling people in their marriage and all of these wonderful things the PCA does, but my day often consists of things like finding homes, food, or clothing for homeless families,” Dan explains. There are overwhelming diaconal needs, he says, and “I would love to have a group of men like Moses had to help, so I could concentrate on the spiritual things. But what I’m discovering is that the physical and spiritual things are so intertwined that I don’t know that I can make that distinction in this ministry.”
Dan and Sherry hope they can continue Friend of Sinners, but they will admit it’s not easy. They are currently living in Dan’s elderly parents’ basement while trying to raise funds for the mission church.
Because of the poverty of those in their body, the Quakkelaars realize they will likely never be self-sustaining. “It’s hard for us to make our personal budget work. It’s hard for us to make our church budget work. But God is working, and He supplies our every need,” says Dan.
At the same time, he acknowledges that support from the wider church is critical to their success. “I cannot do this without the rest of the church being there, mostly in prayer, but also financially and through encouragement.”
Recently, the building that Friend of Sinners was using for its Friday-evening outreach ministry was sold to a Nation of Islam group. In response Dan and his friends brought the new group a meal to demonstrate the Gospel in a tangible way.
For a time, a local car wash gave them space to set up a trailer in the parking lot from which they could serve meals. “We have been in dicey situations,” Dan says. “It seems every week is a new adventure. But this I am confident of: that God always wins. Even in the most dire situation, God wins.”
Postscript Since this article was first written, Friend of Sinners has redirected some of its activities. Instead of serving food from the trailer, they’ve been connecting with local families over a lemonade stand. While they’ve experienced some upheaval, Dan says, “We’re not going to give up. Milwaukee needs the gospel.”
To learn more about Friend of Sinners, visit friendofsinners.org.
Zoe S. Erler, a mom of three, is also an elder’s wife and freelance writer who lives in Indianapolis. Previously on staff with Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship, Erler has contributed to BreakPoint Radio, WORLD Magazine, and The Indianapolis Star.
Photography by Darren Hauck