A call to serve brings renewal

November 20, 1991|By Patrick Ercolano | Patrick Ercolano,Evening Sun Staff

As Benedict Schwartz sees it, the work of the Lord has been taken over by professionals.

And that, he says, is not such a good thing.

"If you want to love and serve God, the only models we seem to have are the clergy," says Schwartz, 45. "There just aren't enough models for lay people who want to live out God's love."

With the help of his wife, Kathleen, and friends from their parish, Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Bel Air, Schwartz has created a business that proves lay people can, indeed, put their Christianity where their mouths are.

At the same time, Schwartz and company have found a way to employ homeless people and help the environment.

Last March, Schwartz and fellow Mount Zion member Jim Pilcher launched Homeward Industries, a business that hires homeless people to recycle the toner cartridges used in laser copiers. The two men started the operation with more than $10,000 donated by church friends.

They take their inspiration from Isaiah 58:7, which urges, " . . . share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house. . . . "

Based in the Jonestown neighborhood just east of downtown, Homeward Industries employs four formerly homeless people -- two men and two women -- at $320 a week. The business is on the first floor of a three-story brick building owned by the local community association.

Homeward Industries already has landed contracts from about 40 local businesses and government agencies. Schwartz says state agencies have saved $40,000 since August by hiring his company to clean and rebuild their toner cartridges.

Cartridges cost about $200 apiece and usually are thrown away after about 1,300 copies have been made. An estimated 23 million cartridges, each weighing 3 1/2 pounds, have been tossed into U.S. landfills.

Pilcher, 57, a former Army research engineer at Aberdeen Proving Ground, decries such waste. He notes that a cartridge can be remanufactured 10 to 15 times and resold at a fraction of the original cost.

Perhaps the most important work of Homeward Industries is the recycling of the lives of the people who were without homes and jobs not long ago but now have steady work at respectable pay.

Fontaine Walston and her four children, ranging in age from 1 to 17 years, lived in a local homeless shelter from November 1990 through last April. It was there that she met Ridge Pilcher, Jim Pilcher's wife and a registered nurse who works for Health Care for the Homeless, a downtown clinic. As the recruiter for Homeward Industries, Ridge introduced Walston to Jim, who at that time was still planning the business with Schwartz.

The Pilchers promised Walston that she would be the new company's first employee. They kept their word.

"Working here really has changed my life a lot," says Walston, who now rents a home in East Baltimore. "I have a job and a regular paycheck. It beats worrying every day about how you're going to pay this bill or that bill."

Schwartz continues to run his own computer software business, but now he devotes most of his time to his new endeavor. He commutes to Baltimore four or five days a week from his home in Havre de Grace. Only recently, after the time away from his software business caused his income level to plummet, did he decide to take a modest salary out of the Homeward Industries account. (He wouldn't divulge the salary's amount.)

This down-scaling, he says, is part of an evolution in which he has sought to be more responsive to "a call" from God. That's clergyman talk, but as Schwartz says, clergymen shouldn't be the only ones to live in service to their faith.

"The Gospel doesn't say go out and make as much money as you can," he says. "It says first serve God's kingdom. That's what I'm trying to do."

"We have four children and our hope is to have them live out God's love," says Kathleen Schwartz. "My husband and I have been looking for ways for them to do that, for some example they can follow. Maybe this business can provide that example for them."

While Benedict Schwartz and Jim Pilcher claim that they don't force religion on their employees, they will pray with the workers "when we encounter a problem," Schwartz says.

"Yeah, we'll be banging on a stubborn piece of equipment and going, 'Lord, why doesn't this thing work?' " Pilcher says, laughing.

Walston says she knows her bosses are "very religious," but adds, "They don't push their religion on [the workers]. We say grace at lunchtime, or we may pray when we start work or when we're about to leave for the day. But it's not anything that bothers us."

Kathleen Schwartz explains, "Benedict and Jim are men who believe in the power of prayer and see God in all aspects of daily living. For them to pray at any time shouldn't be seen as an unusual thing."

By next year, Benedict Schwartz says, he hopes to have 50 formerly homeless people working at the company. Besides remaking toner cartridges, they might get involved in renovating housing for the homeless.

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