When he was much younger, 68-year-old Jim Armistead wanted to be involved with a ministry that helps individuals to become better and successful people.
In 1985, the Lord led him to find it.
Armistead, an ordained Southern Baptist minister, is in charge of the St. Clair Agape House, a shelter for individuals and families who have no place else to turn. He has been the shelter’s one and only director and continues to manage the day-to-day activities there even though age is beginning to take its toll.
“There’s an old Chinese proverb that says if you give a person a fish, you can feed them for a day,” he said. “Or, you can teach him how to fish and you can feed him for a lifetime. The same holds true here.”
The Agape House, 1095 North Service Road West and across Highway WW from the St. Clair Veterans of Foreign Wars post, provides shelter and food for numerous individuals on a daily basis. But, it’s not your typical homeless domicile, as everyone who stays there has to follow strict rules and regulations.
“We’ve put together a program here where we stress getting some kind of education, people learn to parent their children, and they learn to manage their money,” Armistead said. “Every resident here has to help the center and help themselves. Otherwise, they can’t stay.”
The minister said before he took over his local responsibilities, he visited shelters in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Birmingham, Ala.
“I put together what I thought was the best of every program I saw,” he said. “I put together what I thought was the best way to establish the Agape House.”
Every resident old enough to help with upkeep of the buildings and grounds must do so. It simply is one of the rules.
“Everyone here is a volunteer,” Armistead said. “Everything everybody does goes back into the ministry.”
Including all that Armistead does.
A different resident cooks meals every day while other chores — such as dishes and cleaning — are done daily by those staying on the grounds.
“It’s a requirement they work here as well as look for work elsewhere,” Armistead said.
The whole idea behind the Agape House is “helping families and individuals to help themselves,” he said.
“I work with families I can help,” said Armistead, who has a waiting list and constantly has to turn away requests from people who want to stay. “We teach families to stand on their own feet and to not rely on others to help them. I want people to be set free from their past mistakes, to gain some pride in their lives and to be able to say, ‘I did it,’”
To accomplish that, Armistead said a long time ago he realized everyone is unique.
“I work with each individual person and their needs,” he said. “Each person is different. My approach is one on one and personal so they can all get back to where they need to be.”
Every individual or family is interviewed before they are allowed to stay.
“We just don’t warehouse people,” Armistead said. “We serve people who want to help themselves and get out of the situation they’re in. We’re here to help people and help them get out of the lifestyle that makes them a prisoner of the situation they themselves have created.”
That “lifestyle” may include just about anything that leads to trouble.
“We teach people to find a way that works for them,” he said. “We don’t have to fit the world’s mold or the mold of anyone else. We find each individual’s own mold that works.
“We teach them to take what God has given them and use it to be successful.”
Besides the work ethic at the shelter, there is a dress code and no drugs or alcohol are allowed on or off the grounds during a stay. There is a 10 p.m. curfew, the workday starts at 8 a.m. and everyone must attend a church of their choice every Sunday.
The Agape House also partners with Alcoholics Anonymous and other service-based organizations to help shelter residents overcome their problems.
“This is a Christian care center,” Armistead said, adding that the Agape House receives no federal funding.
“Everything is accomplished through donations and volunteers,” he said.
Currently, 37 area churches of all denominations support the shelter as does the Franklin County Baptist Association.
“We’re just an extended ministry of those churches,” Armistead said. “I feel like I am a servant to those churches.”
The director said he is “blessed” to work with those churches and their pastors.
“They always are here for me,” he said. “I couldn’t do this without them. They care and pray for me daily.”
And, he said, through the end of last year, 4,357 decisions have been made by shelter residents over the years to follow Jesus Christ and trust Him as their personal Savior.
“God provides,” Armistead said. “These people have tried everything the world offers and it doesn’t work. So, many of them turn to the Lord and find out it can work.”
The Agape House used to be the Scully Restaurant and Motel on the original Route 66, Armistead said, adding that when there was interest in starting a homeless shelter in Franklin County, Geneva Scully donated the land and buildings to get the project going.
“We literally from day one have been a homeless shelter,” Armistead said.
In 2012, the Agape House — which has eight rooms, a cottage and three transition houses — provided 25,907 nights of lodging to 1,438 people. Armistead said through the end of last year 25,902 individuals have spent time at the facility since it opened.
The highest number of people it has housed on one night is 93. Armistead said when that happened, wall-to-wall cots were set up in the main lobby area.
When he was interviewed in the middle of January, Armistead said the current number of shelter residents was 31.
Coupled with the food pantry, the shelter feeds about 3,900 families per month and averages about 2.1 million pounds of food distribution a year to those in need. The food comes in through drives and fundraisers, such as the recent annual Cops & Kids event that brought in 8,300 items for the pantry.
“It’s really a two-part ministry,” Armistead said of the shelter and food pantry.
The Agape House also has an annual toy drive at Christmas. This past holiday season, it provided at least five new toys to 787 children.
The Rev. Armistead
Armistead was born in Texas but moved to Sullivan shortly after the end of World War II. His father was a career military man who spent 40 years in the Army and was stationed in Texas when Jim was born.
“Families on both sides (Dad and Mom) were from Sullivan,” Armistead said. “So we moved back here after the war.”
Armistead said he was 2 or 3 years old when the family returned to its roots.
After he graduated from high school, the man called Brother Jim went into industrial maintenance work where he did specialized management detail in steel foundry equipment.
In 1979, he felt God’s calling.
“I decided to go into the ministry at that time,” he said, adding that he attended Southern Seminary in Louisville, Ky.
After he earned his divinity degree, he pastored a church in Kentucky until 1985 before returning to the area to start the Agape House.
At first, he pastored Leslie Baptist Church while getting the local shelter off the ground. In the early stages it was a struggle, he said.
For the first six years, Armistead and his wife of 48 years, Mary, who continues to work outside of the shelter, lived on the grounds. They now reside in Washington. They have one daughter and two grandchildren who live in Alabama.
The pastor left the Leslie church in late 1986 to focus solely on the Agape House, but then Evergreen Baptist Church came calling and he pastored there for 14 years until he retired in 2001. He has not pastored a church since, but is in his 28th year leading the Agape House.
“I don’t give up on things easily,” he said. “It took a while to get the shelter going, but here we are.
“I just have a passion to help others,” he said. “And society as a whole is not going to change people for the better. There are consequences for what we do and we can either work and live with standards or work and live a troubled life.
“I want to help people establish those standards that will help them succeed.”
One of the ways to get over that hump is relatively simple, Armistead said.
“It matters what God thinks of you and what you think of yourself,” he said. “It does not matter what others think of you.”
And even though Armistead is slowing down, he will continue to do God’s work for as long as he can.
“You have to live for the ones, for the success stories,” he said. “And no matter how much you want someone to succeed, you can only give them the tools. They are the ones who have to use those tools to help themselves.
“But God provides. We need to rely on the Lord.”