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Radical generosity at the Pay What You Can Café 

Contributed By: The 411 News

Family Life Center’s strategy to strengthen the Gary community

LaJuan Clemons learned community giving as a child and it has stuck with him. “I grew up near the Washington Street Church of God on 21st & Washington, in Gary. I remember going there to get free breads, pastries and I would bring bags home. Our pastor James Anderson founded Brother’s Keepers, the shelter for homeless men.”

Now, at 43, Clemons is championing the same message at the Family Life Community Center at 565 Massachusetts, in Gary. He’s a minister, but Family Life is not a church. “We don’t need another church. We need community and training centers, spaces for performers and poets.” He hopes his vision, outside the walls of the church, will help his community realize its own strengths. “We have to develop a system where it’s not ‘help me government’,” Clemons said.

Clemons and his wife Tamika operate Pay What You Can Community Café, one of the building blocks to fulfill the vision. Open weekdays from 8 a.m. to noon, the café serves a generous breakfast of waffles, pancakes, fried chicken, eggs, sausage and hash browns.

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The menu is offered at a fixed price for those who can afford it; otherwise the cost is ‘pay what you can.’

What was once the Gary Fire Department’s union hall is now a welcoming space with casual seating, restaurant dining, and a performance stage. As one customer put it on his first visit, “If I had hair, it would have blown away. The outside is just an old building; it looks nothing like the inside.”

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The café is not the only instance of the Family Life ‘pay what you can’ philosophy of radical generosity. “We have yet to get down to the real work our community needs. What you see now is not where we’re going,” Clemons said.

Radical generosity extends to community services for snow removal, clearing lots, cutting lawns, trimming trees, mold remediation, and minor home repairs.

He described how it works. “Let’s say you eat here and need a plumber. You call the community center. We have plumbers. If their charge is $100 and you only have $45; then you pay what you can and we’ll cover the rest.”

The traditional church, Clemons says, offers a sermon and asks for tithing. “I’m not arguing against that, but the people must get something in return. It leaves little room for that carpenter, plumber, electrician, doctor, or a nurse to share their gifts.”

For senior citizens, pay what you can has installed support bars for baths in their homes and purchased wheelchairs.

This is the center’s first winter and its impact already felt. ABC 7 Chicago came to visit. The NWI Times did a story. “We’ve been on a roller coaster,” Clemons said.

Tamika’s zumba and fitness class will soon have a nutrition component when Purdue Extension joins the center for an 8-week program.

And Oak Street Health in Gary is partnering with the center to host monthly community breakfasts for seniors at the café.

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