Months ago, a homeless man entered Dwayne Hess' West Baltimore coffeehouse. He took in the scene for a few minutes, had a warm beverage, then headed for the door.
Before he left, the man turned toward Hess, whom he had never met before, and said something that continues to stick with the former Mennonite farmer. The man, disheveled and obviously down on his luck, spoke of being shunned at other places, some as unremarkable as gas stations, but welcomed without reservation at the coffeehouse.
"He said, 'I always feel like people are judging me or looking at me funny. But when I came in here, I didn't feel judged,' " recalls Hess, who grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania before moving to Baltimore 16 years ago. "That's what we're going for."
Hess, 40, has been volunteering part time at the coffeehouse in the 1600 block of W. Pratt St. since he and others opened it three years ago, the brainchild of A New Faith Community, a nonprofit organization that wants the place to be a holistic oasis amid a Mount Clare neighborhood with open-air drug dealing and prostitution.
Two days a week, the coffeehouse opens its doors for relaxation, discussion and reflection. In the coming weeks, the hours will increase substantially as Hess establishes the Neighborhood Spiritual Center at the building, a vision and proposal that won him a $48,750 fellowship from the Open Society Institute.
Hess and seven other city residents will be formally introduced as fellows today. The organization, founded by financier George Soros, says that many of the 120 fellows in the past 12 years are still working with their projects in the city.
The board of selectors found Hess' idea particularly compelling.
"His sincerity and compassion about healing a community that really needs something came through," said Pamela King, director of the Community Fellowships and Initiatives for OSI. "He felt like there needed to be a space for the people to convene and figure out what it is those individuals need, to help them to move beyond whatever challenges they're dealing with."
The money allows Hess to devote his time fully to maintaining the coffeehouse and establishing other initiatives. A 12-step program for people struggling with addiction operates out of the building, and Hess expects to offer GED services and activities for children.
He also wants to teach English to local immigrants. Most importantly, Hess says he wants the building to serve as a buffer for those searching for help.
"A lot of churches and places like that, it's so much emphasis on what you're doing right or wrong. For us, it's not about that. It's about finding safe spaces, safe connections to be able to heal," Hess said.
It's a process not unfamiliar to Hess. Before spending five years as an English teacher in the city public school system and another decade doing the work part time, he grew up milking cows at 5:30 a.m. on a 150-acre farm in Lancaster County, Pa., the middle child of three boys raised by Mennonite parents.
The religion, under the umbrella of Christianity, calls for its members to live a simple lifestyle and to avoid violence, including military service and owning a gun. Many of his views are grounded in the faith, but Hess left the religion three years ago, shortly after divorcing his wife of 13 years and announcing to his family and friends that he was gay.
Embracing his sexuality was a process for Hess, one that took him "3 million years" to acknowledge. Most Mennonite congregations denounce homosexuality, and Hess' father still struggles with his son's sexual orientation. But his parents do welcome him home whenever he wants to visit, and every so often, Hess even brings his friends to tour the farm.
Hess said the divorce and his change in lifestyle made him realize the need for safe space in his life, and that motivated him to apply for the OSI grant. He remains friends with his ex-wife, who volunteers at the center.
Hess' Neighborhood Spiritual Center will be run by A New Faith Community, a six-year-old nonprofit with an eight-member board. Members of the nonprofit bought the Pratt Street building and refurbished the space, which features soft lights dangling from the ceiling. Three couches and several easy chairs make up the communal area, and dozens of 8-by-11 sheets of artwork by children dot the walls.
Unlit candles rest on several tables. Light jazz music is always playing in the background.
"The atmosphere in here, people come in and sense the peace and stillness and pretty much have respected it." Hess said. "People come in and are like, 'Wow, you can really feel at peace here. You can really come in here and get your mind straight.' "