After 40 years worth of creating, growing, and reinventing the House of Yahweh in Lawndale, you would think Sister Michele Marie Morris had an iron-clad template for how the nonprofit can continue its success for the next four decades.
But the 90-year-old doesn’t operate that way. Neither does reality, she believes.
“I only work in the present with the light I get from God at that moment,” she said, eyes gleaming as she sat at a meeting-room table in the organization’s office trailer recently. “I don’t plan ahead. You go step by step and things just evolve, one miracle after another.”
That’s been a motto of sorts for Morris, who founded the House of Yahweh in 1982 to help residents in the South Bay who experience food insecurity, lack of clothing, and difficulty in applying for vital services.
In the words of its mission statement, House of Yahweh seeks “to serve the economically disadvantaged, especially women and children, so they can attain greater fullness of life.”
Since retiring five years ago , the Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Los Angeles has left much of the heavy lifting these days to Donna Quirk, executive director, who first joined House of Yahweh in 2015 to lead its transitional housing program. She took over as executive director in 2018.
“And I’ve been in this pair of roller skates ever since,” said Quirk, who first met Morris when the two were parishioners at St. Raymond Church in Downey and happened to have a common interest in animal care. Today, she leads a staff of seven.
Morris still remembers a renewal weekend retreat more than 40 years ago at St. Catherine Laboure Church in Torrance. The pastor came across a homeless person sleeping where the program took place, something she described as “the spark” for the program’s genesis.
“That was a wake-up call, and I was the one to wake ’em up,” said Morris, who was working at St. Catherine at the time. She recruited the local deacon and two others to start brainstorming through the parish council. “Those renewal weekends were intense, but it was the perfect moment. You’re irresponsible if you try to wake the people up without giving them something to do.”
Through her connections at various local parishes going back to her teaching days in the 1960s, Morris was able to start a 501c3 nonprofit named “South Bay Outreach Center.”
But its permanent name came from another spark — a moment when Morris and her assistant, Lyndon Reid, were praying with a Jerusalem Bible translation of Psalm 23. The last line read: “My home, the House of Yahweh, forever.”
“The spirit moved me to name it right then and there,” said Morris, who soon came across a graphic artist who created a burning-bush logo to represent the inspiration.
She went fundraising and soon found property across the street from Lawndale City Hall, left behind by another nonprofit that had moved. She launched a soup kitchen and makeshift thrift store.
One of the guests who regularly came by for hot meals worked at a trailer park a few blocks away and had empty spaces. An appeal in local Catholic parish bulletins asked for donated trailers to be used as temporary shelters. They ended up with 10 spaces.
Today, House of Yahweh sits off of Marine Avenue near the 405 Freeway, about a mile from its original location. Since Sister Michele’s retirement, its operations have been streamlined. One notable change: its thrift store is housed in a 5,000-square foot portable structure, managed by Denys San Martin. Clothes, shoes, blankets, and hygiene kits go out to more than 125 people a month. The food distribution, run by longtime employee Mirna Anaya, has some 400 local families registered for pickups. A permanent mailing address is being provided for more than 150 homeless guests.
But through a steady pool of donors and income from fundraisers, as well as a volunteer base that has come back stronger after the pandemic, Quirk said she has been delighted to see the operations thrive on a Monday-through-Saturday basis, welcoming visitors whose needs sometimes even include help with asylum applications.
“I’m always surprised by people who are afraid to ask for help,” said Quirk, who now attends St. Gregory the Great Church in Whittier. “It just seems they’re afraid and don’t know how. You call us, make an appointment, and we will give you an hour of uninterrupted time to work with you on your needs.”
Bob Breen, an American Martyrs Church volunteer, said he responded to a bulletin request looking for a driver for homebound food delivery on Tuesdays and Thursday. That led to him helping in the thrift store as a fill-in cashier.
“It’s a wonderful mission for those in need from our own neighborhood,” said Breen, whose son, Tim, was recently ordained a Jesuit priest. “I see people who come into the store able to buy almost everything and some who just have 25 cents in their hands, but we adjust and make sure they get what they need.”
The organization’s 41st year of operations kicked off Nov. 1, with plans ramping up for its annual distribution of Thanksgiving turkeys, hams, and gift cards. It then moves to collecting toys in the month of December to distribute in the days before Christmas.
Morris still visits the House of Yahweh facility every Monday to visit with guests and pick up donations that she takes back to South Gate, where she’s lived since the 1980s. She also gathers donut donations to bring back to fellow Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet who live in assisted living in Santa Monica.
Morris credits the one-to-one relationships formed with guests, some that go back to its opening 40 years ago, with the organization’s longevity.
“This is God’s house, it doesn’t belong to me — it’s not mine,” she said. “It is where you have to be a listener. That’s how you honor someone. It’s unconditional love. We can get caught up in the doing and miss just being. And each day is a new adventure. I think that’s what keeps House of Yahweh going.”