Bob Gerlach is his church’s face of outreach to the Mesa community’s needy, and what the 79-year-old man does is a lot like his work in banking decades ago. He mixes trust and relationships with answering appeals for help.
Though he insists he’s no social services counselor, Gerlach exudes life-tested instincts in painstakingly distributing church funds with skill and compassion.
Gerlach founded Christ Häven outreach ministry in 2002 at First Presbyterian Church, 161 N. Mesa Drive. It provides food, housing and utility assistance, gasoline vouchers, bus vouchers and help with medical expenses for the working poor. Strangers come seeking help, and Christ Häven was able to provide about $60,000 the past year and expects to exceed that this year.
“I can’t meet all their needs,” Gerlach said. “If they are being evicted and can’t pay their rent, that is the thing we work on first. The primary thing is to keep the roof over their heads.”
“A lot of good-hearted people struggle with what to do about the will-work-for-food people on the corner,” said the Rev. Brant Baker, senior pastor of First Presbyterian. “Christ Häven is a great way to know that the help we want to give is going to those who are really in need.” He praises Gerlach for the way he listens to people, then designs “creative ways to help them.”
“It amazes me that he interviews close to 500 people a year,” Baker said. “The needs never go away, but Bob never seems to get tired of trying to get help.”
Funds to give out come from members of his congregation, donations and other sources, with no funds going for administrative costs.
While Gerlach is the church’s paid business manager, Christ Häven is wholly a volunteer side job for him. He spends about 10 hours a week meeting with families, verifying need and scrambling with other agencies to meet specific needs.
One recent day, Gerlach had six families scheduled to see him for help. The Salvation Army referred a 24-year-old mother of three (who asked not to be identified) who was given a bag of groceries and $40 on her MPower card for prepaid Salt River Project electricity to last about 10 days. The woman said a series of events caused her and her boyfriend to pile up bills and find out they owed $190 for utilities. The M-Power would tie them over until her boyfriend gets paid. The woman said she works at a Mesa school, but has no income when classes are out for the summer.
“They will be on the street if they don’t get help,” Gerlach said. “Some of these folks don’t even get the minimum wage. They are desperate for work, and some of the employers take advantage of them.”
Tina Fairchild, a 38-year-old mother of five children ages 10 to 17, said when the Department of Veterans Affairs shut down her husband’s section in Denver, transfers to Oregon or Arizona were the option. The family chose Arizona and had just 10 days to move.
“We moved down here with nothing,” said Fairchild, who said she has leukemia. “We only have half a paycheck, and that is why we are here.”
Christ Häven supplied her with utilities and groceries.
“I am so grateful that they are here,” Fairchild said of the church. “If there wasn’t places like this, I’d be sitting in a place without lights.
“If they didn’t have programs like this, how would people survive?”
Gerlach said Christ Häven is part of a Mesa safety net for the poor that includes Catholic Charities Community Services, Lutheran Social Ministry of the Southwest, the Salvation Army, Paz de Cristo and Mesa Community Action Network. Help to a family is limited to once a year so that as many households as possible are assisted.
His records show that Gerlach has interviewed 2,262 families since the program began, with 390 families given $66,720 in rental assistance; 219 families given $29,939 in utilities help; $2,731 in medical assistance to 33 families; and $2,013 to 50 families for transportation help. The records do not include help in the most recent weeks.
For 20 years, Gerlach worked in installment lending and commercial lending in Omaha, Neb., with what is now Wells Fargo Bank.
“I was always a compassionate loan officer,” he said. “I made a lot of loans, flying by the seat of my pants, either for collateral or anything else to make a loan.” Out of it, he said he developed a “good judgment of humanity.”
He and his wife, Carol, moved to the Valley in 1985, and he continued working with another bank. He also spent 12 years in land development, specializing in master-planned communities.
Gerlach said he finds fulfillment in bringing help and hope to the needy.
“When you’re sitting here talking to these people, you are on the firing line,” he said. “It’s one thing to be on the (oversight) board, but someone has to get down in the trenches and do the work.”