MAYODAN — Marty Roberts recognizes rock bottom.
As the executive director of the nonprofit ministry LOT 2540, he sees the look pretty often: downward-cast eyes, sloping shoulders from the weight of failure and fatigue, and a hollowness of soul that’s visible if you’ve seen it as many times as he has.
Rock bottom walks through his doors many times each week.
It’s what he saw when Stephen Neal, 36, showed up at the ministry 11 months ago. He was there for the lunchtime meal served three days a week at The Well, a cafe-like space at the back of the nonprofit’s storefront on South Second Avenue in Mayodan.
The “soup-and-sandwich” ministry, as Roberts calls it, is one of a laundry list of offerings that LOT 2540 uses to help people who are in various stages between crisis and stability.
Roberts, who opened the ministry four years ago, has an eye for the truly desperate, and he saw that in Neal. After lunch, he noticed the young man lingering in the parking lot.
Roberts invited him back in, but no, Neal was waiting for a ride.
In reality, there was no ride coming. He was killing time, waiting to see which friend might reply to his appeal for a couch to sleep on that night, something he’d been doing for months.
Six months earlier his father died, and his mother, who has Alzheimer’s, was moved to a nursing facility. Neal, who had been living with his parents in the Ellisboro community, was left homeless and jobless.
He’d come to LOT 2540 after being told that they give out food boxes, which they do once a month. LOT is an acronym for “least of these,” words that are found in Matthew 25:40, hence the latter part of the ministry’s name. It’s the chapter in which Jesus explains that when you serve other people, you are serving him.
Later that afternoon, Roberts glanced outdoors again. Neal was still there, trying to stay warm as the sun dipped.
“At least come in and wait inside where it’s warm,” Roberts called out to Neal.
And finally he did come in, just as hundreds of others do each year.
In 2014, Roberts estimates that LOT has helped about 1,500 people. It’s where they find that hope is dished out right along with soup and sandwiches, clothing, housewares, boxes of food and information of both a practical and spiritual nature. Neal needed it all — the physical comforts as well as the spiritual ones.
“I was a believer, but I wasn’t living like it,” says Neal of his Christian faith.
Because LOT is funded in part by selling salvaged building materials, Neal found a way to give back, becoming both a client and a volunteer.
When he wasn’t unloading a truck full of lumber, he was getting coached in how to get a job, studying the Bible and being counseled by Roberts or the part-time pastor at LOT. Building relationships with clients is one of LOT’s aims, and working alongside staff and volunteers was doing just that for Neal.
One of those volunteers — there are more than 100 — offered him a place to live, and through connections that the ministry has established in the community, Neal got a job as a cook. He was being restored.
Roberts likes to draw a parallel between the items they salvage to sell on site and online, and the people they transform with the proceeds. People buy things such as old window frames, cabinets and doors and then repurpose them. “We model what it is like to go from broken to restored in a very physical way,” says Roberts.
And they do it in loving, affirmative ways.
“We treat them with dignity and respect,” board member Teresa Belthrop-Hairston says of their clients.
That’s why the ministry is multi-faceted. Roberts wants to do more than bandage problems. If all he could have offered Neal was a hot meal, it wouldn’t have been enough.
He focuses on what he calls “next steps,” always encouraging clients to keep progressing.
As the ministry grows, more “next step” avenues are opened.
Roberts knows about taking the next step. It’s what he had to do when he felt God calling him to start the nonprofit more than five years ago.
It happened when a pastor told him about a homeless family in Rockingham County. There were no local services to help them so they were taken to Guilford County.
Roberts ached for that family, though he never met them.
God called him to take the next step, and it was a mighty big one.
He and a friend, David Burnette, teamed up, forming LOT 2540. It eventually would mean that Roberts would give up the security of the regular paycheck he was earning as an information technology professional.
It also meant putting his family’s financial security at risk. It meant saying yes when UNCG offered him the opportunity to salvage materials in a block of homes that it was tearing down to make room for student housing. He still recalls the sick feeling he had when he agreed to that first deal.
He had no experience with construction, much less salvaging.
But soon, there were experts by his side, people he believes God led to him.
And it’s been that way ever since.
A need arises. God fills it, he believes.
When the ministry had grown to the point of needing a building, he and Burnette were offered space in a flea market in Mayodan.
When he walked in, a large sign on the back wall read: Marty’s Place. He knew it was where God wanted the ministry. And there it stayed for months, until the flea market atmosphere proved to be in conflict with their purpose.
So they found a location in Madison and operated from there for a couple of years. Eventually the flea market closed, and LOT 2540 was asked to salvage the boards that once separated the small booths.
Shortly after that salvage, Roberts learned that LOT 2540 would have to leave its Madison location. That old flea market in Mayodan, their first location, was available. Seven months ago, they moved back in, this time as the sole tenant in the spacious building.
It’s allowed them to grow, adding classroom space where they offer “Learn to Earn.” Clients who take self-improvement classes, Bible studies and other educational programs can earn vouchers to spend in the nonprofit’s second-hand store called LOTS of Treasures Shoppe.
All the LOT services share the space and include: the cafe, salvage business, classroom area and consignment shops, where proprietors share proceeds with the ministry. A food pantry is being added and they’d like to have a kitchen. Nondenominational services are held on Sundays.
The Learn to Earn program has appealed to Margaret Ellison-Mabe and her husband, Larry Mabe. Though never in a crisis, they were drawn to LOT 2540 more than a year ago when they moved to the area from Arizona and needed to purchase inexpensive clothes, furniture and housewares.
Since then, the couple has participated in a Bible study, and they have taken classes in nutrition, budgeting and couponing.
“It’s developing life skills to move toward independence,” Roberts says.
And meanwhile, he says that God has continued to open doors.
A few months ago, Roberts was playing cornhole at a church in Greensboro and telling an opponent what he did for a living. The opponent, an architect, just happened to know about a house that was going to be torn down in Irving Park.
A few phone calls later, and LOT 2540 was given the opportunity to salvage all the materials from the house before the demolition.
Windows. Solid-wood doors. Cabinets. Light fixtures. Sinks. A wrought-iron stairway. Sconces. Oak floors.
LOT 2540 had it all sold within three weeks.
“Well over 1,000 families were served off of that one gift,” says Roberts.
That gives LOT more resources with which to do its job.
And the biggest job is making sure that, for folks like Neal, rock bottom is never a permanent dwelling place.