The Rev. David Altschul is a gift to one of the city’s iconic but troubled streets
Wind swirls around him, inflates his black robes and blows loose trash above his ankles.
The Rev. David Altschul pauses this morning and considers the debris outside Reconciliation Services, the nonprofit he runs at the corner of 31st Street and Troost. Over the years, the organization has provided counseling; referrals and advocacy for uninsured, underinsured and low-income people; a food pantry; and a place to worship.
Troost, Altschul decides, resembles a beach. But instead of wave after wave of water, litter and loose scrap are what continually wash up on its shores.
He smiles, finding humor in the observation where others might see another reason to despair. To Altschul, the debris signals not defeat but the ongoing work that must be done to turn Troost into his vision of a “village.”
Altschul’s optimism stands out as much as he does on the avenue. Dressed entirely in black, with his ZZ Top beard and long gray ponytail, he attracts attention. Rabbi? Gandalf? Osama bin Laden? He has been called all three.
The names don’t faze him. Instead, they give him a chance to explain that he is a priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church.
To many, he is known by his baptized name of Father Paisius. His riassa, the black robes, and skufia, or cap, represent the color of mourning for his sins and the sins of the world. His untrimmed hair and beard represent the belief that an orthodox priest should focus on the soul, not on the body.
With explanations of his appearance out of the way, he moves on to talk about his vision of a transformed Troost.
Changes have already begun. The annual Troost Festival, which Altschul helped start in 2005, celebrates the neighborhood and its history.
Over the last decade, more artists have been moving in, too. The Telephonebooth Gallery moved out of the Crossroads and reopened at 3319 Troost in 2002. Hoop Dog Studio at 33rd Street and Troost opened in 2003. An artist collective at 1809 Troost, called simply the 1809, provides outlets for theater, dance and poetry, among other creative endeavors.
Next year, Altschul plans to survey neighborhood residents, asking what excites them about the area, what makes them angry, what changes they want to see — and whether they’re willing to help make those changes happen. He also hopes to form groups of people to talk about bringing more art outlets to the area, along with education and health programs and other services.
“You have to have a vision to make it better,” he says in a soft, matter-of-fact voice. “Some people might think, Man, I got to get out of the ghetto.” But he knows that other like-minded souls will think, Let’s fix this.
On a Thursday morning, Altschul climbs into his red Chevy Geo and drives south toward the Bruce R. Watkins Cultural Heritage Center.
On the center’s second floor, 11 tall orange panels depict the history of Troost. Altschul developed the display with Carol Rhodes-Dyson, a childhood friend and Reconciliation Services colleague who has a background in museum exhibition.
“I met David at Bishop Hogan High School in 1960-something,” Rhodes-Dyson says from her current home in Washington, D.C. Altschul was the class president, and she was the class vice president, she remembers. “He has always been a deep thinker. Always in the top five GPA. He was brilliant but he could connect with people, too.”
Their exhibition, called 200 Years on Troost, opened in July. Today, Altschul will discuss it with a handful of students from Rockhurst University’s urban immersion program.
The first panel depicts an Osage Indian in 1808. Present-day Troost was one of the main trails that the American Indians used, Altschul explains. In 1808, the Osage Nation surrendered more than 52.5 million acres of land to the United States. This marked the beginning of the modern era of Troost Avenue.
“The Native Americans had a commitment to community and the environment,” he says. “Those things were ignored in western expansion. Because of that neglect, we have to backtrack so we can recover those ideals.”
The students nod but say nothing. Altschul walks to the next panel, which depicts the Porter Slave Plantation. In 1832, the Rev. James Porter left Tennessee with his family and 40 slaves, en route to what would become Kansas City. Porter purchased land at 27th Street and Troost, which quickly grew to 365 acres.
“What surprises me is the number of people who have no idea the Porter Plantation existed,” Altschul says. “I’d like to find their descendants and learn about their lives as they grew up in Kansas City — find out our common ancestry, common struggle, help us dialogue on our past and plan for the future.”
He talks the students through more panels on the Civil War and Reconstruction. During a real-estate boom in the 1880s, the cleared land on the Porter Plantation became an ideal investment — resulting in the “Millionaires Row” from 26th Street to Linwood.
He tells the students about the 1920s, when Walt Disney labored to start his career and showed his films at the Isis Theater, which is now a vacant lot across the street from Reconciliation Services.
Altschul moves through World War II, the burgeoning civil rights movement of the 1950s and the unrest of the 1960s. Redlining, a discriminatory practice in which banks refused to lend money or extend credit to borrowers in certain “struggling” areas of town, became prevalent around Troost during those years, he says, and hastened the area’s decline.
“All we have are our ghosts. By looking to our history, we can draw inspiration to become a different kind of community. Why can’t we build a village? Why can’t we pull together goods, services, a place where the village comes together? I recognize, man, there’s a lot of behind-the-scenes work to be done to deal with these issues. We have a lot to do.”
When he asks if they have any questions, the students remain quiet.
Altschul is disappointed in the lack of feedback.
Later, Alicia Douglas, director of Rockhurst’s Community Relations and Outreach, who organized the visit, will tell The Pitch that the students were inspired. “They wanted to learn more,” she says.
But for now, Altschul gets back into his Geo without knowing the impression he has made. It’s impossible to know whether any of them got it. He thinks some of them did. He put it out there. You don’t impose your values; you expose your values, he likes to say.
Besides, challenges are his opportunities to bring people together. He has faced many before.
As a boy, Altschul considered Kansas City his Bedford Falls, the mythical town that Jimmy Stewart vainly tries to flee in the Christmas classic, It’s A Wonderful Life.
He was born in Orlando. His father was in the Air Force, and the family moved frequently, eventually drawn back to Kansas City as if by a homing instinct. His Jewish immigrant grandfather lived at 46th Street and Troost. His father had attended Westport High School. When Altschul was 10, the family settled in a house at 75th Street and the Paseo.
“I always heard about California, New York. I thought, Wow, if I could go someplace else, my life would be complete. I’d visit Colorado and other places. I thought it would be great to see mountains, oceans.”
In those days, Troost was considered midtown. Along with downtown and the Plaza, it was the place to shop, hang out, catch a movie, have a soda. Jewish, Greek and Irish Catholic families made up the neighborhoods around it.
But one day when Altschul was 15, this Mayberry atmosphere was shattered.
That day, his 18-year-old brother, Ted, was hitchhiking on the Paseo at about 6 p.m. when a car slowed to pick him up.
The three men in the car had been drinking. One of the men tried to fondle him, and Ted fought him off. When the driver stopped near the intersection of the Paseo and Volker, Ted jumped out of the car and ran, but the three men chased him. They fought. One of the men shot Ted several times in the chest and stomach, and the three men fled.
They left Ted at the side of the road. Barely able to stand, he told drivers who had stopped at the intersection that he had been shot and needed a ride to the hospital. The drivers rolled up their windows and ignored his pleas. An ambulance eventually arrived.
Ted lived a few hours at Menorah Hospital before he died. He might have lived, the doctors said, if he had been brought to the hospital sooner.
Furious at the drivers who had ignored his brother, and dismayed by Ted’s sudden death, Altschul sank into a depression. He found some relief after Ted’s girlfriend invited him to a concert in Volker Park, where bands played every Sunday to hundreds of young people in beads, torn jeans and tie-dyed shirts.
He got into the why-can’t-we-just-love-one-another vibe of peace, love and opposition to the Vietnam War.
At the Sign Coffeehouse on Westport Road, he met friends who carried on idealistic conversations, imagining a world not marred by strife and talking about the evils of materialism and money. They had no clue that they were living a lie. That became obvious to Altschul one night at a party, when one guest accused another of not making enough money on a drug deal.
Disillusioned, he quit the hippie scene.
From there, Altschul’s life took a spiritual direction.
A Catholic priest who knew of Altschul’s interest in the values espoused by the hippie movement — in theory, if not in practice — invited David to the House of Agape, an interdenominational movement of Jesus freaks who espoused simplicity over consumerism.
Agape House had been founded in 1969 by Independence native David Rose, who was 22 at the time. Rose had been part of a similar group in Berkeley before moving back to Kansas City. As many as 700 young people crammed into the basement of the Second Presbyterian Church at 55th Street and Oak for songs and Bible readings.
“People had guitars, and we sang songs of praise to God,” Altschul remembers. “There were rock musicians called the Hallelujah Joy Band. … If you were 26, you were old.”
At his first Agape gathering, he watched a man pray for another man who had been injured in a motorcycle accident. He extended his hand and said, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk.” And the man did.
Altschul knows that many people dismiss this story as snake oil, but he’s not troubled by those who doubt him. He believes now, as he did then, that the injured man was healed through prayer.
Altschul decided to search for Christ himself. He listened to George Harrison and contorted himself in painful yoga positions each day after school for two weeks and tried to meditate. His legs cramped, but nothing else happened.
He told an Agape House member, “It’s not working.” Rose said he would pray for him. God was a gift you receive, he told Altschul. Don’t work at it.
“That night, I felt a real release,” Altschul remembers. “For the first time since my brother’s death, I felt an inner quiet and warmth. That evening and the next day, I read the Bible. I could not put it down. I felt a hunger for the life of Christ.”
Many Agape members studied at Full Faith Bible College in Kansas City, Kansas. Altschul enrolled. He was 17.
About the same time, he met a woman named Laura Amador, also an Agape House member. A year later, he would marry her.
“We believed in spontaneity,” he explains. “Also, as Christians, we knew we couldn’t sleep around. We decided to honor the teachings of Christ about marriage.”
Marriage changed his life in more ways than he anticipated. After a few years, he and Laura had two sons. (Now grown, the sons live and work in New York.) Spiritual growth gave way to the need for economic security and supporting his family.
He graduated from Full Faith Bible College in 1973 as an ordained nondenominational minister, but Laura insisted that he find a “real job.”
He decided to sell insurance and mutual funds, trying to convince himself that he would be helping people care for their families.
But one afternoon, when he was working his way through a flip chart trying to make a sale, he turned to his potential clients and said, “You know what? There’s no such thing as financial independence.” He told them that material gain should not be their goal in life, and he proceeded to recite from the book of Matthew: “Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat, or what ye shall drink; nor yet for your body, what ye shall put on. Is not the life more than meat, and the body than raiment?”
He didn’t make the sale. Laura told him that he was like a robot doing the right things but with no feeling. He felt himself shriveling inside. He won the torn T-shirt “award” for having the worst insurance sales record.
A year later, he and Laura divorced. (Today, they remain friends.)
He was still selling insurance in 1984, when he stopped at Donnelly Bookstore at Linwood and Gillham and picked up a book on St. Francis of Assisi, whose story goes like this:
While riding his horse down a country road, Francis encountered a leper and had an epiphany. He quickly dismounted and kissed the leper. As Francis moved down the road and looked back, the leper disappeared, as if he had been a divine vision.
Altschul reflected on this story as he drove to a gas station. As he filled his tank, he saw a man whom he assumed was homeless. The man spoke indistinctly and walked with a limp. Altschul thought that the man might have suffered a stroke and asked him if he needed a ride. The man said no; he was OK. However, he suggested that Altschul visit his hotel, where needy people lived.
If the La Salle Hotel at Linwood and Harrison had ever been swank, those days were long gone. Altschul discovered people who had not eaten in days or had only cans of beans. Still, life emanated from the place.
He remembers a man named Jerome, who was 70.
Jerome loved eating at Church’s Chicken. Cockroaches scattered across Jerome’s apartment floor in waves when he showed Altschul his pet project: a 5-foot-long model boat built entirely from chicken bones. Hull, mast, even sails. Other residents had contributed their chicken bones, too.
“It was an incredible piece of artwork,” Altschul remembers. “My eyes opened totally at how he did something so unique. I didn’t think he was crazy. I saw his ship as part of an urge to do something within the limitations of his life.”
With the help of friends, Altschul brought food to the La Salle once a week. Over time, this effort became a restaurant, Grace’s Kitchen, named after the resident cook and the suggestion of God’s grace. The cost of a meal was whatever a customer could give.
One afternoon at the hotel, when Altschul was wearing his dark three-piece suit and shined shoes, he met a woman named Thelma Beaver.
“Who are you?” she asked. “The FBI?”
She was his real introduction to inner city life. He watched her talk to homeless people on the street and offer them temporary shelter in her small apartment. At one time, she had about 20 people crashing on her floor. In public, she came off as tough, but her compassion showed when she made dinners for the disabled residents of the hotel.
Altschul and Beaver argued. He told her to quit smoking. She said she had tried. He told her that if she didn’t stop, he would go on a hunger strike. She told him to go ahead — and starve.
Eventually, she quit smoking, and he stopped being so self-righteous.
By then, he had moved into the La Salle. And eventually, he quit selling insurance and accepted a job with an employment agency. In 1986, he and Beaver married.
“At first, it was rocky together,” recalls Thelma, a short, willful woman. “We argued all the time … I told him he was not getting enough rest. We still argue about that one.”
They wanted a house, a cheap place with several rooms and a landlord who wouldn’t care about the number of people going in and out. They moved into a condemned one-story house at 34th Street and Forest. Soon, it filled with people who were homeless or mentally ill and with prostitutes and undocumented workers who wanted to change their lives, as well as with college kids who wanted to help the poor.
One night, as families slept on the floor, they were awakened by a loud knocking on the front door. Suddenly, it burst open, and a man with a gun chased another man through the house. The first man escaped through a bathroom window. Everyone was screaming but Thelma.
“All right, get out of here!” Thelma told the gunman, while shrugging off Altschul, who was trying to pull her away from him. To Altschul’s amazement, the man dropped the gun to his side and said, “Yes, ma’am.”
“Get out of my house,” Thelma demanded.
Altschul called the police. And he wondered: What kind of woman did I marry?
He also began to wonder what kind of life he and Thelma would have if they kept using their home as a social-service center. But that wasn’t the only problem — the house was now infested with rats.
They moved to another house on 32nd Terrace between Tracy and the Paseo and, with a few old friends and people from the neighborhood, formed Reconciliation Ministries.
Altschul left his job and survived on donations from people who supported his ministry. When funds ran low, he painted houses for cash. He rarely made more than $500 a month.
The next year, he and Thelma distributed 300 donated turkeys on Thanksgiving. Boxes of turkeys had been stacked to the ceiling. People had come in and formed a line in the living room as if they were in a Price Chopper checkout lane. By the end of the day, torn cardboard boxes and other trash littered the floor. Once again, the couple knew that they had to make a change.
The next day, Thelma ran into Harry Reaves, then director of Tycor Community Development Corp., a nonprofit that, among other things, provides low-rent space for entrepreneurial start-ups. He suggested that they consider renting his building at 31st Street and Troost.
Altschul walked into the building for the first time in January 1988. The previous tenant was a construction company that had gone out of business. File cabinets were still full of forms and contracts. Checks lay unsigned on a table. It was as if the employees had vanished. Like the rapture.
The first month, Altschul and volunteers filled trash bin after trash bin with trash. On the fourth floor, pigeon droppings had piled up 6 inches deep. They used snow shovels to dig it out before they opened in February and began providing assistance with food, clothing and shelter.
“He seemed very sincere,” Reaves recalled of his first meeting with Altschul. “He wanted to bring some services and help turn lives around. He had a good intensity about him.”
That intensity continued.
In 1992, Altschul began studying the traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. He saw a regard for people, for environment, for peace and healing that appealed to his own values.
With Thelma and two members of Reconciliation Ministries, he visited a Russian Orthodox ministry in northern California. He recalls the visit as a “timeless experience.” Eight years later, he became an ordained priest in the Serbian Orthodox Church.
He renamed Reconciliation Ministries; it’s now called St. Mary of Egypt Orthodox Church. But he kept the idea of reconciliation, naming his separate social-service agency Reconciliation Services.
The name “reconciliation” came from Altschul’s years of reflecting on what had happened to his brother.
Altschul had concluded that people’s reluctance to reach out to one another not only led to Ted’s death but also was a metaphor for what was going on in inner city neighborhoods.
Don Reck, director of Habitat ReStore, says Altschul “truly walks the walk.”
Habitat ReStore accepts donated goods — usually home-improvement items such as furniture, home accessories, building materials and appliances — that are resold to the public at a fraction of the retail price. Drawn to Troost partly by Altschul’s work, Reck has plans to renovate Uncle Jim’s Used Furniture Store, a vacant building at the corner of Troost and Linwood.
“He lives in the neighborhood. He’s in a biracial marriage. He can bring people together and show what we have in common is more important than what we don’t,” Reck says of Altschul. “That attitude draws people to him and Troost.”
Thelma describes her husband as a patient man.
That’s clear on a Thursday, when Altschul sits at a table at Reconciliation Services’ weekly community meeting. Only about a half-dozen people have shown up. Cold weather and a hard rain have kept most of the regulars at home.
The group is in a dour mood. One man expresses doubt that publicly touted green initiatives for Troost will be funded. Another says he worries that more people have not become involved in discussions about rehabilitating the avenue.
“It’s like herding cats,” the man complains. “Like getting kindergartners to line up.”
“When we try to do something nontraditional, we end up doing the same old thing. I wonder if it’s worth it,” a woman says.
“There’s not anything that coalesces the people,” another man chimes in. “No gathering place except for Reconciliation Services.”
Leaning over a notepad, Altschul listens. He rests his chin on the backs of his hands and waits a moment longer before speaking.
“It would be nice if we had all the money and involvement we wanted. But through the process of struggle, we come together,” he reminds them. “The challenges are our opportunities.”
On Troost, many opportunities remain.