BYLINE: DeNeen L. Brown, Washington Post Staff Writer
The last time money came up missing from Love's Family Restaurant, owner Samuel T. Love Sr. knew it was his head waiter who had helped himself.
So "Papa Love," as his family and regular customers call him, put on his coat and walked up the street to find out just how far Jerry Rufus had gone.
He went first to the drugstore, and then to the supermarket, where he questioned a clerk. The clerk nodded. Yes, he had seen Rufus. The waiter hadn't bothered to take off his white shirt and red apron before exchanging a roll of quarters for bills. He had taken the money and run -- to get his next dosage of heroin.
That wasn't the first time Rufus had stolen from the Love family, which owns the restaurant that serves helpings of love, greens and chitterlings on H Street NE.
All kinds of people from the Northeast Washington neighborhood walk into the restaurant with the maroon tablecloths, plastic plates and waiters who have been down on their luck. People come for food when they are hungry, money when they are behind on the rent and a bathroom when they are homeless.
Nobody is turned away. And nobody remembers the last time someone came to the family for help and one of the Loves said no, even to Rufus, who has known them 15 years and done them wrong plenty of times.
"The man has lifted me up so many times," said Rufus, 50, a recovering heroin addict, who met the Loves at church before he "backslid."
"I've stolen from him," he said of Samuel Love Sr. "I stole his car. I took money from the till. I'm not talking about one or two dollars. I'm talking hundreds, like it was my money. I've done everything to that man but verbally disrespect him. Me, I have no business being here."
The Loves have sent Rufus to drug treatment centers and given him shelter when he was homeless.
Samuel Love Sr., 73, said a lot of people wonder how he can keep forgiving this man after all he's done. "I say God gives us a chance. Just like we mess up, he forgives us and gives us a chance to come back," Love Sr. said. "I feel like if I can't trust somebody, I'm not following God's rules."
Said Irene Love, 65, "I always say, 'Never look down on someone unless you're picking them up.' "
The Loves -- Irene and Samuel Sr. and their children, Samuel Jr. and Althea Love-Salvatierra -- said they believe that the restaurant, whose customers say serves some of the best soul food in town, is more than a business. It is a haven for people in need, the kind of place that government officials hope will fill holes in the social service safety net. They've given away more food and money than they can count. There is nothing in the books that can measure how much, and they are not looking for a profit.
They advertise as a restaurant that serves soul food in a Christian atmosphere.
"We break even, but it's all right," Love-Salvatierra said. "This restaurant to me is not just a restaurant; it's a ministry. We believe God blessed us with this place, so we've got to do what he blessed us to do."
Sometimes people promise to pay later. Some return to pay a little on their bills; others don't. But the Loves carry no grudges and keep giving. The Loves, who are not affiliated with any organized feeding program or homeless shelter, said they believe they are offering a service to people and the city.
"You don't know what a person might do if they get too hungry," Irene Love said. "They might hit somebody in the head. Maybe giving someone a sandwich could stop someone from snatching a purse or doing something to someone to get a sandwich."
On a recent chilly night, a man pushed open the door to the restaurant at 514 H St. NE. It was near closing time, and Irene Love was near the cash register. The man, scratching and dirty, asked for a dollar. One of the waiters reached in his pocket and gave the man a bill. Before the man turned to leave and without hesitation, Irene Love yelled to the cook to fix the man a sandwich.
Irene Love is from Virginia, her husband from North Carolina. They ran a family restaurant in New York before moving to Washington. Irene Love's face has soft, brown folds, a countenance that soothes customers with an expression that says everything will be okay. She rarely raises her voice.
Samuel Love Sr. also is quiet. He speaks in measured tones and talks often about the ways of a religious man.
The menu includes hamburger steak, pig's feet, fish, barbecued ribs, cabbage, greens, fish and grits and scrapple -- all prepared from recipes Irene Love keeps in her head. Regular customers include cabdrivers, government workers and others, who say the food is good and the Loves are like family.
The restaurant employs 15 people, including some who were recently released from jail and mothers seeking to end dependence on government assistance. "People use this as a steppingstone," Love-Salvatierra said. "Mom teaches them how to cook and teaches them on the grill."
Love-Salvatierra said the business breaks even most times. But the family's generosity sometimes makes them late paying utility bills. "We may have to pay another deposit, but somebody's kids aren't on the street," she said.
On a recent afternoon, Gospel music poured from a small box radio on the window sill behind the cash register. Irene Love was sitting in her favorite chair across the small table from Papa Love. For 16 years, from 7 a.m., when the restaurant opens, to 7 p.m., when it closes, the Loves have watched a stream of people flow through their door.
A transvestite named Jacquelyn walked in. His tight denim skirt was dirty. He swept long, brown curls from his wig out of his face. His eyes were lined with thick, black mascara. He took a seat near the corner and promptly was served his favorite dish of pork chops. It didn't matter that Jacquelyn rarely pays on time.
"I like to come in out of the madness, come to a real setting," Jacquelyn said. "The people here are down to earth. There is no pretense. They make you feel like it's family."
None of the customers looked twice when Jacquelyn came in. He returned later to change clothes after doing his laundry.
Mae Bridges, 61, a waitress who wears white shoes and a net over her red hair, said the Loves are the best employers she's ever worked for. But the retired cook for the National Institutes of Health said the Love family also is too trusting. "A lot of people come in and keep begging and begging, and they keep giving and giving," Bridges said. "They never say no. You should see the stack of tickets of people who won't pay.
"You never see them angry and harsh," she said. "If something goes wrong, they put it in God's hands and pray. If I come in here with a headache, they say, 'Don't claim it. It's the devil. Pray.' "
Bridges keeps track of how much customers owe the Loves. She opened the book on who has an outstanding balance: Kevin owes 75 cents; Jacky owes $ 2.75; Charles, a regular, owes $ 6.75; Walter, $ 8.70; and Wolfe, $ 3.30.
The Loves said their goodwill comes back in the form of an informal neighborhood watch that focuses on their restaurant.
"You see good things happen here," Rufus said. "They won't touch this shop."