Keeping the Faith
“I was hungry and you fed me, naked and you clothed me, sick and you visited me……What you have done for the least of these, you have done for Me.” She had read these words many times before, but this time they jumped off the page, and a calling was born. The story of Agape is Bobbye Wethington’s story. She liked to call this Scripture in Matthew 25 an “open –book test”, the answers to our final exam printed well in advance for all to read. And though we live in a time now bound by political correctness and cautious speech on matters of personal faith, Bobbye’s faith and Agape’s profound impact are undeniably linked. “Treat others the way you would want to be treated.” “Love never fails.” These were more than just Sunday- school notions to Bobbye. They are literally the foundation on which she built her ministry 25 years ago.
Working as a disc-jockey at a local Christian radio station in the early 1980’s, Bobbye had already developed a reputation for her extraordinary compassion. Many times after work you could find her at the phone or electric company, paying an overdue bill for a stranger who had asked for prayer the night before on her call-in show. She ended each night with these words: “Jesus loves you, and so do I!” A novice at the technical side of the business, but a natural behind the microphone, Bobbye was taught to imagine that she was speaking to just one person. Broadcasting during the “graveyard shift”, she formed a unique bond with her listeners. A trucker, driving all night to make ends meet. A lonely widow simply unable to sleep. A housewife, up early to get the kids ready for school- each were drawn in by the caring voice on the other side of the radio. One night, a caller told her that he couldn’t usually listen to her whole show, because he worked mornings, but that he always set his alarm clock to go off right before the end of her show. “You’re the only one in my life that tells me that you love me, and you tell me everyday”, he said. In the Bible belt, a lot of people were saying “Jesus loves you”, but not many were following it with “and so do I!” We all see the hurt and suffering in the world but only a few are driven to action. Through experiences like these, Bobbye developed a passion for underdogs and lost causes.
The landmark emptying of many mental health hospitals in the 70’s, known as “deinstitutionalization”, created an epidemic of homelessness among the mentally ill community, and an unprecedented climate of fear and ignorance spread like wildfire through the affected cities, Knoxville among them. By 1980, according to many estimates, 85 percent of the homeless population was also suffering from a mental illness. The demand for housing, coupled with the lack of funding for it, birthed a system of care unlike the one before it. “Board and care homes” sprung up in many low-income areas, often housing sixteen people in one home. It should be offered that many of these facilities were operated by good people, doing the best they could to help whomever they could. All too often though, these homes were squalid and in disrepair, making the situation barely better than being homeless. The correlating absence of any substantial government oversight also made it easy for many of these owners to take financial advantage of their clients. When Bobbye set out to create a system of housing and support for the mentally ill, she faced widespread myths associated with those illnesses, and also sought ways to reshape public opinion about group homes and the quality of care they could provide. It was going to be the battle of her life.
“Not in my backyard.” It’s a sentiment so common that those in the mental health field have reduced it to an acronym. If Bobbye had chosen a rundown house in the inner city of Knoxville for the site of her facility, maybe there would have been less public outcry. Instead, she selected a ten-bedroom home in the historically middle class Fountain City area, sparking a bit of controversy. Soon after, the family sold their house in the suburbs of Powell, Tennessee, found a bank willing to loan her the money to get started, and went to work on the 90 year old house, which had been subdivided into three apartments by the previous owner. Once the work was completed in the winter of 1983, the State Licensure office and Fire Marshall inspections gave her the green light to begin taking in clients. Community support for the project left a lot to be desired, as expected. But neighborhood petitions and veiled threats eventually gave way to acceptance, and in many cases, respect. Many of these early antagonists are Agape’s strongest supporters today, owing mostly to Bobbye’s sheer will and determination. “They deserve a home in a nice neighborhood, too”, she would say. There was definitely something different about this woman.
Twenty-five years later, Agape is a leader in supportive housing for mentally ill men. We house and care for 24 clients in three separate facilities in the Fountain City area of Knoxville. The level of care and underlying philosophy of that care is a direct influence of our founder. Over the last two decades of her life, Bobbye worked tirelessly, not only for the success of her program, but for changes in mental health legislation at large and stricter oversight on supportive housing standards. She served on countless planning councils and committees in Nashville, which successfully lobbied for health insurance parity for the treatment of mental illnesses in the 1990’s. That Agape still stands today is a testament to the potential of a life given in service to others. Bobbye Wethington passed away in February of 2004, at the age of 62. Perhaps the most remarkable thing that can be said about her legacy is that she passed it on to her three children, Todd, Jonathan, and Benjamin. They were only boys when they began the journey that would change their family forever. She confidently obeyed her calling and raised her family among the “least of these”, offering them a unique perspective on life that cannot be overstated. Today, Bobbye’s son Benjamin serves as Executive Director of Agape Outreach Homes, Inc. Todd Wethington served as a Residential Assistant and Chairman of the Board of Directors for Agape until his untimely passing in June of 2000 at the age of thirty. Jonathan Wethington served as a Residential Assistant from 1997 to 2004. He and his wife Curry served alongside Benjamin as Co-Directors of the program from 2004-2006. They now reside in Mount Juliet, Tennessee where Jonathan serves on the pastoral staff in his church.
Agape Outreach Homes is a non-profit organization which provides housing and care for men with severe persistent mental illness. Agape is a Greek word meaning “unconditional love."
Agape Outreach Homes provides food, shelter, personal care, activities, outings, vacations, opportunities for intellectual, social and spiritual growth and, above all, love. We provide facilities for both transitional and independent housing.
The original Agape Home opened in January 1983 on Garden Drive in the Fountain City area of Knoxville. The following year, two more facilities were added just a few blocks away, on Jacksboro Pike. The Jacksboro location was remodeled to include a common r
Agape Outreach Homes is a non-profit organization which provides housing and care for men with severe persistent mental illness. Agape is a Greek word meaning “unconditional love”, and Agape Outreach Homes exists to extend this love to our clients an