By Jeff Brumley
Texan Blake Barrow has two main callings in life. One is to serve the hungry and homeless. The other is to serve barbeque.
And now the three-time Baylor University graduate has cooked up a plan to combine those two passions into a barbecue restaurant that will be completely staffed with residents of the Rescue Mission of El Paso — which Barrow serves as CEO.
Hallelujah BBQ will serve smoked brisket, turkey, sausage and chicken, among other entrees, along with a slew of traditional sides. It will all happen in a building built in 1890 as offices for trolley workers — a building the rescue mission acquired in a recent move.
Barrow is a Houston native who’s spent time in the United Methodist, Pentecostal and Episcopal churches before landing at Coronado Baptist Church in El Paso. He felt early callings to share the gospel, an urging that led him to Emory University’s Chandler School of Theology in Atlanta.
He finished that degree but then returned to Baylor for a law degree, which he earned in 1988 — nearly a decade after earning his bachelor’s there.
But God, he said, got another hold of him and in 1997 he left a successful trial lawyer practice in El Paso to lead the rescue mission there.
“This is the way I do ministry now,” he said. “I love it.”
What he also loves is barbecue. And by that, he means Texas-style barbecue. Especially brisket cooked so long and hot it doesn’t need sauce.
And forget about the Carolina-style barbecue he found while living in Georgia.
“In that part of the world it’s a dead pig soaked in vinegar,” he said.
Barrow, 57, shared about his vision to open Hallelujah BBQ in 2016 and how those plans fit into his calling to serve the least of these.
As an undergrad at Baylor, you drove 100 miles at times to find barbeque. Why?
I love barbeque. I always have. I was raised in Houston, and we did not have really good barbeque in Houston back then. … There was a guy who had a corner … on the road going toward Midway, and he would build a fire inside an old propane tank and crank that thing up to 400 degrees. He used a salt base that would melt into a glaze …. That was really good. But the best barbeque has always been in little towns, so I would drive far and wide.
How did you get into cooking barbecue yourself, and do you enter contests?
No. The problem I have entering barbecue contests is that when I cook up a really good brisket, I just wanted to eat it. So I just did it on my own …. There was a little business in Rosebud, Texas, and these people would build solid-steel, offset smokers. Back in the 1970s, those weren’t always around. So … when I was married in 1981, my in-laws asked me what I wanted as a wedding present. I said, well, I want one of those smokers on my back porch.
When did you get into catering?
Before we contemplated opening the restaurant, we were doing catering jobs for my church, Coronado Baptist Church. For the last two years, we’ve cooked barbeque to serve 300 people at these events. But since we announced to the world we are opening Hallelujah BBQ, the first really nice job we had was for my barber’s 50th wedding anniversary ….
Will all the employees at Hallelujah be residents of the mission?
Pretty much all. I may hire some supervisory personnel as teachers, but I’ve got some folks working in the rescue mission kitchen right now who can switch over and be superb teachers.
Is there a goal at Hallelujah BBQ beyond serving barbecue?
One of the things I am trying to do is change the perception the world has of the homeless …. I’ve got people here in the shelter who, for one reason or another, have fallen on hard times — frequently for health reasons …. It didn’t take me too long at the mission to discover that the folks we are ministering to have tremendous talents and a desire to work. Our customers will know when they come into the restaurant that all the people cooking the food and serving the food are homeless people and want a job and are trying to get their feet on the ground.
When did you feel called to this life of service?
It was a divine calling …. I went to law school and came to El Paso to be a lawyer, and I am a good trial lawyer. And then God called me and said its time to do something else. That was in 1997.
Is that when you joined the mission?
Yes, and this is the way I do ministry. I love it. If Jesus were running around right now I think he would be at a rescue mission.
How do you see that as the fulfilment of a calling?
It’s Matthew 25. Jesus said whatever you did for the least of these, you actually did that for me. So when someone walks into the rescue mission who is homeless and hungry, the service we provide is service directly to Jesus.