You can expect to be called “precious” throughout any conversation with Mother Clara Atwater, and have that conversation end with “have a gingerbready day.” Mother Clara, pastor emeritus of Love Tabernacle and founder of Gingerbread Land, Inc., walks the talk she preaches. She wants everyone to feel special and she knows that, in God’s eyes, everyone IS precious.
Mother Clara, as she likes to be called, moved to Milwaukee from Detroit, Michigan in the early 1960s as a young woman seeking employment, because jobs were more plentiful here during that time. Shortly after arriving in Milwaukee she accepted Christ and began to embrace the notion that her purpose in life was to benefit others.
“I didn’t really know anybody in Milwaukee, so I started going out into the community and befriending people. I noticed children going to school and saw that no one seemed to be caring about them. I started helping them by holding classes in my home after school. In addition to their school work, I taught them how to get along with others and become better human beings. Before I knew it, parents heard about what I was doing, noticed the difference in their children’s attitudes, and not only did they start sending more children, but adults also started coming to my home,” she said.
That was the impetus for founding Love Tabernacle and, eventually, its nonprofit arm, Gingerbread Land. Including Mother Clara’s house, these entities now occupy seven homes on First and Burleigh Streets. She dubbed her house the Gingerbread House because it is colorfully painted in pinks and purples.
“For a time, I was touring and teaching women in California. During one visit to the University of California at Berkeley, I went into this beautiful gingerbread-themed restaurant. I looked around at the décor—there were dolls and everything was bright, lively with happy colors. While I was sitting there the thought came to me to return to Milwaukee and create Gingerbread Land, so I did,” she said.
Gingerbread Land is a nonprofit organization reaching out to those in need of support, guidance, and love. Since 1989, thousands have been assisted through the organization, thanks to Mother Clara’s efforts and love. The mission of the organization is to be a beacon of love and hope to all while instilling a sense of worth, personal growth, and Christian values in the underserved people in Milwaukee; and providing food, shelter, and clothing for the needy.
The seven housing units that comprise Gingerbread Land are located on Milwaukee’s East Side. Currently, recovering drug addicts, persons with physical and mental disabilities, and several people in need of temporary shelter occupy the homes. It has been a safe haven for many of the residents as they attend church at Love Tabernacle, where Mother Clara’s grandson now ministers the word of God.
“The mission for Love Tabernacle is one of love. We initially met in the basement of my home. We quickly outgrew the basement, so we moved to Third and Wright streets and started the mission of love. After even more growth, we moved to First and Center Streets and, after three years, purchased the building,” she said.
Mother Clara also gives praise to the Milwaukee Brewers baseball club, which helped her purchase some of the properties and donated the houses to her.
“People have seen what we do and how we do it, and they support us. Many of the young people that we took off the streets and embraced at Gingerbread Land are now professionals—teachers and the like. They also support our efforts, come back and visit and recount how not one of them living on the block and visiting Gingerbread Land ended up dying to violence,” she said.
Mother Clara also has a radio show and now at age 80-plus, she broadcasts five days a week on radio station WTLB-DB, from 12 noon to 12:30 p.m.
“We teach prayer and how to develop prayers so that people can communicate with their spiritual father. We teach the simplicity of prayer. We have never kept membership information at Love Tabernacle. We take people in, teach them, and then expect them to go out into the community to help others. I take the hooligans, as they call them, love the troublemakers, and teach them to become productive. You have to care about your community. Milwaukee isn’t a bad place to be; you just have to love people. Children come here in droves. We are helping people to develop and mature,” she said.
Throughout the block where Gingerbread Land stands, there is African artwork prominently displayed.
“We teach about African heritage. Everything we do is to educate people about who they are. We have beautiful art displays. People stop and read. The pieces have commentary on how wonderfully we have been created,” she said.
“I’m going to do what I do until my body retires, but I enjoy it. I watch all my family; they are mostly teachers and professionals. I love my family,” she said.