The soulful taste of fried catfish, gumbo and crawfish etouffee draws many local residents to a small Cajun cafe that displays colorful hand-written scripture on white brick walls and hums with gospel music on the east side of Austin. Diners are overwhelmed as the taunting smells of smothered okra and cornbread whirl around them making them second-guess every decision they make on what to eat.
These customers are not only clueless about what to order from the Cajun menu but are unaware that their hurried consumption of too-good-to-be-true comfort food supports a 50-year-old, overworked but uncomplaining, lone restaurant operator on a self-proclaimed mission from God.
“The customers are my angels, and they are the ones who give, and they don’t even know what they are doing,” says Lola Stephens-Bell or Queen Lola of Nubian Queen Lola’s Cajun Soul Food Café.
Sitting in her cluttered restaurant, decorated in purple, gold and green, like the colors of Mardi Gras, Queen Lola continuously gives glory to God while she explains her decision to close her doors to paying business every Sunday to exclusively serve the homeless.
“I am just doing what I always saw my mama do,” Lola says.
Lola, born and raised in Lake Charles, La., moved to Austin in 1980. She decided to stay and help her sister, a college student and mother, raise her kids instead of continuing on her journey to Hollywood to, as she says, “sing, dance or play the fool.” She was sixteen and just graduated high school. Her mission then was to become famous and build a big dream house for her mother who taught her how to cook.
After a few years of living in Austin, times got hard and she was diagnosed with the inflammatory autoimmune disease lupus that attacks the body’s own tissues. At the same time, many of Lola’s family members began to pass away. A depression overcame her, and she found herself living on the streets at three different points in her life. Lola says she has no idea why. Twenty seven years later Lola says she is not upset or ashamed of her past because she says it helps her be there for others today.
Lola says, “I thank God I was homeless because I know exactly what to do to help.”
Lola says she serves 350 homeless and needy people each week.
Ten years ago, Lola worked to get $500 together to pay her first month’s rent for her restaurant, but it took all she had. It seemed as if her mission would end before it even got started, Lola says. Then, Vernon Cartwright came along.
Cartwright, a local contractor, found Lola sitting in front of her restaurant on the corner of Chicon Street and Rosewood Avenue. He stopped only to ask where he can park on the busy road but their encounter led to him and Lola on a shopping spree, buying over $1,000 of equipment. Lola says Cartwright wanted a place to get authentic Cajun food.
“The only reason I haven’t shut down and given up is because I don’t want others like him to not help someone like me. I have to honor him and God for what was done for me.”
Lola runs the restaurant Monday through Saturday without employees and does most of her charity work alone. She goes out many times during the week to six low-income projects to serve children and families with a bus full of not only her Cajun food but also spaghetti, burgers and a variety of meals that the people want. She works all day and throughout the week to serve everyone who knocks on her door.
Lola says people wonder about the way she does things, and say she should scale back her charity work to make more money, but Lola says making a profit is not her focus. She says money is only but a tool to plant seeds of hope in the people around her.
“When you check the back of money it says ‘In God We Trust,’” Lola says while shaking her head, “God trusts in me to do right with what he gives me.”
Lola says divine assistance comes in forms of unexpected large donations and volunteers when she grows tired and food stores start to get low.
Frequent volunteers, Aaron Bartlett and his wife Lacy moved into Austin from California about a year ago. They started volunteering each month when introduced to Lola through their church.
“If everyone had the same passion for other people like Lola, the city would be significantly different in a positive way,” Aaron says.
Lacy says she keeps coming back to build relationships and learn from Lola on how to communicate and work with a crowd she is not familiar with.
“The fact that she has come from this community is absolutely necessary. We cannot come and do what she does because we are not a credible voice as she is,” Lacy says.
“The churches have closed the door on them [the homeless] and hope is leaving them and that’s why they stay homeless for so long,” Lola says.
Although not the free hotel Lola wants to build for the homeless, she recently opened a prayer house in her backyard where she preaches the Bible, sings songs and allows others to give their testimony while people are gathered, eating.
“God told me you done fed the people, you clothed the people and now it’s time for you to teach them how to pray,” Lola says.
Her efforts have spawned a countless number of success stories.
“Many people have gotten off of drugs because of the preaching and some move territory. They call me up or come by to let me know how they are doing,” Lola says.
She says everything she does is not easy but her support from God and the genuine love she gets from the people she helps keeps her on her mission.