Real help for the homeless
Portraits of true compassion and gospel transformation
Oct. 10 is “World Homeless Day.” According to its publicity, “people around the world will mark World Homeless Day in many varied ways and change the lives of people experiencing homelessness in their local community.”
In 1995 and early in 1996, I researched lots of ways people tried to change the lives of people experiencing homelessness. I found the best results arose among those who received challenging, personal, and spiritual help at Christian homeless shelters. What follows are columns I wrote at that time about four formerly homeless men. WORLD did not start putting articles online until mid-1996, so we’re reprinting them here.
Unwrapping the gifts of the ’60s
It’s still trendy on the Christian left to link homelessness with supposed Reagan-era government cuts in social services: They say budget dips sink ships. The truth is different: Many of the lives sinking in recent years had holes cut into their hulls 25 years ago, during liberalism’s golden age.
Take as a case study the story of Rudy Jones, 45. He grew up in a middle-class household in Washington, D.C., and as a teenager reacted, ’60s-style, to school “regimentation.” He became a voracious reader of political thrillers and worked for Hubert Humphrey’s campaign in 1968. Then he went to college, where drugs were more important than studies, and learned about LSD, speed, and surrealistic painting.
After college, Jones moved to Los Angeles and “tried to get into the film business. That’s where I really got into some fast circles. I was doing a lot of powdered cocaine out there.” The infantilized gratification-seeking that characterized late-1960s politics and culture stayed with him as he moved back to Washington and worked at a television station as a production technician and then as film and tape editor.
By 1984 Cal Ripken Jr., 30 miles to the north, had already begun his streak of showing up for work day after day, but it was hard for a child of the ’60s to be an iron man. A stripper in a strip-tease joint in 1984 introduced Jones to crack cocaine, which he had heard of before as a drug that led middle-class people to “sell their houses and break up their lives.” He had scoffed at such reports, but when he took his first hit “the bells were going off in the center of my brain.”
Jones had learned during the ’60s to satisfy his impulses, and he spent the mid-1980s turning theory into practice. More cocaine, more disintegration in his life: “It was like a slow-motion train wreck. A big long pile up.” Unable to work consistently because of his drug use, Jones left his job in 1988 and began a series of freelance assignments that would give him the money for crack without the obligation of regular labor.
The culmination came in September 1994, when he received a check for $1,500 from a public television station: “I just went nuts. Didn’t sleep or eat for four days in a row, doing crack all the time. That’s when I realized I needed to do something drastic.” Drastic for Jones was entering a live-in, anti-addiction program at the Gospel Mission in a rundown area of Washington.
Ironically, it was ’60s reasoning—don’t think about right and wrong, just show me where I can get a buzz—that led him into a program built on right and wrong: Jones based his decision to enter the Gospel Mission not on faith in Christ, but on research showing that religious anti-addiction programs are more successful than others: “I wanted to get results, I didn’t care how.”
Suddenly there was power to change, because God was helping.
Pragmatism changed to awe as Jones went through the Gospel Mission’s Bible studies and counseling programs, however. The transformation, he says, began when he stopped thinking of God as “a bunch of physics laws” and started to see Him as “a personal entity that man could relate to.” Suddenly he could pray, for he knew God was listening. Suddenly there was purpose that went outside self-pleasing, for God was watching. Suddenly there was power to change, because God was helping.
After five months Jones felt “completely changed.” When I interviewed him in February 1995, he spoke of no longer living for each day’s pleasures, as he had done since the 1960s, but dying to self and seeing God rather than man as the center of things.
Complete changes sometimes short-circuit; time heals all wounds and also tests all spiritual swoons. I’ve checked on Rudy Jones: He stayed clean and was judged ready to move out of the Gospel Mission in order to live with and care for his mother, who is now in her 80s and in need of help. He’s working in telecommunications and volunteering twice a week to teach English and writing to newcomers at the Mission. Stuck in the ’60s for three decades, he has finally grown up. And it’s time that the apologists for infantilism did so, also.
Beyond thumb-sucking pig life
One of my children’s favorite movies is a hilarious Western parody, The Three Amigos. It contains no obscene language but it does have an insulting reference to some bad guys, who are called “scum-sucking pigs.” One 5-year-old stumbled on a theological truth the other day when he quoted from the movie in a way that made sense to him: “Thumb-sucking pigs,” he said with a laugh.
I like that usage, even though those of us who took public school biology know that what separates pigs from human beings is the porkers’ lack of an opposable thumb. “Thumb-sucking pig” is a good way of describing what we are like when envy rules our lives: We want what we do not have and, instead of working for it with our own hands, we self-absorbedly suck our thumbs and wallow in our slop, hoping to be given what we have not earned.
Calvin Trillin, author of the funny food book American Fried, praises the role of envy when ordering in restaurants. Do not study the menu or listen to a waiter’s prattle, he writes; instead, see someone at an adjacent table eating a steak with great joy, point at him and his food, and tell the waiter, “I want some of that.” The Bible is less bullish on envy, however; Hebrew and Greek words for “envy” appear 23 times, and 22 of the usages are negative.
There is one positive use: The apostle Paul in Romans 11:14 hopes that he “may somehow arouse my own people to envy and save some of them.” Last week’s march in Washington provided multi-millions of dollars of free publicity to the Nation of Islam and probably prompted some envy among onlookers, but manmade religions cannot bring salvation and end up being destructive in this life, as well. Christians need to arouse non-believers to constructive envy by showing through love that the gospel turns around lives on earth, and proclaiming with credibility that it leads to eternal life in heaven.
Look, for example, at how God used Christians to help change the life of 41-year-old Jerry Minor. Minor started using heroin and cocaine when he was 19; over the next few years, he turned from “recreational user” into a drug-focused wreck of a man. Minor sold drugs on the streets but did not net much cash in the process, “because I was using as much as I was making. Most of the money went right back into my body.”
Minor did some jail time for drug-selling; he sometimes stayed at government-funded homeless shelters and treatment programs with the hope of stomping on his habit, but he found there “a lot of the same things that I was always doing. A lot of drugs, a lot of fights.” Not until he walked into the Washington, D.C., Gospel Mission in 1992—out of desperation, not belief—did his life begin to change: “I started seeing other people accepting the Lord, and realized they were getting better. I wanted some of that, because I had tried everything else. And it was the grace of God that finally did it.”
“I started seeing other people accepting the Lord, and realized they were getting better.”
Three years and a lot of constructive envy later, Minor is working as a drug counselor at the Gospel Mission. He does not have the classroom hours that would allow him to be licensed by the government. But he knows the tricks of the drug trade and isn’t easily taken in by scams; he’s stood up to bullies before and isn’t easily possessed by fear; he’s learned to live with little and isn’t readily subject to greed. Constructive envy of the kind that possessed Minor does not occur when homeless men are thrown together into a shelter that treats them as if they did not have souls and opposable thumbs. What reached out to Jerry Minor at the Gospel Mission was love and challenge that crossed the lines of class and race and obvious sin. When Christians do not provoke constructive envy, urban warriors turn to a Farrakhan, not realizing that the paths away from Christ are those of destructive envy.
Constructive envy can grow only when Christians become both hearers and doers of the word. Organizations like CUTS and the Gospel Mission proclaim the gospel in words that are coupled with love so that the hurting and the lost say with Jerry Minor, “I want some of that.” Many Christians talk about racial reconciliation, but if we do not pray for it and work for it, we ourselves are self-absorbedly envying a complete meal. We ourselves are thumb-sucking pigs.
Love means more than having to say you’re sorry
It’s been a year since I met Willie Wilson, a 29-year-old Washington, D.C., resident. One night he told me how he started using cocaine seven years ago, first by sniffing it, then by smoking coke freebase, at its most potent. That’s when he was DJing in a nightclub, and “the more drugs I took, the better I felt I was at the turntable, making people dance.”
Women tried to change Wilson. When he moved in with one whose sister was on crack cocaine and did not want him to be, he said he was sorry, and stopped for two months. The woman was happy until she found out Wilson had switched to booze big-time and was sleeping with another woman.
Fatherhood could have changed Wilson. That second woman became pregnant and had their child, and Wilson “promised to give her and the baby all the money I could. … But when I had money in my hand, I bought a small portion of crack cocaine, maybe a $50 rock, planning to leave. I wanted to test its quality right away … and once I tested the crack, I couldn’t go nowhere, because I got paranoid, so I ended up spending all the money at the crack house.” He was sorry, but it was too late.
Steady work could have changed Wilson. He held onto a job for a time and received each week a check for $280; then “everything would just go. No money the next day.” Later he had other jobs, but “It seems like every time I got money in my hands, I started using crack. And I saw myself blowing everything I had in the paycheck. I spent $598 in one day.” Each time he was sorry; each time the money was gone.
A mother’s love could have changed Wilson. One day he went to his Mom’s house because she had not given up on him. “She left me in the house alone for a few minutes. I went into the bedroom and took her $200 camera, ran out, and sold it for a $50 rock of cocaine.” Sorry … sorry … sorry … but the behavior that produced sorrow continued.
Government programs could have changed Wilson. He entered a 28-day, government-funded detox program in Laurel, Md., but the program merely treated the symptom of his problem, addiction, and not the problem itself, his separation from God. When Wilson came out he fell into the old pattern: temporarily trading cocaine use for alcoholism.
There were other jobs. There was help from an aunt, from whom Wilson then stole. There were other women; he has fathered three children but been a true father to none of them. There were other times he said, “sorry,” to no lasting avail.
Only when Wilson started going to a church where he heard the gospel did something long-lasting happen; he realized that only Christ could change him. But although God at some point gave Wilson a new heart, he did not yet have a new life, and outwardly his next theft was worse than his previous ones: $10,000 worth of equipment stolen from the church, sold for drugs.
This time, though, when he came down from his huge high, he “wanted to jump in front of the Metro. I was so disgusted with myself. How can I take from the house of God?” This time Wilson did not merely say “sorry.” Instead, he took action: he entered the anti-addiction program at the Gospel Mission in inner-city Washington.
Wilson has been there now for 18 months, and random drug tests reveal that he is staying clean. Wilson studies and works; crucially, he has confessed past sins, prayed to stay clean, and begun the work of restitution. “Only the power of Jesus will let me do that,” Wilson says.
Life at the Gospel Mission also puts him in constant contact with other Christians: “I get strength from them because I can see where they came from and where they’re going.” Where they’re coming from is a realization that love means more than always saying “sorry.” Love means a reliance on the man of sorrows who suffered with us and died for us.
Remembering gospel missions
On Memorial Day we should remember soldiers from the armed forces and those with the hardest tasks in Christ’s armies, as well. My thoughts turn to directors of Biblically-faithful homeless shelters who will assemble in New Jersey on Memorial Day weekend to take part in the annual convention of the International Union of Gospel Missions—and I think of how they can look beneath the surface of men like Ferdinand Banks.
Banks, 45, a resident of the Gospel Mission in Washington, D.C., during 1994 and 1995, had a “terrible skin disease” from infancy that left him hating to look in the mirror and hating the alcoholic father who treated his unattractive son with contempt that became physical abuse. As a teenager, Mr. Banks regularly “started getting high, or drunk. That was the only thing that made me feel like a regular person.” Soldiering in Vietnam was followed by police work in Washington beginning in 1974—but the drug habit stayed with him. In 1985 he was convicted of drug-selling, dismissed from the force, and put in jail for a year.
The day of his release, Banks did crack cocaine; over the following five years he had many different jobs but lived in shelters and in the street because every time he received a paycheck he would immediately use it for drugs. Despite his conviction, he says he also received a retirement check for $16,000 from the police department and went on a drug binge: the money was gone in a week. Finding jobs and making money was easy, and so was spending it: “The last job I had was driving a trash truck, making very good money, almost $1,000 a week. It all went to support my habit.”
Banks flamed out in four different state-approved anti-drug programs that offered material help without Biblical challenge. He always ended up in city shelters that were full of drugs and sported occasional murders. His laconic answers to my questions of life in the shelter and welfare world illustrate the nature of government-funded “compassion”: “Did anyone ever help you in any way in the shelters?” “No.” “Not at all?” “No.” “What did they do for you?” “They gave me a cot, and a blanket, and a shower. That’s it.” “Did they ever try to help you change?” “They had counselors. They knew I was getting high. I looked terrible every day. They never came to me.”
Finally, Banks says, he decided to shoot himself but lacked the courage to pull the trigger, so he meandered through mean streets until he saw the cross at the front of the Gospel Mission building. “My grandfather used to tell me, ‘God can heal all things, if you clearly love him.’ That day I had done a drug run and still had $300 in my pocket, but I was tired and I wanted to be healed. I stumbled through the glass doors.” The first two weeks were hard but he was “scared to go outside the building, because if I went out I would not come back … I prayed and cried and prayed some more.”
As his self-image changed, his ability to work consistently and help others increased.
Banks stayed at the Mission, concentrated on Bible studies, accepted the challenge to change, and started to think of himself as a person with dignity created in the image of a wonderful God. As his self-image changed, his ability to work consistently and help others increased. Banks took a job with the Metro, Washington’s subway system. He spent time with his ill grandfather. He gained a girlfriend capable of looking beyond appearance to a newly scrubbed spirit. He volunteered to help others, saying, “I don’t have the pain anymore.” The Bible tells about God healing skin diseases; Christ did not do that for Banks but did something far more important in curing his heart disease.
Gospel missions a century ago helped the ravaged people who stumbled through their doors. Some missions over the years fell into the practice of merely offering “three hots and a cot”—food and shelter that enabled people to stay in poverty, but not to rise above it. But shelters like the Gospel Mission, the Allentown (Pa.) Rescue Mission, and many others around the country, are coming back now to tough Biblical compassion that is challenging, personal, and spiritual. The mission leaders who are determined to be agents of real change, not distributors of spare change, deserve our prayers and support.
Request for reader help: Jones, Minor, Wilson, and Banks all received help at the Gospel Mission, but I last saw them 25 years ago. I checked recently, but current Mission officials have no information on their current whereabouts. If any readers know, please let me know. —Marvin
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