Wendell Harden recalls being “a little disgusted” with religion at the time, but he decided to stay at the Christian-based New York City Rescue Mission anyway. It was August 4, 2011. He was into drugs and heavy drinking. He was about to lose his home.
He left the shelter in Lower Manhattan after four days, and went on his self-destructive way. He continued drinking: “I lost my family. Everything was going down. Down, down, down,” Harden said. By October, he had given up hope. The same thought rolled around in the back of his mind: he needed to get his life back together. A memory also lingered: his experience cooking alongside the guys in the kitchen at the shelter that fated weekend. Suddenly, the man who dismissed religion found his way back to the Mission he had left so hastily two months earlier.
“I met guys at the kitchen that demonstrated love in such a way — a Christian love — and that stayed in the back of my mind the longest.” Their love and encouragement had called him back. Once again, he was working in the kitchen, where he soon became a captain. He joined the residential recovery program. Then, Harden said, his life began to change. “I got my integrity back. I started taking classes regularly and reading from scripture.”
The men who find themselves in the recovery program of the New York City Rescue Mission are often searching for God as much as they are looking for a place to rest their heads. All but one of the men interviewed for this story had been in similar faith-based programs before, only to end up back on the streets, once again living in spiritual and material poverty. At the Mission, Jesus is Lord over their lives. On the streets, it’s a different story. Tyler Williams, who had once before graduated from the Mission’s recovery program and was going through it again, said, “It’s going to tell in the long run whether . . . ” After a long pause, he finished, “You know, I feel good ‘cause I made it back. That’s the thing, that I made it back.” Still, the Mission’s success stories inspire faith, and the Christian staff members press on in their evangelizing efforts.
* * *
As we sat between cases of sliced bacon and Mrs. Butterworth’s pancakes, former director of church and public relations Joe Little said that the Mission provides more than food for the needy and rest for the weary. It provides food for the soul, hope for the despairing. The oldest in a line of American Rescue Missions, it was founded 142 years ago to serve the “unworthy poor” — those able-bodied men, ne’er-do-wells — by one of their own. Jerry McAuley knew he was a “knucklehead” when he was imprisoned in Sing Sing, but then an equally vile old friend who had converted to Christianity visited him. He realized there could be hope for him too, so he prayed. God changed his heart. Soon after, the Mission was born.
“We’re effectively a church that opens itself to the poor or a soup kitchen that is thick, thick, thick with the gospel,” Little said. Currently, the Mission has 160 beds available, double the number it had before beginning a three-floor expansion. There are about 30 men in the Bible-based residential recovery program, though with the expansion it can take up to 60 men. Previously, the Mission exclusively housed men, but included in the additions is a separate floor for women that opened in June and offers 30 beds for overnight shelter. More beds mean more people will be hearing the gospel.
“To get a bed, you have to jump through one hoop,” Little said. “You have to sit through a single chapel service. You don’t even have to be awake for it.”
Because the Mission is overtly Christian in its overnight operations, city, state, and federal funding make up less than two percent of its revenue. This money is only used for food purchases, as anyone can stop by the Mission for breakfast or dinner. Little said the majority of funding comes from individuals, with the rest coming from corporations, foundations, churches and the like. For the 2013 fiscal year, the Mission reported serving 129,532 hot meals, providing 22,061 nights of lodging, logging 56,583 program and counseling hours, and graduating 13 men.
The DHS reports that more than 50,000 individuals spend the night in shelters throughout New York City on any given day. During the colder months — but also on very hot or rainy days — the Mission typically fills to capacity, at which point a lottery system is used to determine which of the transient guests will have a bed that night. All are encouraged to stay for the service, bed or no bed.
* * *
On one of my visits to the Mission, Jim, a member of the maintenance staff, led the 7 p.m. chapel service. Halfway through, he teasingly called out one of the handful of guys dozing off during his lesson on Genesis. The underlying message, though, is clear. Jim and the rest of the staff members do not just show God-commanded love toward the men who call the Mission home. They genuinely like them. “I think all of these guys are swell,” French said before the service began.
The 34 men who sat through Jim’s service occupying the yellow plastic chairs generally appear to be middle-aged. Throughout the service, heads nod in agreement with French’s words: “Choose to find joy . . . rejoice in what you have, not what you’ve lost.” When he ends with a prayer, heads bow, eyes close and mouths utter “amen.” If there is any opposition to the imposed service attendance, it is not visible.
Then again, the men who find themselves here might be seeking faith-based help. Tyler Williams, a 40-something Newark native, was looking for a faith-based shelter when he came to the Mission. He wanted to get back in touch with God.
“I needed help ‘cause I was living out on the street. I was spiritually bankrupt, that was my main thing. I always knew God all my life, but I just, you know, wanted to do my own thing,” said Williams, who was wearing a large winter jacket inside the chapel and had his long dreadlocks pulled back into a ponytail. “Me doing my own thing, that what brought me here. Because, I was, you know, living out on the street doing all kinds of things — doing drugs, you know, just not doing what I was supposed to do, what I was brought up to do. My mother ain’t raise me like that. I had a good family, good mother. You know, she taught me everything that I was supposed to do, and I just chose to do my own thing. You know, so that was one of the reasons that brought me to the Mission.”
Williams had previously been staying at the Goodwill in Newark, but said he never got in touch with God like he wanted to until he got to the Mission. He began attending Primitive Christian Church in Lower Manhattan and was baptized. “This time, you know, I really felt it,” Williams said. He graduated from the recovery program, which includes a 12-step spiritual component. Feeling that it was his time, he left the Mission with good intentions. Then he fell out of touch with God.
“I faced a lot of things that I wasn’t expecting to face, but then I hit the streets again, you know, doing the same thing that I used to do years ago,” Williams said with disappointment verging on anger in his voice. “You know, went back out there using drugs after being here for two-and-a-half years clean.” He said he looked at himself and wondered how he could have gone through the program, found a church, and been baptized only to end up out on the streets where he started.
Williams returned to the Mission and started over in the recovery program. He knew that his young son needed him, and Williams has made him his second priority. God is his first. “You know I done did everything out in the street that you can do,” Williams said. “I done been though it all, and been to prison.” But, for him, his faith in God allowed him to find his way back to the Mission. With a laugh that suggested he has been there and back, Williams said that having God in his life is the only way to live.
* * *
The program at the Mission is different from other programs in that the spiritual steps act as the skeleton of the recovery program. Still, Little, who worked at the Mission for 10 years, said, “Some of the best graduates of the program never took to the gospel thing and the Jesus thing. Yet we’re peppered by it and salted by it.” Like Williams, many of the guys in the program are genuinely interested in finding God again. It might be the main reason they have come to the Mission.
Eugene Bryant (“like Kobe Bryant”) joined the program after he was referred to the Mission from the Goodwill in Newark. Bryant graduated from the program at Goodwill, but “fell short.” He went back to using drugs and found himself with “a broken spirituality,” despite knowing God. He always worked, but would waste his money on drugs and hook up with a woman who he said was bad for him — she was doing the same things he was. “I knew better, but I wasn’t ready to stop what I was doing ‘til he [God] brought me down to my lowest point of my life.”
That was when he went to the Mission. Since then, he said he has transformed. “My relationship with God is very, very strong right now. God’s the head of my life right now. I’m asking him for wisdom and understanding and I’m willing to follow where he want me to go,” Bryant said while he was in the Mission’s learning center, which Little jokingly described as a glorified computer room.
For many men, this is not their first time in a faith-based program. Andre Lowe, an articulate 50-something man in checkered chef’s pants and a newsboy hat, had previously gone through a six-month program at the Bowery Mission in 2006. Aside from the New York City Rescue Mission, Bowery Mission is the only other shelter in New York City that is a member of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions. It similarly emphasizes spiritual growth.
Lowe’s 2006 stint at the Bowery Mission was not his first. The first came in 1989 on Halloween night. Lowe stopped in the Bowery for a meal, but stayed around to listen to the service after. He noticed a certain dynamic: the community guys occupied one side of the chapel; the guys in the Bowery’s residential program occupied the other. Those guys, Lowe noticed, were happy, excited as they sang along to the gospel songs.
“They had ‘testimony night’ one night, and I actually got up and testified and said, ‘You know, I’m tired of running the streets,’” Lowe said. Instead of being on the community side, he wanted what the guys in the program had. And he got it. “That began my journey, my walk with Christ. That was my first experience going into a program of any type. I came straight to God, straight to Christ.”
Like other stories, Lowe’s took a turn when he left the Bowery. After three years of running a 3/4 house in Brooklyn, he was evicted because of foreclosures. “Just before I was evicted, I was kind of frustrated about the situation and things, so I went back to smoking a little weed and drinking beer.” It was then that he started praying again. A friend, Brother Ron, suggested he try the New York City Rescue Mission this time. So, he started as a member of the residential recovery program.
Lowe said he knows a lot of the guys in the program now from when he was at the Bowery in 1989. “Most of them are still in the mess they’re in, but, you know. They look up to me a little because they say they see that change in me. I used to smoke and carry on with them back then, and they’ve seen the change in me when I went to the Bowery and they see a bigger change in me now.”
Lowe said his decision to go to a faith-based shelter was intentional. His experiences at other men’s shelters in the past were not as positive. He recalls being sent for interviews at places that were not hiring and not benefitting from the public assistance that men at the shelters receive. The help he felt he was not getting there, he now finds in Christ.
“He guides my footsteps and that’s what I count on now. He gives me strength to get up everyday,” Lowe said of the faith he has strengthened while at the Mission. “I believe and I have faith that Christ is going to stand by me and He’s going to help me throughout whatever situation may come. I’m not worried about by the time I graduate if I’m going to get a job. Will I find a place? I know God has something for me. So, whatever it is, I’m waiting for his word.”
* * *
There are other success stories among those who have graduated from the program. A guy named Charlie graduated and shortly after started working at Fresh Direct. He said that as he has deepened his faith, he’s more attuned to the opportunities God puts in front of him. For example, he said, he planned on giving a woman he often sees on his trip to work some literature about the Bowery Mission and Walter Hoving Home, two shelters that have faith-based women’s programs. Little made a comment about Charlie’s buoyant personality before saying, “He’s one of the guys I like to wear on my sleeve as far as the success of the program.”
Similarly, Harden graduated from the program and started working as a substance abuse counselor. Impeccably dressed in a suit, square wire-rim glasses, and an Atlanta Falcons hat, Harden said that he is happy every day of his life now, after finding peace at the Mission. Now in his mid-50s, he has started speaking to his family again — his wife, his kids. For the first time since his 14 months at the Mission, Harden said he feels comfortable talking about his past and sharing the good news of the gospel and what Jesus Christ has done in his life. He added that this was the first program he’s graduated from, though certainly not the first he had been in. “What I got here was grace, unmerited favor.”
Images courtesy of the New York City Rescue Mission.