The Mission in Redding is a true blessing to me and all those in need of its services. Providing food, shelter, religious and social services is a complex endeavor and I applaud the Humans that labor and volunteer at the Mission.
I don’t stay at the Mission as I prefer to sleep in my car than to sleep in a large room (the chapel/cafeteria) of 50+ people. There are dormitories also with bunk beds but no private rooms. As uncomfortable as it may be sleeping in my ‘Hotel Stratus’ I’d rather put up with the logistical challenge of contorting my 6’3″ frame than to deal with what I imagine to be a smelly mix of all kinds of odors emanating from unwashed bodies. They do have a policy in place that requires the people to shower but from my experiences on the food line I know that not everyone follows that rule. But then, I cannot tell who stays at the Mission and who merely eats at the Mission but I’d rather not take my chances.
The Mission is staffed by paid workers and volunteers. A number of them, not all, had lived in shelter-less circumstances in the past and benefited from the Mission services. They are almost all men and with some you can tell that they had lived a rough life by the hardness in their eyes and the creases, furrows, and scars permanently carved into their stony faces by lawless days and sleepless nights on the streets. Their faces hint at the memories buried in their souls.
They serve at the Mission out of gratitude for their redemption through their faith in Jesus and the miracle of a transformed life wrought by their Creator. I’ve seen this kind of transformation before.
I remember Snoop, short for Snoopy as he was commonly called, who lived on the streets in the South Bronx in the 80’s. He was enslaved by his addiction to heroin. Snoop’s only companion, besides the needle and his constant craving to deliver his dream intravenously, was his dog, a stray Golden Retriever named Lucky that he befriended and adopted as his own. I used to hang on my block at the corner of Freeman Street and West Farms Road with my friends, smoking weed and drinking 40’s, and Snoop would show up at all hours of the day and night. We welcomed him like family because even though he was a junkie he always was in good spirits, joking and laughing with us while trying to bum a dollar here and there.
Snoop was good-natured. He never tried to steal from anyone on our block – not from the corner store, not from the elderly, no one. Then again, he knew the reputation of our block. Freeman and West Farms became notorious in the South Bronx as a welcoming block but one you didn’t fuck with. It was a well-deserved reputation born from an incident in which an assassin from another neighborhood carried out a hit, shooting and killing a man right at the entrance of the corner store. One bullet to the head. The assassin then had to flee for his life, chased by bullets from an automatic weapon. It was Benny (RIP) who witnessed the shooting from his 2nd floor apartment and who, from his bedroom window, fired his Mac 10 in a failed attempt to kill the murderer. Another time, a young woman was raped in an elevator. We all knew her, she was our Sister. Years later the assailant showed up on the block and was recognized. He, too, had to to flee for his life as he was hunted by some of our Brothers who were eager to torture and kill him. He escaped and never returned.
Snoop was accepted on our block. On Freeman he was safe and he knew it. But still, I could feel the sorrow and suffering buried deep in his bones. And that sorrow is what kept the heroin dream alive, the opiate flight to unknown worlds where all pain ceased. Snoop would shoot up in abandoned buildings, on rooftops, and in the staircases in the buildings in which we lived. I had seen him a time or two during one of his heroin sessions, slumped over on the staircase seemingly unconscious but somehow keeping himself from falling down the flight of stairs. Over the years, as his physical condition deteriorated, his body developed festering sores and infections so that he smelled of rotting flesh, like the dead stray dogs that littered our surroundings filling the air with the stink of death. On one occasion Snoop was seen in one of his heroin stupors, his pants leg rolled up revealing a badly infected leg and maggots burrowing in and out the infection site. He was gone, in orbit somewhere, as sickness and death ate away at his vessel.
Then, no more. I never saw Snoop again. Years had passed without a trace of him or his dog. I assumed he had died. And he did. One day I was visiting my mother after having moved away from Freeman. I was walking through the block to see old friends when a clean looking Brotha, dressed in shirt and tie, came walking down the block. SNOOP! It was Snoop! I couldn’t believe my eyes! He was clean and stood erect and walked with purpose in his step. He looked at me with a straight eye now, no more of the shiftiness that once suggested desperation and survival. We embraced and as I held him tightly I realized that I had never done so before, ever. I called him by the only name I knew, Snoop, and he corrected me, saying,
“Nah, my Brotha, my name is Maurice. I don’t go by Snoop no more. That was my name when I was on the streets….Snoop died.”
He was reformed, transformed, through his faith and involvement in the church and he gave all credit to Jesus for turning his life around. He was a minister now, helping those addicted to drugs and surviving on the streets of NYC to find redemption from the hell of addiction and purposelessness. I was profoundly touched and inspired by his triumph and his expression of faith.
The workers at the Mission are living out their own transformation, steadfastly going about their daily routines of preparing three square meals a day for hundreds of souls. In spite of their somewhat gruff exterior they show kindness and grace to those being served and fulfill their work with cheer and patience, yet, with a no-nonsense attitude. And I’ll tell you right now it ain’t easy to do what the do day in and day out. A lot of the shelter-less exhibit a lack of gratitude, manners, and sometimes, just basic human decency. Yet, the workers are liberal with blessings as I often hear them saying, “God bless you” to any and all even though at times they have to show some tough love.
When I go to eat there I make it a point to thank and bless the workers and volunteers as they plop down portions into my food tray. They return the blessing with a smile and over time I’ve won their favor as they at times, not often out of fairness to the others, will serve me a larger portion or an extra serving. That’s not why I do it, of course, but it’s pretty sweet to get some extra vittles when hunger gnaws at my stomach.
The power of a transformed life evidences itself in the fruits of character. Humility rules where arrogance once dominated; patience steadies what was once an impetuous, violent soul; grace shines from the soul once darkened by cruelty; wisdom dispenses her learning, healing the wounds of ignorance and stupidity; and love shares liberally with all what used to be withheld in the name of fear and self-preservation.
One illustration of this is the story of Jason, who works and serves at the Mission. Jason stands a bit taller than me and much broader, bigger around. He looks to be in his 30’s, mid-to-late is my guess. He wears glasses like I do which softens his image and belies his past. He used to be an enforcer for a drug dealer. His job was to collect money from those who owed sizable sums….and hurt them if necessary. His last attempt at collecting a debt owed ended up with him going to prison for a number of years. He took a hammer to the head of the guy who refused to pay, cracking his head open ‘like a cantaloupe’, almost killing him. His imprisonment had awakened him to the need to change his life and he found the will and power to do so through his faith in the church’s message that only Jesus could turn his life around. You’d never know today that Jason carried this potential for violence, just like you’d never know that Maurice once lived, and died, as Snoop.
So on this Labor Day, a day set aside in honor of those who labor for the collective good, I honor the workers at the Good News Mission in Redding, California. They are heroes in my eyes, having gone through and continuing their hero’s journey with quiet strength and shining grace. They are the fruits of the best of the Human condition, servants of life and the living who seek no fame, no honor, no recognition for their service, but only the strength of will and character to serve everyday, every soul, graciously and diligently.
I bless each and every one of you who labor and serve Humanity – as volunteer, as laborer, as activist, as visionary, as employee, as employer, as executive, as parent, as healer, as artist, as civil servant, and under any other title and calling – with an eye toward greater possibilities for the good of all. You all bless me with your love and service and inspire me to continue my healing voyage with forbearance and gratitude. Thank you.