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Columnists Remarkable Providences
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 Missons-and I think of how they can look beneath the surface of men like Ferdinand Banks.
Mr. 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 Mr. 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."
Mr. 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 about 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, Mr. 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."
Mr. 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. Mr. 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 Mr. 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.
(Last in an occasional series about homeless men changed by Christ)