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Beyond full bellies

Christian faith saturates a Nebraska homeless shelter's program

Beyond full bellies

HASTINGS, Neb. - On a late Tuesday night, the sheriff rang the doorbell of Crossroads Center Rescue Mission. Jacob, a young vagrant with sad, blue eyes, unkempt beard, and sunburned nose, needed a place to stay. The staff offered a bed and clean clothes; he preferred to wear what he'd brought. They asked questions and tried to make small talk; he stared and said nothing.

Many homeless shelters would have been content to fill Jacob's belly and let him go, but operations manager Pete McConnell, concerned by his refusal even to shake hands, discussed whether a session with a psychologist might unlock the stranger's secret. If he wished to keep his room past the three-day trial period, Jacob would have to open his mouth. He would have to participate-as 28 other adult residents do-in the 4 Phase rehab program, including basic life-skills classes such as personal hygiene and managing emotions, and then advancing through employment assistance and financial management. He would also have to help keep the dorm-style living quarters clean and presentable.

"The goal is: We want to teach you how to never be homeless again," McConnell said. He knows what that task entails. McConnell's black tie and pinstriped dress shirt have not dulled his recollection that his career path began on the other side of the soup line, battling drugs and alcohol. He grew up in a home where he could do what he pleased while his parents' marriage disintegrated, and his choices almost destroyed him. McConnell recently attended a 22-year reunion with the counselors and former addicts who helped to change his life.

Men and women-some with children-come to Crossroads for different reasons: overdue rent bills, marital conflict, teen pregnancy, maybe a court-ordered community-service trip to the small, rural town and not enough money to get back out. One woman found herself homeless after spending a month in jail for buying a stolen car with drug money. Eighty-five percent of the residents struggle with substance abuse.

The Christian faith of the Crossroads staff saturates the program. John Hunt, a 58-year-old maintenance worker with bifocals and faded jeans, led men's devotions in the morning, moved on to cleaning up a spill on the hallway carpet, and in the afternoon supervised community-service tasks. He takes every opportunity to talk with residents about Christ and fondly recalls particular instances, such as one conversation with a "pretty wild guy" off the streets.

During morning devotions one resident spoke of his alcoholic father stealing his childhood and another of his family abandoning him. Later, men and women sat through an hour-long lecture on "the Eeyores in our lives"-the Winnie the Pooh character being a symbol of unhealthy negative thoughts. Then a nutritionist taught them how to blend a fruit drink and asked them to write down what foods they had eaten for breakfast. A comedian in the audience quipped, "You do realize we live in a homeless shelter."

After lunch, some residents headed out to do community-service hours. Prior to finding employment, residents must do two hours of community service five days a week. The goal is to give them a way to help others and also to show them that they can be givers and not just takers. They also get to connect with businesses that might provide a job-or at least a reference-down the road. Once they achieve a steady income, Crossroads helps them save money and pay off debts and eventually find housing.

T.J. Walling, 48, a hefty but soft-spoken biker with more tattoos than he has bothered to count, served his community-service time tearing down tropical island stage props at a local Nazarene church where he planned to be baptized. During breaks, Walling discussed the mechanics of dunking a 300-pound man in water and showed a picture of his sons to a church member. The oldest, who would have been 12, succumbed to cerebral palsy two years ago. The other, an 8-year-old, lives with his mother.

"You might say I abandoned my kid, basically," Walling confessed, remembering how amid the stress of his son's illness he had turned against God and traded his fatherly responsibilities for alcohol, a mistake that ended his marriage. Four months ago, Walling wanted to die. Now, he has hope for a better future but still struggles to forgive himself.

Keith Beenblossom's community service one day is to tinker with jammed bicycle gears. When the 29-year-old arrived recently with nothing but the clothes on his back and a court order to enter drug rehab, he did not imagine the shelter might benefit from his experience working at a bicycle repair shop. At least one bike breaks down each week-a problem for residents who need to go to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, jobs, or community-service projects.

Ironically, Beenblossom cannot ride the bikes-he damaged his ACL ligament in a car accident and wears a brace-but he works without complaint and talks about his plans to go to college and become an auto-body technician. Or maybe a child psychologist. Only, he wonders how he will fight the lingering temptation to smoke marijuana once he graduates from Crossroads. Will the spiritual truths gleaned in morning devotions and counseling stick with him?

Michael Merritt, 41, the culprit who had jammed the gears and now held the bike steady while the expert operated, called the shelter and its caring staff the best thing that has ever happened to him, but agreed with Beenblossom that the strict rules-like the 7 p.m. curfew-can be frustrating. Sexual activity, indoor smoking, or a failed random drug test lead to immediate eviction. Other infractions detract from the "points" residents must maintain to advance through the program. "They have a lot of rules," Merritt said, "but they're good rules."

During dinner in a small cafeteria brightened by a mural of a flowery countryside, a staff member scolded the men for beginning cleanup before everyone had finished and then demanded that someone confess to phoning a tanning salon and asking for a woman named Mona. The men talked quietly among themselves, complimented the chef's chicken, and generally avoided the staff member, while one resident walked away with a blatant look of disgust.

In the evening came "video night," with attendance required. The 12 men and 16 women gathered on sofas and chairs in the paneling-walled lounge to watch a Christian end-times movie, The Moment After, and to hear announcements from program director Dan Ruff. Raising his voice above noisy children playing with Legos in the back of the room, Ruff awarded Beenblossom with a certificate for having completed a set of workbooks and reminded him that his next task will be to memorize Scripture verses.

Jacob, who had arrived the evening before, hadn't said anything in group meetings, but he appeared to listen to stories such as Walling's about his destroyed family life. Without introducing himself, the stranger had taken a seat across from the biker and watched him while he talked. Jacob's eyes moistened, and maybe he had been touched by a broken man's story of redemption. Or maybe not; only God knows.

And others are watching. Because 8 percent of its $627,600 budget comes through the Nebraska Homeless Assistance Program, Crossroads walks a fine line between state-funded secular interest and state-funded religion. Case in point: Residents may choose to skip Bible studies, but they earn bonus points for attending. The same goes for church involvement (any denomination will do) and the use of Christian workbooks. Executive Director Paul Spence does not worry about losing state funds, because Nebraska has conservative leaders who, he believes, care more about the results than the method.

Anthony Mator

Anthony Mator