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Keeping harm at bay

Mission brings good news to California's roughest city

Keeping harm at bay

RICHMOND, Calif. - Boarded windows. Crooked roofs. Abandoned buildings bathed in graffiti. The downtown section of this Oakland suburb (population 105,000) is a vandalized wasteland. The 1960s race riots and turf wars among drug dealers transformed this once thriving community into the Golden State's most dangerous city per capita, with about 40 murders, 50 rapes, 500 robberies, 500 assaults, 1,100 burglaries, 2,500 auto thefts, and 3,500 larcenies taking place each year.

Hundreds of people, many intoxicated or mentally unstable, wander Richmond's streets every night. But amid the ugliness, hope lives.

On a Tuesday morning in an upstairs room at the local Bay Area Rescue Mission, a dozen program participants wrestle with the spiritual roots of their problems. Valentin Mbong, a rotund African minister, sits at a slightly elevated desk and teaches on the power of the Holy Spirit to change hearts. "The Spirit-filled life is a life of repentance," he tells the class. "It takes a man to admit you cannot do it alone."

Since 1965, thousands of homeless men have walked through BARM's doors, many making such admissions and beginning the steep, uphill climb toward sobriety and personal responsibility. Today, about 100 men at a time go through the mission's evangelical Continuum of Care program. Most drop out, but 85 percent of those who complete the program leave as employed, independently housed churchgoers.

A siren wails in the distance. Mbong continues: "Surrender is not a sign of weakness. It takes a very strong person to be humble." With Bibles open, the men listen raptly, some nodding in agreement, others jotting notes. Mbong, 61, joined the mission in 1998, leaving the west African country of Cameroon when his refusal to budge on such doctrines as one wife per husband led to several attempts on his life. (He dismisses the death threats as "church politics.")

Hard knocks have also trained mission director John Anderson for the work: His story winds through white-collar success, cocaine addiction, suicidal tendencies, and finally rescue at a San Diego mission. "I used to see people with signs on the side of the road and think, 'They're worthless, the scum of the earth. Let them die,'" he recalls, his eyes welling with remorse.

As Anderson walks through the facilities now, he greets residents like old friends. He shows off a plush boardroom, the nerve center for discussing dreams and casting visions. In stark contrast to that well-furnished space, a discarded toilet plunger lies visible from the rear window-perhaps emblematic of the city's temptation to treat its vagrants and drug addicts as unredeemable human waste.

Throughout BARM's 80,000 square feet of living quarters, educational facilities, cafeteria space, and employee offices, stories of redemption emerge.

Two decades ago, Bill Jones' daily drinking regimen totaled three six-packs and a quart of scotch. He recalls that during weekend benders to Las Vegas he dropped as much as $75,000 per day in the casinos. Such self-destructive behavior overtook the high-roller in 1989 when a two-week blackout landed him on the front lawn of an unsuspecting Richmond resident-with no recollection of how he got there.

Jones does recall why he stayed: The rescue mission introduced him to Christianity and purpose deeper than alcohol and blackjack. He is now BARM's vice president of operations, his weathered face and gnarled teeth reminders from a past life.

Jones has gotten better with money, too, as he helps direct an annual intake of close to $4 million in cash gifts. Individual donors generate about 75 percent of that funding. Businesses contribute half of the remaining 25 percent, with foundations, churches, and other organizations making up the rest. BARM stretches every dollar: Last year, a $12,000 food budget produced 900,000 free meals.

Without a single cent coming from government sources, the mission is free to soak every activity with the gospel. The walls of an 80-bunk emergency shelter prominently display a wealth of haunting Scripture: "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God," "Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest," "Lead me, O Lord, in Your righteousness."

The emergency shelter serves as a gateway to BARM's long-term recovery program. Men can stay for 90 days and then must choose either to enter the program or head back to the streets. If they leave, they may return to the shelter after 30 days.

Lloyd Turbin never thought he'd face such difficult choices, but serious drug addiction bankrupted the middle-class Berkeley graduate and alienated those who loved him most. Turbin landed at the mission a year ago after his carelessness with a bottle of liquor started a fire in his brother's home, severing his last hope for family assistance. "I was very upset when I found out this was a Christian program, because I knew it was over," he recalls of his reaction when his brother dropped him off at the mission. "It was like, 'Oh man, you turned me over to Jesus. That's cold. You called God on me.'"

But as Turbin, 50, slowly cleared a 10-year fog from his head, he remembered life's myriad treats, including the satisfaction of a hard day's labor, the simple pleasure of a Saturday spent on baseball. A tall man in the physical condition of someone half his age, the former college slugger now coaches the mission's Little League team.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Turbin sat in BARM's youth outreach center, reviewing his team's upcoming schedule. An arc of gaming tables-pool, ping-pong, air hockey, foosball-surrounded him. About 250 kids circulate through the so-called King's Club every week, many using the computer lab or reading areas for homework, others simply finding after-school alternatives to juvenile mischief. Turbin hopes that such positive diversions will spare others his bumpy road, with Richmond youth visiting the mission by choice and not returning by necessity as adults.

Prevention is greater than recovery: Every happy ending of rehabilitation includes a story of lost years, broken relationships, and the excruciating trials and relapses of shucking an old identity.

Frank Austin bears such scars. Now a middle-aged member of the mission's maintenance crew, he deeply regrets an adulthood of methamphetamine addiction-the waste of his talents, the pain it brought his mother. Things are better now: "She's very happy that I'm clean, and we can have a decent talk."

Austin takes pride in his duties as a handyman, and mission director Anderson calls him exceptionally meticulous and capable. Job-skills training is a critical part of the recovery program: All men register for courses at the local community college and participate in such tasks as maintenance, office work, or labor in BARM's massive food distribution warehouse.

Since the mission's annual intake of close to $4 million worth of material donations on top of cash gifts exceeds its on-site needs, some contributions of food and clothing are shipped out to alleviate shortages in other parts of the world. Men drive forklifts and load trucks in that effort, contributing to rescue work even as they receive from it.

Women and children, housed in a separate 150-bed facility at the mission, are not required to perform such labor, but attending school and saving money are mandatory. Like many women here, TeiJae Taylor Fofana is no drug addict: The mother of three children, she came to the mission after a divorce left her without rent money. "We had no other place to go," she explains. "It's been a great help, because the kids have a bit of stability here, whereas before they weren't sure where they were going to lay their heads."

Fofana, 45, especially appreciates the Christian atmosphere: The mission partners with 35 area churches to hold nightly chapel services. Agape Bible Fellowship filled the pulpit on a recent evening, leading a packed house of about 150 people in praise choruses before teaching from the book of 1 Chronicles. The preacher spoke of David roaming the countryside on the run from King Saul-homeless and at times despairing. He admonished the congregation to follow David's example when faced with life's difficulties: Seek God's direction, and take courage by His Spirit.

The crowd hollered its approval. But most of Richmond's homeless missed the service and sermon.

Mark Bergin

Mark Bergin