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Rebuilding lives

A century ago, famed journalist Ray Stannard Baker was struck by the testimony of a former "drunken wretch" whose life was transformed when he stumbled into the McAuley Mission in New York City and came to believe "that Jesus Christ had the power to save

Rebuilding lives

(James Allen Walker for WORLD)

James Allen Walker for WORLD

NEW YORK CITY-Many New Yorkers walk past 90 Lafayette Street in downtown Manhattan without knowing they are walking past the New York City Rescue Mission. The three-story yellow-beige brick building is unimpressive. A vertical sign above the entryway reads "New York City" in small, washed-out letters, and "Rescue Mission" in a faded font.

Inside, though, a sign jumps out: "JESUS SAVES." Down the hall to the left of the entryway sits the chapel, where rows of rickety plastic chairs face a carpeted stage with an old piano. The walls, though, speak loudly: They are adorned with Scripture verses, including Matthew 11:28, "Come to Me all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest," and Romans 6:23, "For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord."

Indigent men coming off the streets need to feel burdened unto death or else they are unlikely to stay and be helped. The rescue mission feeds people without any stipulation, but there are conditions for staying the night: Attend the evening chapel service, take a shower, wear provided pajamas, be in bed by 10:00 p.m., be up at 6:00 a.m. No drinks or weapons can be brought in, and pride also needs to be left out, because coming inside means admitting desperate need. Pride is a massive block that is hard to overcome for men who prefer to sleep on the street except on the very coldest nights.

Transients walk up to the third floor for their overnight stay on one of 35 rickety, rusty, metal bunk beds. Residents stay on the second floor and participate in the Residence Recovery Program, a 12-step, 12-month curriculum that takes men who are addicted, emotionally hurt, or suffering and attempts to restore their lives through encouragement, education, and teachings from the gospel. They have strict discipline. Residents during their first month may leave the building for 15 minutes a week, and even then can only stand in front of the doors. After the first month, each man is given a half hour or an hour (depending on standing in the program) to go out.

Schedule for a typical day for a resident: Wake up at 7:00 a.m. and shower, eat breakfast at 7:30, have a group devotional at 8:30, and start what is called work therapy at 9:00. Each resident has a certain job to do: laundry, building cleaning, security, kitchen duty, or maintenance. At 10:00 comes a Bible study, then it's back to work. After lunch are individual counseling sessions and computer classes, followed by dinner at 4:30 and security detail from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. Residents try to maintain order among the transient clients during their dinner, showers, chapel service, and bedtime.

Every year, according to the mission's Joe Little, about 100 men enroll in the Residence Recovery Program, which challenges participants by first exposing sin, then humbling them, and finally rebuilding and reteaching them to be givers rather than takers. A century ago Ray Stannard Baker called the McAuley Mission "one of the most extraordinary institutions in the country" and noted that once men "surrendered" to Christ, they were able to escape alcoholism, find jobs, and be reconciled with their families.

The story is similar today, but the road is hard. The program, lasting around 12 months, is so intense that only six or seven of the 100 men who begin the program each year typically graduate from it.

"Completely transformed"

Why is it that so few can make it through the program?

The answer to this question was next to me, literally. Last year I served on the worship team for a Manhattan church alongside a 52-year-old white man with a solid build and brown hair, Bob, who sang with passion and reverence. He seemed like a "normal" blue-collar guy. He is an air-conditioning service manager, has a lovely wife, and is active in his church. One day, I was leafing through material at the NYCRM and came across a picture of Bob graduating from the program. I was shocked. It took me a few weeks, but I worked up the nerve to ask him about it.

In brief, Bob started drinking at the age of 15. He had a wife and two daughters, a steady job, but drank too much. When Bob turned 40 he also turned to cocaine. Bob's wife filed for divorce and his daughters wanted nothing to do with him. He moved into an apartment but was evicted because he could not pay his rent. He was 45, addicted to crack and alcohol, and hated by his family. His older sister wouldn't take his calls, but he tried one last time and she answered. He said he was going to kill himself, and she said he should go to the New York City Rescue Mission.

He did so on July 21, 2003. The first few weeks were very difficult: no drinking, no drugs, no leaving the building. But he enrolled in the Resident Recovery Program and became a maintenance man because of his work experience. He loved the work therapy part of the day because he got to do things he loved, like painting, building, and fixing. He found the most helpful times those when all the residents would get together, share their struggles, and encourage one another.

What impressed him also was the staff, which seemed to care for him more than they did for themselves. They kept the residents accountable. When he attended a graduation ceremony for the program and saw those few men in blue gowns and caps walking across the platform, he decided to finish the program, no matter the cost. He took an English class to improve his writing and speaking skills, as well as a computer course that taught him how to make a computer from the parts of other broken computers. The passion to become a new man became greater than the temptation to leave.

On graduation day, about 11 months later, Bob walked across the carpeted platform in the chapel of the NYCRM a different man, a new man: "I was 100 percent better, completely transformed. The only addiction I have now is the Lord. He is the only thing I can't seem to get enough of." Bob remarried, and in 2007 he walked his daughter who formerly hated him down the aisle at her wedding.

-Adam Kail is a writer in Denver and works for Colorado State University

Crucial question: Do you want to get well?

I've interviewed homeless men who live on the streets because they do not want to abide by the discipline that a shelter like the New York City Rescue Mission imposes. For them, the period from Thanksgiving through Christmas is the best month of the year for garnering dollars and food from passersby who feel guilty.

Christian mission directors in past years have often told me that they wish people would not give in this way to homeless men on the street, because it enables them to maintain a lifestyle that frequently involves alcohol and drugs. The mission directors want these homeless men to realize their need to come in from the cold.

The federal government during the past several years has moved to a "Housing First" policy, which means giving people apartments without requiring that they abandon drinking or drugging. Some "Housing First" advocates believe the move from alley to apartment will transform troubled spirits. Others want to clean up eyesores; beggars are bad for business and tourism. Still others don't want to infringe on the liberty to commit slow suicide: Alcoholism and addiction are merely alternative lifestyles, and who are we to judge?

Michael VandenBerg, until recently the executive director of Good Samaritan Ministries of Holland, Mich., argues that "rapid rehousing is entirely appropriate in some instances. When the causes have been situational in nature-loss of job-then to re-house rapidly without consideration of other causalities is appropriate."

He says the situation is different when "homelessness is the result of addictions" and other personal problems, and he faults the Housing First model for not recognizing "that homelessness is generally a symptom of other problems." Leaders at Wheeler Mission Ministries, a longtime Christian homeless shelter in Indianapolis, have similar concerns. Chief Operating Officer Larry Wright calls Housing First a concept that "cares about appearances-get them off the streets-and ends up providing a lot of good-looking crack houses." He labeled it "a program to benefit the rich, not the poor."

Those observations align with what I've seen and heard over two decades: Some who are homeless merely need an apartment: It's good and right to help them. Others, though, have spiritual and psychological problems that the provision of housing will hide but not fix. Good Samaritan Ministries, by working on the problems and not just their surface manifestations, has had success that researchers from Hope College quantified in a study last year: Most clients after finishing the ministry's program not only had stable housing but were steadily employed and had developed both reliable transportation and a support system.

Some say that offering aid, without pushing for change, is a Christian obligation. And yet, consider what Christ says in chapter 5 of John's Gospel when He talks directly to a man who has been an invalid for 38 years. That man has become accustomed to spending his days by a pool at Bethesda said to have medicinal qualities, but Jesus asks him a probing question: "Do you want to get well?" Crucially, the question is not, "Do you want to walk?" Jesus asks about getting well. He does not assume that the man, despite being in a pitiful condition, wants to get well.

Jesus also understands our ignorance. When the invalid gives a materialist explanation of his problem-"I have no one to help me get into the pool when the water is stirred"-Jesus ignores his desire to keep doing what has already failed to help. Instead, Jesus challenges the man: "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." He offers miraculous healing and tells the man to become a responsible member of society, one who does not leave his mat behind but walks away with it.

None of us has miraculous powers, so we cannot end paralysis or homelessness in the same way Jesus did-but we can work on paralysis of the will. Some may suggest that getting a person off the streets will remove his desire for alcohol or drugs, but the actual result is often the opposite: Freed from having to find a place to sleep, the alcoholic or addicted homeless man, now homed, can home in on his daily drugs.

Some among the chronically homeless are mentally ill and would benefit from institutionalization. Children certainly need to be off the streets. But many who have worked for years with homeless adults speak of the need for them to "hit bottom" before they are ready to give a positive response to that most basic of questions, "Do you want to get well?" For them, "housing first" is false compassion.

Adam Kail

Adam Kail