Cecil Johnson is certain he once met an angel. It was on July 28, 1996. Fleeing a decades-long crack cocaine habit, Mr. Johnson had left Eustis, Fla., the day before on foot and walked all night in a soaking Southern rain. He was determined to hitch a ride to Atlanta.
"I just needed to get out from around drugs," he said. It was a humble departure for a man who had once been an uptown drug dealer, spending lavishly on the ladies from a suitcase full of cash he kept in the trunk of his canary-yellow Lincoln Towncar.
That was before the dope got hold of his soul. By the mid-'80s, "I wasn't the dealer anymore," Mr. Johnson says. "I was his best customer." But by 1996, he was tired of that. So, 48 years old, drug-ravaged, and broke, Cecil Johnson took off walking. He wept as he went, crying out to a God he had never met.
Night passed and morning came. Then, at a service station at the intersection of Highways 44 and 441 near Leesburg, Fla., up drove a man in a pickup truck. Mr. Johnson told the driver he was headed for Atlanta, but the man took him instead to a men's rehabilitation home run by First Baptist Church (FBC) of Leesburg. The man arranged for Mr. Johnson to stay at the home, then told him, "I have to leave now, but I'll be back to check on you."
"He ain't been back yet," Mr. Johnson says of the man who was at least an angel of mercy, "but thank God he took me there."
His feelings echo those of hundreds helped through FBC's "high touch" outreaches to the needy. The church is among many in the nation delivering compassion in innovative ways that meet both physical and spiritual needs.
Situated an hour west of Orlando, FBC today runs more than 60 programs for the poor, imprisoned, divorced, ill, unwed-and-pregnant, addicted, and otherwise needy. Such outreach began 25 years ago, when new senior pastor Charles Roesel kept hammering home a message: that FBC had a responsibility to really help people. A number of ideas evolved, including one that wasn't too popular: The church could buy the two-story house across the street from FBC and open a shelter to help men recover from drug and alcohol problems.
The notion split the church nearly in half. Those in favor cited the Bible's mandate to help the needy. Those opposed noted that the house was 75 feet from the church's front steps. Was it such a good idea to have a houseful of drunks and addicts so near?
The plan to build the shelter prevailed, and its success soon changed the minds of the dissenters. "The impact of the shelter was astounding," said FBC executive pastor Art Ayris. First, a few men-not all, he is quick to add-kicked drugs and got their lives turned around. Some made commitments to follow Christ; some found jobs.
Cecil Johnson did both. He not only kicked crack and joined FBC, where he worked as a groundskeeper and became an usher, then a deacon-he also got married, opened his own landscaping business, and now has four men working for him.
Since opening the men's home FBC has expanded its works of compassion, opening a pregnancy care center, a community health clinic, a women's shelter, a children's shelter, and a children's group home. All combine Christian teaching and varying levels of evangelism, from low-key with kids to direct biblical instruction in the case of adult addicts. "We meet all kinds of needs, but we understand that people's greatest need is reconciliation with God through Christ," Mr. Ayris said. "We've found that when you help with physical needs, people are much more open to the gospel."
Tom Shirk agrees. Pastor of Calvary Bible Church in Boulder, Colo., Mr. Shirk said volunteers from his congregation have brought the gospel to city- and county-run social services programs such as Heritage House, a 12-bed county-run foster home for teenage girls. Calvary connected with Heritage last fall when the church began taking on "kingdom assignments," a series of innovative, compassion-centered outreach challenges. One assignment called for volunteers to sell one possession worth at least $100 and donate the money to a church fund designated for helping Boulder's needy.
The 115-year-old congregation hadn't always looked at Boulder as a mercy mission. In fact, most leaders and members viewed the city as a godless and politically hostile university town in which Calvary was more of a refuge for believers than a lighthouse for the lost. But during the '90s, said Mr. Shirk, "We committed ourselves to bringing blessing." Members of the congregation began to volunteer at local social service organizations, including homeless shelters, rehabilitation centers, and homes for displaced children and youth. Then in 2003 came the series of "kingdom assignments," further lifting the century-old bushel from over Calvary's light.
When the church challenged members to sell a valuable possession, 200 did, raising $83,000 for various programs, including a $15,000 check for Heritage House. "When we took it to them, we sat in a circle with Heritage directors and some of the girls, and they just wept," Mr. Shirk said. "They couldn't believe people would bring them resources like that from a church."
The home used some of the money to start an onsite computer lab, and some to meet the individual educational needs of residents. Calvary women visit the home regularly, cooking large meals for the girls. The Heritage staff has allowed at least one onsite Bible study.
Mr. Shirk said Calvary is now taking its outreaches to the next phase: "We're asking, 'How do we turn these good deeds into good news?'"
Kelly had never heard the good news when she moved into the Wellspring Home, a church-run women's rehabilitation home in Peachtree City, Ga. Diagnosed schizophrenic and bipolar at 14, she survived a rocky adolescence, then bounced between college and drug rehab, until marrying in 1996 a man who that Christmas beat her up so badly a judge sentenced him to three years in prison.
The couple reunited on his release, but split in summer 2003 only to hook up again for a business deal: "He would pimp me out," said Kelly, who asked that WORLD use only her first name for safety reasons. "We both came up with a master plan to do this. He was driving me and I was giving him the money. For a while, I felt good. In a warped way, I thought I was helping him pay his bills."
A month into it, though, she wanted to stop. "It was making me feel disgusting. It was something I had always looked down on other people for, even strippers and exotic dancers."
There are plenty of those in Metro Atlanta. According to Wellspring co-founder Mary Frances Bowley, about 6,000 young women participate in the city's sex industry-strip clubs, dance clubs, prostitution. Most have suffered severe trauma at an early age. That's why two area churches teamed with a program called Victoria's Friends to open Wellspring, a Christ-centered refuge for women escaping sexploitation.
Victoria's Friends is a nonprofit that reaches out to women trapped in the sex industry. Southcrest Church in Noonan, Ga., and Grace Evangelical Church in Fayetteville joined with the group and a local contractor to fund, build, and open Wellspring in January 2002. Today, 22 Atlanta churches support the six-bed facility with donations and volunteers.
Wellspring's program is nine months long-six months residential and three months living in a transitional "host home" with a Christian family or woman, during which the women are required to work. During the residential portion, residents concentrate on recovery. Church volunteers teach classes on self-care and practical living, but the greatest emphasis is on Christ.
Kelly is now living in a host home. Her husband hadn't wanted her to quit prostitution, and a series of threats led to his final assault: While they sat in his truck one day, he wrapped his hands around her throat and began to strangle her. Kelly struggled for breath and kicked wildly, finally cracking his windshield. When she managed to mouth "I love you," he stopped his attack.
Kelly cycled through mania and depression. "I was completely out of control, drunk most of the time, depressed, suicidal," she said. Her behavior landed her in jail, where she spent last Christmas and New Year's Eve. While there, she heard about Wellspring and was accepted into the program.
"Those first six months just gave me time to concentrate on getting better," she said. "I was able to learn how to deal with everyday life. I got up every morning and learned about God. I didn't know God. . . . I didn't know the only way we find significance is through God."
Now in Wellspring's host-home phase, Kelly works in a restaurant making sandwiches. She spends evenings visiting her 8-year-old son at her parents' house. Her plans beyond Wellspring mainly involve putting one foot in front of the other-but along a path she'd thought was out of reach until now.
"I plan on getting up in the morning, getting my son on the school bus, going to work, and being here when my son gets home," she says, adding that she's trying to mend her relationship with him after multiple stints in rehab built distance between them.
Meanwhile, Wellspring's founding churches are trying to provide a conduit for Christian families and individuals to help those in need.
"I think people want to be compassionate, but they've got a lot on their own agendas," said Ms. Bowley. "Setting their own lives aside to invest in someone else has not been a priority. If we could help the churches see that, what a gift that would be."