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Beyond full bellies

Effective Compassion | Christian faith saturates a Nebraska homeless shelter's program

Issue: "Effective compassion," Sept. 2, 2006

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.

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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.

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