James Allen Walker for WORLD

Rebuilding lives

Charity | 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 me when I could not save myself." But what is that place-now called the New York City Rescue Mission-like today?

Issue: "'To stay is to be killed'," Nov. 29, 2008

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.

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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.


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