NEW YORK CITY-The name "Bowery Mission" is most often associated with a men's program in lower Manhattan and its storied past. Founded in 1879, Bowery is the third-oldest rescue mission in the country. Eleanor Roosevelt sang in the chapel as a child, J.C. Penney found salvation there, Fanny Crosby penned hymns for the mission, and President William Howard Taft dropped by in 1909.
At the Bowery men's facility in lower Manhattan, institutional sounds and smells pervade. Metal chairs squeak on linoleum. Deep voices fill the space as men line up for the evening meal. Seemingly a world away, red doors provide an entrance into the Bowery Women's Center on the Upper East Side. Decorator fabrics and coordinated throw pillows accent tastefully arranged common rooms. French doors open onto a bucolic terraced patio area. Bedrooms have Pottery Barn décor rather than the military-style bunks of the men's shelter.
For women coming out of abusive relationships, prostitution, or the chaos of substance abuse, the order, security, and beauty of this house can be a balm. Women's Program Director Debbie Jonnes says, "We provide a safe and secure environment where someone can come to know the love of Christ." For many women it's the first place that has afforded them the security and stability to take stock of their lives and deal with the personal issues that have so often driven them to addictions and unhealthy relationships.
Phase one of the 18-month women's program focuses on discipleship, life skills, counseling, and career development. Residents read several Christian books and write about what they learned. They learn computer skills and how to write a resumé and cover letter. Women also craft an "elevator story"-explaining their skills and what job they are seeking in the time it takes to ride an elevator with someone-a useful tool in Manhattan where elevators are sometimes a point of access to influential people.
In phase two, women start looking for jobs and meeting with their career counselors. They send out resumés and sometimes begin eight- or 12-week vocational training through a partner organization. In phase three they begin work, try to find a new place to live (often sharing an apartment), and develop a life plan. Sixty women have graduated from the program since 2005 by meeting five requirements: They must be connected with Christ, connected to family, committed to being clean and sober, have a job and a place to live, and have a plan for the future.
Cynthia DeJesus graduated from the program in 2010. The women's program helped her overcome her nine-year heroin addiction: "Now when anger, low self-esteem, and distrust kick in, I don't think about getting high. . . . Now I go to God. I think about my kids. I think about how I can be a better mother and grandmother." She enjoys her new life: "Being clean feels great!" Vivian Hernandez, life skills manager at the Bowery Mission women's program, hopes other women follow in Cynthia's path, so in class she cuts no slack. No shuffling through papers. No talking. No forgetting your pencil.
Hernandez even told one woman, "No, you can't close the window. I don't think my hot flashes can take it." Despite the noise of the sudden downpour outside her classroom, the window stayed open. Her combination of structure and passionate teaching works. The morning's lesson was on wisdom and foolishness from Proverbs 1:20. All eyes were on Hernandez. Eleven women discussed the merits of wisdom and the consequences of foolishness. "No area is more ravaged by foolishness than morality," Hernandez said. "It has consequences." This prompted a heartfelt round of "mm hmm," "amen" and a quiet "yes."
Hernandez told students she knew firsthand the consequences of immorality: "As you all know I am living with the [HIV] virus." They've learned her story: Hernandez grew up in a middle-class, stable home, the daughter of a New York policeman and a teacher, but that all changed when Hernandez was 17 and a drunk driver killed her mother. Her father died soon after of heart disease. Her brother died of AIDS a few years later. Hernandez began using drugs to numb herself to the pain. Never dealing with her underlying grief, she became addicted to crack cocaine.
"I didn't know how to process anything that had happened in my life," Hernandez explained. "I needed Jesus 101." Her personal history provided the chance to explain the difference between God's forgiveness and the consequences that must still be endured, sometimes over a lifetime. The women rigorously discussed this seemingly at-odds concept. "It's like when you have to keep dealing with your ex over childcare issues-that's an ongoing consequence," one woman said.
The discussion of biblical oneness for these women, some ex-prostitutes, was both bracing and hopeful. "You know sometimes in sex we were looking for intimacy, but actually we never felt so far away from it." Hernandez said: "Sharing yourself with so many men, there's not much room left for a husband. But we can all be virgins again if we are committed to God's plan for sex in our lives."
Increasingly, the path to the Bowery Center is not a drunken stumble but a trip through cyberspace. Raised by an alcoholic mother, Gail Smith had a history of giving too much love, money, and herself to men who gave little in return. After she lost her job in the financial sector and gave one too many loans to an abusive boyfriend, Smith found herself homeless and sleeping on her sister's couch. She researched the Bowery women's home online but was hesitant: "It took me a while to look at it. You know as a kid you hear about the 'Bowery bums.'"
Still, Smith saw her brother was turning his life around at the Bowery men's program downtown. She liked the idea that she could enter a residency program and not just a shelter. She went through the red doors.
-Jill Lacey for many years edited Compassion and Culture.
Video and photos by James Allen Walker for WORLD (jamesallenwalker.com)
Bowery Mission Women's Center
Location: New York City, N.Y.
Size: 20 residents, 60 graduates in five years
Staffing: Six full-time employees and dozens of volunteers
Annual Budget: $439,000, all privately funded
Read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2011 on WORLD's Hope Award page.
"I was in my lowest pit," says Samantha Smith, a 15-year crack addict and former prostitute. "But I knew God was saying, 'Enough!' I mean, a lot of weird things started to happen." She marvels at her path to sobriety. "I would run into people that I would be trying to buy drugs from and they would start talking about NA and AA [addiction programs]."
One day in Cincinnati, Samantha was high and lying on the floor of a crack house. The radio in the corner started playing a gospel program. She broke down and prayed, "Lord please don't let me die." She knew she needed a long-term approach. Her mother found the Capital City Rescue Mission (CCRM) in Albany, N.Y., and volunteered to take care of her kids. Samantha arrived in Albany with one bag of clothes: "I was terrified, I didn't know anyone," she says. "I just knew I was ready to stop using."
The New Faith Family Center at CCRM accommodates up to 35 women like Samantha in its residential two-year program. When Perry and Susan Jones came to direct the Mission in 1982, their goal was to move individuals toward long-term recovery, not just provide them with meals and shelter. "I knew we needed to deal with the bad attitudes and issues of reconciliation," Perry says. The women's program began in 2003 and occupies four residential buildings. Along with a comfortable apartment, women receive career training, life and parenting skills, spiritual support, and counseling.
"God started to show me some hard things about myself and my anger, bitterness, resentment toward others in my life." Samantha says. At the age of 7 she was sexually molested. Other trauma followed, but God began stripping her of destructive thought patterns and behavior. He also gave her a new identity: "He said to me, 'You are not a mother, a sister, a prostitute. You are a child of God.'"
Her life started to change: "I couldn't even pick up a drink. But the hardest thing for me, the last thing to go, was sexual desire." Even after completing the program she struggled in that area and became pregnant. "I was so ashamed of what people might think of me," Samantha says. "I used to come around and visit Perry and Susan all the time. Then I just stopped." Samantha recalls "a little voice in my head saying, 'You can get an abortion.'" But God spoke louder, saying, "I know all things. I know you."
She finally returned to the mission "and told Perry what was going on. He put his arms around me in a big hug and just prayed with me." She tears up remembering that moment of grace: "All I remember is the love everyone gave me."
Now Samantha is looking to the future. "I get a chance to be a mom and be there and be clean."
Note: Last names of Gail and Samantha were changed to protect privacy.