This is the second installment of "People from the Plunge," a post written by LFC's very own Urban Plunge alum, Jeff Nichols.
A refuge in times of trouble
Homeless man walks through pain and deception to find truth and God's perfect peace.
If you’re gonna go, go now! While heads are turned, folks are busy. Nobody seems to care.
Scurry into this uptown Charlotte eatery – the one you’ve been living in front of since you got off the bus three days ago – and use the bathroom while you can. Get in, then back to your bench in front of a place, for mercy’s sake, named Rock Bottom.
Which reminds you, Gary Johnson, what is left of your measly three packs of Vienna sausages and three packs of crackers, the only food you brought with you on that Greyhound from Winston-Salem?
And speaking of rock bottom, where did you leave off in that familiar downward spiral of rumination, thoughts pestering and whispering nonstop? Oh yeah, the pick-up time. Like you were saying, you arrived at the bus stop here on time, right? You, you’re never late. Daddy, the no-nonsense tobacco farmer, made sure of that.
Then where was the guy who was supposed to pick you up? The one with the blessed job?! Why wasn’t he there when he said? Don’t know. Don’t know what to do now either, do you? Should you walk back in the direction of the bus stop? Toward those disheveled, scary-looking people you ran away from? Wait, why are you thinking that? You know you’re every bit as homeless as they are. No job. Check. No food. Check. No home. Check. You qualify.
At whom do we shake our fists in times like these? How do we climb off the bottom?
Where do we find truth?
Here’s a lie. This white powder.
Gary Johnson is sitting across the table from it. This is back in the ’70s at N.C. Central University. On the other side is the man who is introducing Gary to cocaine. None other than one of his professors.
“Lord have mercy, it nearly ruined my life,” Gary says. “I’d never drank, never tried drugs of any kind. But I trusted him. He said, ‘Try it, it’s not going to hurt you.’”
The fall to rock bottom often turns on a moment like this one. When Gary thinks back on his hard and joyous life, he what-ifs for all its worth that one temptation that led to decades of addiction. What if? What if?
When you’re homeless – as Gary is as you read this – there’s time to ponder and analyze. You sift through confusion. Remember hope. Push away pain.
He blinks and sees himself just out of N.C. Central, putting his degree in music education to good use as a public school music teacher. And man how Gary loves children. To this day, nothing makes him smile wider. And that’s why, back then, he keeps putting the brakes on each new teaching gig. Keeps moving on.
Because he knows the truth. “At every new job, I thought I could change, but it was the same old story. I was a cocaine addict. It killed me to know I was giving those kids only half a teacher.”
Still, Gary nearly always had a job. Always had a roof over his head.
Until he didn’t.
Even she looks like a lie. Or at least someone else to fear. This lady walking down the Winston-Salem railroad tracks near the homeless camp.
Gary can’t explain exactly why he used to hide from this woman when he found himself homeless for the first time in his life about 15 years ago. Reality bends and wobbles on the road to rock bottom. You begin to question what you’re processing until so much of what you see – or think you see – is like the haze rising from the street on a hot summer day.
Before he wound up out here by the tracks, he’d found a job in Winston-Salem at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company. Imagine that. As a boy, he’d worked long, hard hours in the family tobacco fields in eastern North Carolina, even missing parts of school days in the fall to make sure the golden leaves were hanging in the barn before the first frost. Now as a man he found himself in a brand new career employed by one of the world’s largest cigarette makers.
And, something else, he’d found a church to attend. One that needed a piano player. “Except for the fact that I was still addicted to cocaine, that was the most grounded I’d been in a long time,” Gary says. “I thought I was going to be OK. I thought I was home.”
But as consumer demand for cigarettes weakened, RJR began to downsize. Gary was soon out of a job. When he couldn’t find a new one, he eventually lost his apartment. When he couldn’t afford gas, he sold the car he’d been living in.
Gary Johnson was homeless. Living near an overpass out by the railroad with a backpack and two blankets. Hiding from that woman, who would seem to show up out of nowhere. Until one day she spotted Gary before he could duck, and called out to him.
“She said, ‘Hey, come to my house and clean up. You can take a shower, iron your clothes and we can talk about what you’re doing here.’ This was one of the first times when I began to understand that there are people in this world who do care. I was still homeless, but I had somewhere to go. I didn’t have to tell my church. Didn’t have to tell my family.”
The thought of opening up to his family – or asking them for help – scared Gary to death. He’d never wanted anything more than to make his mother and father proud. And up until recently, he was 100 percent convinced that not only were they not proud, they somehow no longer loved him. Life unravels; truth bends and wobbles.
Or does it?
Not the policeman. Oh come on, him too?
Gary says he was passing the day in front of the uptown Holiday Inn on College Street earlier this year when a man in street clothes asked him if he needed anything to eat. Gary declined. The man asked again and Gary again said no. When he asked a third time, Gary relented and told the man that, if he insisted, he honestly wouldn’t mind a hotdog and drink from a nearby street vendor. And with that, the undercover officer took him to jail for the night. Gary said other homeless men were there too, targets of an apparent crackdown on panhandling in the long run-up to September’s Democratic National Convention in the Queen City.
Gary can only shake his head at the memory, but he does so with an ever-present smile that is part of his persona now. It’s a joy that shines through as he shares his life story to visitors inside the Urban Ministry Center on North Tryon Street, the interfaith organization serving the poor and the homeless that Gary was introduced to years ago when he ran out of food and grew tired of running in and out of Rock Bottom.
“I came down here and was amazed that I could take a shower, wash my clothes, get something to eat,” he says. “The staff smiled at me and told me everything was going to be alright. This was where I first started to get a glimpse of how somebody in my situation could be OK and still count for something. I was beginning to understand.”
And so Gary’s life moved forward. Promises of jobs and housing would float in like a feather, then catch the wind of misfortune and drift upward again, away from the bottom, out of reach. Still Gary was beginning to see God at work in his life. Not always in the most clearly defined ways, but just the hope that there might bea way to truth, through any circumstance, was beginning to settle – and stir about – in his soul.
He was beginning to put the pieces together, even through more hard times. Like the two-year jail stint several years ago. Hard to do, but it led to finally kicking the cocaine habit he’d battled since college. He walked out truly a free man. But in no time at all, more struggle when he was hit by a car while crossing the street. In this world, you will have trouble. Gary could testify.
But, goodness, what about the kind-hearted people carrying out Jesus’ call to love the least of these? Folks like that lady by the railroad tracks. The waiter at Rock Bottom who brought out some food late one night. Barbara at Urban Ministry, who told him over and over that his past did not equal his future. And his regular customer at the Denny’s on Sunset Boulevard, who tracked Gary down when he didn’t show up for his shift on Christmas Eve four years ago.
The customer had planned all along to take Gary back to her house that night and hook up the lifelong Tar Heels fan with more UNC gear than he’d ever seen. But mainly she wanted him to know that there was room for him in her house on Christmas Eve.
She eventually found Gary crying behind a Bojangles’ dumpster on West Boulevard. She took him home and listened to Gary pour out his heart, piercing that silent night with a story about a man who didn’t feel loved. He hadn’t received a Christmas card, as others had at Urban Ministry. That was it. For goodness’ sake, even his mother and father were no longer to be trusted?
It was as though he’d been riding around, figuratively speaking, in a station wagon full of luggage. Full of hurt. And he’d suddenly slammed on the brakes and felt the full weight of that baggage slap him in the back of the head. As depressed as he’d ever been, he failed to show up for work and lost his job at Denny’s.
But he was about to connect with a local family, one Gary will tell you was heaven-sent.
Who knows how many lives have been blessed by Room in the Inn, the annual partnership between Urban Ministry and area churches, schools and YMCAs. Add Gary Johnson to the long list. A few years ago, he was one of a dozen or so men and women from Urban Ministry who found their way one winter evening to an overnight stay at Trinity United Methodist Church on Beatties Ford Road.
He spent time talking to several of the Room in the Inn volunteers from the church and the pastor. And when morning came, he wondered how he would ever leave. He’d eaten well. Showered. Slept soundly. But nothing compared to the love he felt from the people at Trinity. He was beside himself. He still is.
“I’ve never been the same since,” he said. “I mean, I just couldn’t believe it. How in the world could they treat me just like I was one of them? I kind of walked around in a daze. I found a family there.”
And Trinity United Methodist found a piano player. Every Sunday now, Gary takes a downtown bus up to North Charlotte where someone picks him up and takes him up to church, always an hour early, “or I feel like I’m late,” Gary says. The congregation loves him, none more than the children who run up to him as soon as he arrives, taking him back in his mind to those days when Gary the music teacher lived for children and fostering their love of music.
Gary was blown away a couple of years ago to be invited along with 70 men from Trinity on a retreat to Bethelwoods in York, S.C., the most transformative experience of his life. The theme: Give your burdens away. Lay them down at Jesus’ feet.
Gary witnessed many around him doing just that. “Never saw so many men crying in my life,” he said. He opened up to God that weekend like never before, accepting His forgiveness. Then he forgave those who had deceived him. And finally, he forgave himself.
“I decided that, you know what, maybe God has allowed me to be homeless. There’s a reason for everything that’s happened to me. I mean, I’ve really been an inspiration and a help to so many homeless people around here, I know that. And I’ve had a chance to share with many people at my church about what it’s like to be homeless, too. I know they hear me.”
And just when it seemed as though his joy, this living water, would spill over during that Bethelwoods weekend, someone handed him a surprise letter. A letter from home. And then Gary wept, too.
“My mom wrote that they were proud of me, and that’s all I’ve ever wanted to hear. To know they love me. I felt so lifted up. And my father signed it, too. And then to also really realize and believe that God loves me and He’s doing something with my life, too? Ever since then, I haven’t stopped feeling good about me. I know the truth now. I’m still walking high off the ground.”
And nowhere near rock bottom.
Editor’s note: The Urban Plunge is essentially a three-day mission trip – to Charlotte. You visit several of our missio Dei partner organizations to see how God and God’s people minister to those in need…and join them in their work. In the occasional series People from the Plunge, we’ll introduce you to some of the folks we’ve met along the way and see how God is at work in their lives. Names are sometimes changed for privacy.
Founded in 1994, the Urban Ministry Center is an interfaith organization that serves poor and homeless people with love and compassion and in numerous tangible ways. For more information, visitwww.urbanministrycenter.org.