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Lives 'resurrected' at rescue missions, reaching addicted, homeless
A "full house" for dinner at Joy Junction, an Albuquerque, New Mexico, rescue mission. - photo by Mark A. Kellner
Easter, when the world's Christians celebrate Jesus' resurrection, has an intensely personal meaning for Harold Eansor, a 69-year-old recovering alcoholic in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

His booze-induced amnesia was so bad, he confessed, he doesn't remember entire periods of his life or even relatives who've passed on. He's been sober for 19 years after checking into a local rescue mission, Joy Junction.

"Life begins at 50," said Eansor, who is now a receptionist at Joy Junction, where he encourages others to change their lives. "The Lord gave us all a second chance. He died for us; I wish I could've died for him, but it wouldn't have worked that way. He's my strength, and I just glory in the thought of Easter and the fact that our Lord rose again."

Proselytizing an addict to become Christian as part of the rehabilitation process is what drives rescue missions in their work and distinguishes them from other clinics and programs, advocates say. Often located in a town's least-desirable neighborhoods the term "skid row" is derived from 19th century Seattle's logging-and-brothel district, where logs skidded down channels to a mill rescue missions provide meals and temporary shelter for homeless people. But their main business, advocates say, is spiritual and physical transformation.

"While there are a number of very good social services that provide help for people who are going through some of their darkest hours rescue missions are there because we're all about restoring, rescue, (and) bringing new life to those who were once dead and gone." said John Ashmen, president of the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions, a network of 300 North American outlets.

Unique role

Dead and gone. New life. Rescue. If those words parallel aspects of the Easter story Christ's death and resurrection, the promise to a repentant thief on the cross it's not coincidence, but, rather, a strategy.

Andy Bales, president of the Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles, one of the nation's largest such outposts, said missions are "absolutely" still valid when it comes to restoring broken lives.

"I think the problem is in the understanding of what a rescue mission does it's more than 'three hots and a cot,' it's an intense recovery program, a holistic recovery program," Bales explained.

A Union Rescue Mission client, he said, must make a one-year commitment to staying in the group's program. And the program itself involves "hundreds of hours in the learning center, one-on-one counseling, and classes on overcoming addiction, anger and financial management."

While in the program, residents are also given physical education classes and have access to clinics for dental, medical, mental health and legal issues, Bales added, all with the aim of "assisting the residents in dealing with all the issues in their life."

A Christian commitment is never far from what Bales and his staff does. "There's a spiritual emphasis throughout," he said.

The numbers of those who seek out help from rescue missions are impressive. According to Ashmen, AGRM member agencies provide 25 to 30 million nights of lodging annually, about 50 million meals a year, and give between 40 and 50 million articles of clothing to clients. Addiction recovery programs run by the missions graduate approximately 26,000 people annually, he added.

History of service

While the phrase "rescue mission" might be attached to any soup kitchen, shelter or other facility helping the community's down and out, the distinctly evangelical Christian centers known as "gospel rescue missions" date back nearly 200 years, starting with Scotland's Glasgow City Mission in 1826.

In 1872, New York City's Helping Hand for Men became America's first rescue mission. It was founded by reformed ruffian Jerry McAuley on Water Street in lower Manhattan and is still operating today.

According to Ray Bakke, an expert on the urban poor and homeless who is now chancellor of Union University of California, missions have had to keep up with evolving challenges and treatment.

"The street has changed a lot, and the rescue missions have had to change with it. Up until the mid-1980s, the typical person was a 58-year-old wino, an alcoholic," he said. A more recent influx of Vietnam-era veterans, many suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, as well as homeless women and children, have forced changes in how missions dealt with mental health issues.

"People on the street have layered addictions, often starting with sexual abuse, and used drugs or prostitution in order to cope," Bakke said. "Rescue missions had to adjust."

Restoring broken lives, AGRM's Ashmen said, is at the heart of rescue mission ministry.

"Rescue missions start with rescue, pulling people to safety from adverse conditions; redemption and presenting people with the gospel, which is about life transformation in Jesus," he said. A rescue mission is "unashamedly a Christian faith-based organization that is all about transformation of lives, which we have 100 years of experience of seeing that happen and have lasting effects. They're also about rehabilitation, breaking the bonds of addiction and desperate behavior, and reassimilation, preparing people to dwell in community and assume roles in society."

Bakke, who's studied rescue mission work and advised various missions, says the groups see problems on the street often long before society confronts them.

In Los Angeles, for example, Bales and the Union Rescue Mission brought attention to the practice of hospitals' middle-of-the-night dumping of patients in front of the mission when insurance or other monies were not available to cover the costs. "The rescue mission there has become a kind of conscience" for the rest of the city, he said.

The missions, Bakke said, "really save taxpayers a ton of money. The cost to America would be a whole lot more if we didn't have them out on the front line. I don't know who else can do it."

Lives transformed

Harold Eansor isn't the only person for whom Joy Junction became not just a rest stop along skid row, but instead the pathway to a transformation.

Diana Peterson-Lane, now 48, was, literally, without a prayer when she showed up at Joy Junction, a little more than eight years ago.

Peterson-Lane said she'd begun using drugs at age 12, eventually becoming a methamphetamine addict. By the time she entered the mission, "I (had) lost everything, including myself and my kids."

Quitting drugs left her anxious, depressed and terrified, she said. Entering a faith-filled rehabilitation program, which is what the Joy Junction rescue mission offered, made her "freaked out."

"During my first week, I tried to make excuses to leave, but I stayed and continued and joined the program," she said.

Staying at the mission prompted what Peterson-Lane said was her own personal "resurrection," or spiritual rebirth. The mother of two insists she's really "8 years old," counting her years of recovery and renewal. She's reconnected with her two teenage children and is continuing her progress, she said.

"What was cool is, my change was probably about three months in," Peterson-Lane, now a transportation manager at Joy Junction, recalled. "It was amazing. I went, 'Huh, I'll be darned.' I had left God, (but) he had not left me. I was able to cry it out, and from that point on, with all the support, I just hit the ground running."
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