‘I’m worth something’
A bus stops at the Hartley House where homeless men spend their lives. The men prepare to reenter the house and resume their routines, now that a special evening of fun and fellowship has concluded.
Captain Justin Caldwell, the bus driver and corps officer at The Salvation Army in Springfield, Ohio, rises from his seat and closes their night of activities in prayer.
“We love you all and we think about you often,” Caldwell reminds them. After the prayer, the men hug Caldwell as they exit the bus.
Many men say that the love and acceptance they receive during these fellowship nights keep them hopeful while living in a community ravaged by heroin addiction. The thought that someone cares about them and loves them lingers.
Some of the men, such as Larkin Ferguson and Joseph Kibugwa, have been attending worship services at the Salvation Army corps. The Hartley House, a shelter for homeless men, is just a stone’s throw from the corps.
Ferguson, a soft–spoken man in his 60s, said that as a homeless person, he had a poor image of himself. As a result, he withdrew from people. But the love he found at the corps helped restore his confidence.
“I came to realize that I am worth something to me, to others, and to God,” he says. “In His eyes, I never was a worthless person. I needed a way to find out that was true. I’ve found that way here.”
About a year ago, the Wednesday fellowship night began. Captain Caldwell, other men from the corps, and residents of Hartley House eat out. And sometimes they go bowling, see a movie, or play miniature golf.
“It was as if God was putting [the idea] on a few people’s hearts at the same time that we should do something for the homeless,” Caldwell says. “We threw some ideas around.”
What are we doing?
One of the brainstormers was Ryan Ray, the resource director at the corps. Ray remembers taking meals to the Hartley House after a board meeting.
“The woman who took the meals was extremely thankful and she said, ‘We’re usually overlooked.’ I’ll never forget her saying that,” Ray says. “That kind of was on my radar and perked my ears up a little bit from that time on and I just prayed about it.
“God started laying it on my heart that these guys are here in our backyard … and what are we doing to connect with them, to hear their stories, and to bring them to a closer relationship with God?”
Caldwell said food had to be part of the plan since at the House the men receive only shelter.
“It’s only one night, but one meal is a big deal for some of these guys,” he says. “It’s also a time for [the guys at the corps] to get away and lift these guys up.”
Caldwell said another goal was to make a connection with God.
“We pray with them and some of them come to church and they go to Home Group,” Caldwell says. “We also have Bible studies that the guys attend. We try to get to know the guys and we’ve made a huge connection with some of them.”
Thanks to a “Strikepoint” grant, the corps purchased a 16–foot inflatable movie screen that can be set up in the gym. It also came with a PlayStation 4, allowing the men to play video games.
Ray recalls that on the first night of the ministry, “the men started asking a lot of questions about God and The Salvation Army.”
“We just wanted to let them know that they’re loved and they’re noticed,” Ray says. “From that, a lot of great conversation just erupted. A lot of guys opened up. They just expressed the need for fellowship even more.
“These guys are hungry and they’re begging for that kind of interaction. This type of ministry goes to the heart and soul of these guys. We’re hoping that Christ becomes the agent of change in their lives.”
A loving home
Ray said that soon some of the men were coming to the corps.
“That was so exciting because of the people we were going to put around them,” he says. “They accepted, loved, and greeted them. They also showed the men a love that is so foreign to them.
“To the people here at The Salvation Army, all of the tattoos and the roughness—that is not intimidating. It’s not something they see first. They see soul first.”
Ferguson was one of those men who started coming to the corps, and whose life as a sexually abused child traveled down a harrowing road.
As a graphic designer for many years in Madison, Wis., Ferguson found himself unemployed and homeless when the office building where he worked and his apartment building were both sold. When his 21-year-old cat died, things got worse.
“In my eyes, my life came tumbling down pretty quickly,” Ferguson recalls. “I tried to commit suicide. I tried to hang myself.”
A simple prayer
To end his life, Ferguson tied an extension cord around a clothes rack in his closet and leaned forward. But God had other plans.
“It was the weirdest thing. I was beginning to see stars,” he says. “There was like a star burst exploding in front of my face and I heard a distinct, ‘No.’ And so, I stopped it.”
About a year and a half ago, Ferguson’s sister convinced him to move to Springfield, but life remained the same until he received an invitation to the Wednesday fellowship night. Ferguson said the first night he attended, Caldwell prayed with the men and told them it was no accident they were there. God had planned the entire thing.
“That really hit home with me,” Ferguson says.
Caldwell prayed the same thing after the men saw a movie and said he hoped they would come to church on Sunday. In June, Ferguson went for the first time.
A corps connection
“I walked into the building and all I knew were the faces from Wednesday night and there were only a handful, but everyone I met shook my hand and welcomed me there,” Ferguson says. “I felt like I was at home. I’ve been going pretty much ever since.
“I have found a home here. My faith has been growing a lot.”
“One of my prayers was to have a place of my own and those prayers are getting answered,” he says.
Caldwell said he has seen Ferguson’s relationship with God “reinvigorated.”
“I have no doubt that God sent Larkin to us,” Caldwell says. “I’ve seen God work in Larkin’s life. We’ve met quite a few times and talked and prayed about how God has come through for him.”
Finding open arms
Joseph Kibugwa, who came to the United States from Tanzania to attend Clark State Community College in Springfield, found a similar experience at the corps. A Christian, he stayed at the Hartley House about a month while looking for a place to stay, but he now comes to the corps and is starting soldier classes.
“The church members are like a family,” he says. “They understand the situation going on with almost every person. You know how you will go to church and no one says, ‘I’m glad you’re here?’ At The Salvation Army, they came up and had a conversation and said they were looking forward to seeing me next week.”
Kibugwa said he enjoys watching movies and playing basketball on fellowship nights, but he also remembers Caldwell telling him that God had a plan for his life.
“They talk about your relationship with God,” Kibugwa says. “I like that the whole issue is about changing lives.”
A grateful bunch
That’s the case for many of the men. Herman Gatewood said he finds “unity” on Wednesday nights, while for James St. John, it’s “hope.”
“They’re easy to get along with,” St. John says of Caldwell and other people from the corps. “They do this out of their own goodness. They’re taking time from their families to do this.
“I feel like I’m part of a family every time I come out with them because they care. They let you know that too. I have a great time every time.”
Phillip Carlton, a student at Clark State University who has also come to the corps on Sundays, says he hates missing the fellowship night.
“I kick myself when the guys come back and tell me what they did and where they went,” he says. “Going out like this breaks up the monotony.
“It promotes unity, it promotes brotherhood, and it promotes fellowship.”
by Robert Mitchell
photography by Keri L Shay