Monday, March 20, 2023

Life at the Trinity Rescue Mission

In 1984 I went through a drug and alcohol program run by Trinity Baptist Church in Jacksonville, Florida. It was free and lasted 90 days. Afterwards, I stayed at their rescue mission; in its old location at 901 Bay Street.

Trinity Rescue Mission 901 Bay Street Jacksonville Florida
Trinity Rescue Mission

Freedom Farms House - Jacksonville, Florida
When I was there, Trinity Baptist Church ran the mission. The ministry included what’s known as the Freedom Farm, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program.

Former homeless tend to Freedom Farm St. Augustine Record (article here)
photo credit: St. Augustine Record
Established in 1962 by Trinity Baptist Church church leaders, Trinity Rescue Mission expresses their burden for the homeless and hurting people on the streets in Jacksonville. Today, Trinity Rescue Mission operates as an independent, Christ-centered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Although now a separate entity, Trinity Baptist Church remains a key ministry partner of Trinity Rescue Mission.  
Our History: Trinity Rescue Mission
Dr. Bob Gray - former pastor Trinity Baptist Church
Dr. Bob Gray
Dr. Bob Gray was the pastor at Trinity Baptist church. His music director and associate pastor was Lenny Willinger, who also taught at the college. Brother Willinger’s mother sold her expensive home up north, bought the building at 901 Bay Street, and turned it into a Rescue Mission in 1962. She lived in a small two-room apartment on-site.
(Note: Dr. Gray was charged in 2007 with pedophilia. The church operated a massive Sunday School bus program. He was guilty of sexually molesting many of the children under their care. He died before his case went to court.) Read more: Accused Pedophile Baptist Preacher Dies

Director: Men's Section
Mrs. Willinger was a tiny lady. Well over 70 years old, she was still in charge in 1985. She needed help with the Men’s section. Back then, very few women were in homeless shelters or on the streets. It was mostly men. That’s changed over time.
Mrs. Willinger took a personal interest in the women, but at her age, the men were too much for her to handle alone. She had an on-site director of the men’s section. At the time I was there, he was leaving to find ‘real work’. This position was a ministry, not a job. He wanted more money and to live off-property. They asked me to take over.
The pay was $25.00 a week. The church renovated a room for me on the property. They offered bible classes at their college, mainly to get me out of that atmosphere for a few hours a week and around other young preacher boys. 
Doubting Thomas

The current director of the men’s section took one look at his replacement and laughed out loud. He was over 6’ 5" tall, weighed over 300 pounds, and carried a handgun and a billy club. I was a puny pip-squeak, about to learn some hard life lessons. He tried to scare me off; told me I’d last less than one month. But the director of the alcohol and drug rehabilitation center, himself an associate pastor, believed I could do it. That was enough for me.
The departing head of the men’s section came from the streets himself. He wore blue jeans and a T-shirt wherever he went. He constantly beat up on the homeless drunks who used the mission services. I was determined to be different. 
The first thing I decided was that my position deserved dignity. I wouldn’t be seen wearing anything but a shirt and tie - and, when possible - a suit jacket. If they beat me, I’d face it with dignity.  The second thing I pledged was to never step backward. When faced with conflict, I’d move forward.  Always - one step forward.
My plan worked. No matter how angry they were, these tough street fighters wouldn’t hit a soft-spoken man in a suit who stepped forward. I never yelled, cussed, or threatened. I stepped forward and softly repeated what I’d said. I don’t know why, but it worked. Maybe they grumbled; maybe they cursed; maybe they yelled. But they didn't strike me.

(Serial killers Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Toole stayed at this mission, link here.)

Tale of two Johns
The mission staff was constantly changing. The homeless themselves worked for us. Our system worked like this;
  • Anyone could come in for supper as long as they stayed for church service.
  • After the service, they were free to leave. They could come back every night to eat.
  • Three days a month they could stay overnight with us.

(NOTE: This was to ensure we didn’t become a ‘flop-house.’ Whenever people stay too long, they bring trouble with them.)

  • If they ate with us but skipped services, they couldn’t access us for 30 days.
  • Everyone left after breakfast the next morning.
  • Anyone who volunteered to work on staff with us could stay all day.
When I took over, two men named John were long-time staff members. They had been with Mrs. Willinger for years.
John Z.

John Z. (I won’t use his last name) was from New York. He was smaller than me. He was sharp, curious, and skeptical. He had credibility and a good rapport with the street people and the mission staff. I depended on him to be my eyes and ears on the street.

John Z. also had a driver’s license, something unusual among people living on the street. He drove with me when we picked up food donations. The goods came from the local bread bakery, grocery stores, and the food pantry.
John was a jack of all trades. When we needed a cook, John stepped up. He was a driver; he staffed the desk, and he did whatever we needed. Except cleaning the bathrooms and the sleeping area. This was the domain of John No-Name.

(Note: I never knew his last name or anything else about him. Well, except that he always kept the showers and sleeping quarters spotless.)
John No-Name
John N-N worked on staff full-time. Mrs. Willinger told me about him.

When she first saw John, he lived in the woods outside the mission. She’d spot him at the edge of the forest, looking at the mission. But he never came over. She’d ask him to, but he always said no and disappeared into the trees. So she would take him a sandwich when she saw him. This went on for months
Then - one day - he quietly approached her with his head hanging down. He asked if she had some clean socks. His feet were in awful shape.

(Note: When socks get wet and don’t properly dry out, they grow bacteria, and fungus, cause open cracks, and have horrible foot problems. When you’re homeless, you’re always on your feet.)
She helped him with dry socks and got his feet repaired. She convinced him to stay on. She promised he could stay upstairs, share a room with only John Z., and not be around anyone else. He would be in charge of the shower/sleeping quarters. After chapel, those staying the night could go upstairs.

We had three long rooms with bunk beds. We slept twelve men per room. With three rooms, we could host 36 guests every night. The men had to shower. These guys went days - sometimes weeks - without bathing. For health and sanitation reasons, we made them shower.
John manned the shower station. He handed them towels, pajamas, clean underwear, and socks for sleeping. He secured their clothes in a personal locker. This protected the men from thieves stealing their belongings while they slept. It also kept drug paraphernalia and weapons from appearing out of their street clothes in the middle of the night.
John was in charge of their clothes, of cleaning the showers afterward, changing the sheets, and washing the dirty linen in the morning. Then he spent the rest of the day in his room upstairs, only coming down to eat.
Every night, we served supper for the public. We served breakfast every morning for the people who stayed over. Then the guests left - unless they volunteered to be on staff - we locked the building and cleaned up. The noon-time meal was for staff members only.
The first thing I noticed was the discrepancy in meals. We served nothing but soup to our clients on the street. Our staff had their dinner before we opened at night. This meal was meats, potatoes, and dessert. I thought the people donating food to us would not take kindly to this. Why was our cook making two meals? I stopped this practice. Everyone would eat the same thing.
John Z. was skeptical. He told me the better meals were rewards for the staff. They didn’t get paid. Food donations would not support full meals for everyone. I said if we only had soup for clients at night, we would eat soup. I couldn’t justify taking donations for the homeless from our community and eating the food ourselves.
Doubting Thomas Strikes Again
The outgoing director attended the church. When he heard of my new rules, he hit the roof. He was furious. Don’t tell me you are wasting good food on that street trash! You might as well throw caviar to pigs!

I said nothing. I am determined to do the right thing. So we cooked one meal. Word got out in the community that we served full meals now. Our donations went up, and our clientele increased. We didn’t eat soup one night while I was the director. Everyone ate well.
John, who doubted me at the start, cornered me one day and said, I’m amazed. I’ve been here for years and have never seen so many food donations. And I’ve seen people angry at you and ranting about your rules. But nobody ever talks about beating you up.
Preacher Boys
In bible college, ministry students were expected to accept preaching opportunities. Local nursing homes provided an outlet for these students. So did the rescue mission. We needed a preacher 365 days a year. I played the piano every night for the preacher boys who signed up for the mission. And I filled in whenever somebody didn’t show up. This happened at least bi-monthly.
Some kids from the school were real treasures. They stayed after the service, talked to the men, and gave me some company from the ‘world out there.’ It’s easy to get into a ‘depressing bubble’ when you see failure day after day. And make no mistake. Success stories are few. Non-existent, in fact.
But we had too many ‘glamour preachers.’ They would bring some girl from the college to show her how they ministered to the needy. I hated it! These men on the street didn’t need Pretty Church Ladies showing up to their services. It embarrassed the men.

And these 'pretty things’ were clueless. Without fail, they would corner me for praise. Oh, I don’t know how you do this. You work with the ‘scum of the earth.’ You must be so saintly.’ I was not amused.
I made a rule. If a preacher boy showed up with girls on his arm, he wasn’t taking the pulpit. I would ask them to leave. Needless to say, the number of vacant nights when I had to fill-in increased exponentially.
Piano Man
One day, I couldn’t believe what I had heard. Someone was in the chapel, singing and playing the most fantastic version of “Precious Memories (How They Linger).” I asked John Z., Who’s here?” With a sly smirk, he said John N-N had come down from his loft and started playing the piano that day.
John N-N was a very light-skinned black man with freckles. His demeanor reminded me of Batman’s butler, Alfred. He said little but got things done properly. With no words, it was clear when he thought you ‘out-of-place’.
He had no accent when he spoke. Not Southern, Northern, Mid-Western, British; no slang. I often thought his dad was a lifetime serviceman. Military brats have no discernible accent because they move around so much.

So, I don’t have a clue where he learned to sing and play black gospel piano. His rendition was the most soulful I’ve ever heard. I’ve searched - in vain - all over YouTube for anything similar to his version. Only he knows where he learned it.
This was the only song I ever heard him perform. But I knew I had to have him play for me when I preached again. I still played the hymns for the services. He couldn’t. But whenever he would, I had him play “Precious Memories” for our service.

None of the other preacher boys thought his song fit our type of church service. They admitted it was good but was ‘too ethnic’ and had “too much swing.” Think Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard performing “I’ll Fly Away.” Yeah, it was that vibe. But the men of the street loved it, and I was a raging fanboy

Bakery Work
We had a deal with the bakery. They made bread overnight for fresh delivery in the morning. When someone called in sick, they still had to get the bread out. So they would call us in the middle of the night to see if one of our overnight guests wanted work; for pay when they got off that morning. The bakery gave us $25.00 weekly to wake up men who wanted to work. They sent over a car to take them and to bring them back.
John Z. would ask at check-in for anyone willing to work if needed. He made the list and kept track of the best prospects. Then John N-N had to get up, unlock their clothes and help them get ready for work. Mrs. Willinger gave me the $25.00 check. I cashed it and split it between the two Johns; $12.50 per week, per John. Hey, I was asleep while they were making this happen.
Monster Under the Bed
On Thanksgiving Day in 1985, I met my future - and now ex-wife. The college students were mostly home for the holidays. The school cafeteria was closed. So the rescue mission made a Thanksgiving Meal and invited the kids who were staying in the empty dorms. Dianne was one of those pupils. We started dating. Soon, we were discussing marriage. We thought the room at the mission would be fine for the two of us. But I cared about safety, so I was seeking some guidance.
David and Dianne (Johnson) Musgrove
One night Mrs. Willinger called me up to the ladies section. We’d put a new guy on staff that day. He was hiding under the girls' beds, waiting for them to return from their shower. I had to run him off. Within days he was front-page news. Wanted for rape and murder in other states, he’d made his way to Jacksonville, Florida. I had an answer. I left the mission to attend a night college in Greenville, South Carolina. They geared the curriculum towards older married men with daytime jobs. Dianne and I married. Both our children were born in Greeneville. The first summer, we traveled back to Trinity to catch up with old friends.
Doubting Thomas: Conclusion
To my surprise, both Johns left the rescue mission soon after I did. My old nemesis, Doubting Thomas, was gloating. He informed me that - because I was so easy on these common street rats - they got too big for themselves and wouldn’t stick around. Now, he said, they were probably back on the streets. If they were still alive. No one saw or heard from them again. He hoped I was proud of my do-gooder crap.
I never saw either John spend any of their $12.50 a week on anything. They told no one they got it. It was safe that way. I said nothing to anyone, either. Maybe I kid myself, but I like to think they saved up and became one of the few success stories to come out of my rescue mission days. If I could locate anyone I’ve lost track of, it would be them. I’d like to know what happened. 

How to Give Socks to Homeless People
Give the Gift of Socks

Homeless people need socks. Shelters get lots of clothes. They throw most of it away. BUT they never have enough clean socks.

  • Homeless diabetics risk foot injury.
  • Wet socks breed bacteria, causing infections.
  • Ragged socks do not keep the feet warm in winter.
  • Foot amputations can occur for a lack of clean socks.
  • Nothing is more embarrassing than nasty feet and foot odor.
  • Nothing gives a homeless person more dignity than having clean socks. 

Donate Socks For the Homeless

  • Find the address of a shelter near you (link here).
  • Purchase some quality socks - in bulk - at (link here).
  • Have them shipped from Amazon to your local shelter.

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