To write a story about the Hendersonville Rescue Mission, I spent a Friday night there.
I did this with the permission of Rev. Anthony McMinn because I wanted to know what really went on inside the building with words “Jesus Saves” spelled out on its roof.
After I walked in with only a photo ID and a car key hidden in my shoe, Johnnie Black asked why I was there. I did not want to deceive him, so I said that Rev. McMinn told me I could stay there if I ever needed a safe place.
That March night there were 21 men, eight women and one child with me. More showed up for dinner (chicken, rice, beans, and bread) and everyone I saw was treated with dignity and respect.
One resident was, however, asked to leave that night. He was wearing sunglasses during chapel service, became extremely talkative after our 8:45pm snack period and was acting erratic while other men did their chores.
When Black asked the young man (who quietly told me earlier in the evening that he had served prison time) if he was under the influence of drugs, he denied it. I later learned that Black offered this guest the opportunity to take a drug test at Pardee Hospital in order to continue his stay at the Mission, but that offer was declined.
I did not interview any of the residents. I preferred to listen to them talk while smoking cigarettes outside after dinner or watching TV and play ping-pong in the rec room.
During that time, a man I will call Ben (not his real name) came up to me and said he was a truck driver who got the bad end of a deal with his employer and they repossessed his vehicle one night while he was completing his route. Ben told me that he had run out of money and this was the only place available to him until he got things sorted out.
That night Ben was among the other men contributing to the symphony of snoring as I tried to sleep in my top bunk in the dorm, but something I overheard while he was playing chess in the reading room with another resident stuck with me. “Once I get back on my feet, I plan to send these folks $500 or $1,000,” he said to no one in particular. “The food is good and the shower is warm. Under other circumstances, I wouldn’t have any of this. It means a lot and I want to show them that I appreciate it.”
Another exchange that stood out that night was between a resident and Men’s supervisor Andy Bracken. Chewie (not his real name) was having dinner when he told the other men at the table he had been pulled over by a police officer earlier in the day for running a stop sign on his moped and not wearing a helmet. The encounter resulted in Chewie being let go with a warning, but he now had to find a helmet or would get a ticket the next time.
At that moment Bracken walked up to our table and gave Chewie an extra bike helmet he had in the back of his car.
“He needed one and I had one,” Bracken said to me a few days later when I told him and the rest of the staff about my experience. ” As someone who works here, we always ask ourselves if we have done everything we can to help the people that we serve. For me, that was just part of our mission at the Mission.”
I can’t pretend that my one night at the Hendersonville Rescue Mission made me understand what it is like to be homeless. That would be insulting to the very real people whom I met that night. Instead, I can say that being there from 6:30 at night to 6:30 the next morning enlightened me to what is being done for the people who know what that reality is about.