Unto The Least Of These
Helping the Hurting, in Your Backyard
mtl Note: Same Kind of Different as Me recounts the incredible true story of three lives: Ron Hall, an international art dealer, and Denver Moore, a modern-day slave—two strangers from opposite sides of the tracks—and Deborah—the one woman who united them in an unlikely friendship.
It took a couple of months before I noticed a real change in my heart, a heart that was feeling like it had been run through the short cycle in a microwave—warm on the outside but still a little cool in the middle. I was fairly certain something had happened when I began waking up on Tuesday morning, Mission Day, and felt the same chill of excitement as when I woke up on Saturdays at Rocky Top. It wasn’t a raising-the-dead caliber miracle or anything. But folks who knew me would have classified it as a minor one. At least.
My own take on the topic was that maybe—just maybe—God had also rung my number when He called Deborah. On days when nothing else pressed, I found myself dropping by the mission. Soon, the fellows in the hood started to recognize my dirty-green crew-cab truck, and when they saw me pop out of the tunnel on East Lancaster Street, they’d slip their paper-bag-wrapped liquor bottles behind their backs and wave at me like I was a neighbor coming home from work.
Sometimes I ventured into the streets, places where even in broad daylight, young women wandered by like death in blue jeans, offering sex for cigarettes. Or for a ride home to steal mama’s TV and pawn it at Cash America. I hoped just to lend an ear, be an example. Sometimes, I stayed closer to the mission where some sunny afternoons, I’d sit on the curb in the shade of a vacant building and chat. One fellow told me he’ been married a thousand times to a thousand beautiful women—all of them as rich as Oprah. Of course, he said, all of them had also stolen every dime he’d ever made, so he asked me if I could spare a smoke.
If I hung around long enough and concentrated on spotting a fellow who didn’t want to be spotted, I’d nearly always see Denver. But if I made a move toward him, he would move an equal distance away. The fact that I was now calling him by his real name seemed to do more harm than good. If anything, he seemed irritated, like he was mad that I now had it right.
The mission residents had by then dubbed Deborah “Mrs. Tuesday.” They liked her a lot. But she became convinced that it would take more than “like”—and more than our ladling macaroni and meat loaf—to gain their trust. Without that, she realized, our efforts might mean a full belly on Tuesday nights, but little in the way of real change. Her goal was changed lives, healed hearts. Broken men and women rejoining the ranks of the clean and sober, moving out to places of their own, spending Sundays in the park with their families.
She began to rack her brain about ways to bring a little joy into their lives. Her first idea: Beauty Shop Night. Deborah and her best friend, Mary Ellen Davenport, would go to the mission loaded down with makeup kits, hairstyling tools, perfumes, soaps, and every manicure and pedicure accessory ever invented. And the homeless women would come. Deborah and Mary Ellen would comb the lice out of their hair, then wash and style it with blow-dryers and curling tools. If a woman wanted a pedicure, Deborah and Mary Ellen would wash her feet, use pumice stones to scrub, away calluses layered on by ill-fitting shoes, and paint her toenails in a feminine shade of red or pink. They did facials and makeovers and gave the women little makeup kits to keep. Sometimes, on these nights, a homeless woman, catching a glimpse of herself in a mirror, would remember what she looked like before her life went off course and begin to cry.
Then Deborah dreamed up movie night. It sounded silly to me, but on the first night at least fifty men showed up to watch a movie about the Brooklyn Tabernacle choir. The next Wednesday, the dining hall was completely packed—150 people. The third week, something miraculous happened: Instead of heading for the exits when the video screen went blank, grown men, crusty and battle-hardened, began weeping and asking for prayer. God somehow managed to transform the dining hall into a confessional. It wasn’t the movies that caused the metamorphosis. It was just the simple act of caring. The men began confiding in us things some of them had never told anyone—and truthfully some things I wish they’d never told us.
That spurred Deborah on to a new idea: birthday night. Once a month, we brought a giant, gorgeously frosted sheet cake and everyone, including “God’s people,” would be invited to eat some. Those with a birthday that month got two pieces. Some folks couldn’t even remember what month they were born, but we weren’t checking IDs. The cake was always a hit. So much so that people began having more and more birthdays it seemed—some every month. (During the twelve months we brought cake, some fellows at the mission aged twelve years.)
In the fall of 1998, the mailman delivered to our home an invitation that arrived with the junk mail but turned out to be a treasure. Our friend Tim Taylor was organizing “an outreach to the unreached”—that’s fancy talk for evangelism—in a downtown theater that occupied the top floor of a landmark bar called the Caravan of Dreams.
Deborah and I had been to the Caravan, a smoky jazz and blues lounge owned by billionaire developer and Fort Worth renovator Ed Bass. But the bar had stayed hip while we had not, so it had been years since we’d dropped in. Still, Tim’s invitation gave Deborah an idea: We could drive down to the mission and pack our cars with people who would enjoy a liquor-free night on the town. Given Jesus’s habit of consorting with drinkers and gluttons, she didn’t see the venue as a problem.
The next day, we whipped up a flyer announcing the free concert, drove down to the mission, and tacked it up on a bulletin board next to one offering to buy poor people’s plasma.
The flyer didn’t say what band was playing, but the Caravan was no hole in the wall. Anyone who’d been in Fort Worth awhile knew it occasionally featured a marquee performer. I’m sure the mission folks were hoping B. B. King might show up.
Rain slicked the pavement as we pulled up to the mission that evening, me in my Suburban and Deborah in her Land Cruiser. Still, we had customers: about fifteen men and women standing on the shiny sidewalk dressed in their handout best.
We were shocked to see him standing on the mission steps, solemn and rigid like the statue of a dictator. And he clearly meant to go with us: He was scrubbed so clean his ebony skin shone against a dark blue secondhand suit that almost fit. He stood alone, of course, at least twenty feet from anyone—which did not surprise us since the others always treated him like a bad dog on a long chain.
When I got out and opened the door to my Suburban, six men piled into the two backseats, leaving the front passenger seat vacant. No one wanted to sit near Denver, who had sourly observed the commotion of loading, yet had not made a move. For five solid minutes he stood there staring. I waited. Then, without a word, he stalked to the Suburban and slid into the front seat, inches from my elbow.
I had never been that close to him. I felt like Billy Crystal in the movie City Slickers, when he camps alone on the prairie with the menacing trail boss Curly, shivering as Curly sharpens his knife on a razor strop. To break the tension, I took a couple of stabs at trivial conversation, but Denver sat stock-still and silent, a sphinx riding shotgun.
As I eased down the street, the other fellows seemed happy to be riding in a car that wasn’t marked “Fort Worth Police Department” on the sides. They wanted to know all about it, the monthly payments, and whether I knew any other rich people.
Deborah followed in her Land Cruiser with a carload of ladies. In five minutes, we were through the tunnel and at the Caravan. We both parked and our guests spilled out, chattering and laughing, glad to be dressed up and in the other Fort Worth. We all paraded in, up the stairs to the theater where 250 seats sloped toward a small stage.
Except for Denver. I was acutely aware he had not come in. Everyone was seated and the show was about to begin, but I got up and went back downstairs. I found him standing on the sidewalk puffing on a cigarette.
“The concert’s about to start,” I said. “Don’t you want to come in?”
Smoke curled up around his dark head. I heard the spat-spat of rain off the eves. Denver said nothing. I posted myself just inside the Caravan door and waited. Finally, he walked past me and up the stairs, as if I were no more alive than a cigar-store Indian. I followed, and when he took an end seat on a row by himself, I sat down next to him.
Then I did something stupid: I smiled heartily and patted him on the knee. “Denver, I’m glad you came.”
He didn’t smile back, didn’t even blink, just stood up and walked away. At first, I was afraid to turn around, but later, as the concert began, I saw him out of the corner of my eye, sitting on the back row, alone.
That tore it. He’s a nutcase, I concluded, not worth my trouble. The man was definitely looking a gift-horse in the mouth.
Another thought nagged at me, though. Could it possibly be something he saw in me—something he didn’t like? Maybe he felt like the target of a blow-dried white hunter searching for a trophy to show off to friends, one he bagged after a grueling four-month safari in the inner city. Meanwhile, if I caught him, what would I do with him? Maybe God and Deborah had gotten their signals crossed. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to be his friend.
The concert lasted a little less than two hours. Afterward, as we skirted shallow rain puddles on the way back to the cars, our guests thanked us profusely. All except for Denver, who hung back as usual. But when all the others had piled back in the cars, he walked up to me and spoke the first words I had ever heard come out of his mouth outside the dining hall.
“I want to apologize to you,” he said. “You and your wife been tryin’ to be nice to me for some time now, and I have purposely avoided you. I’m sorry.”
Stunned, I didn’t know what to say and didn’t want to say too much for fear he’d bolt again. So all I said was, “That’s okay.”
“Next time you is at the mission, try and find me and let’s have a cup a’ coffee and chat a l’il bit.”
“What about tomorrow morning?” was what came out when I opened my overeager yap. “I’ll pick you up and weÕll have breakfast together. How about me taking you to your favorite restaurant and I’ll treat.”
“I ain’t got no favorite restaurant,” he said, then added, “matter of fact, I don’t think I ever been to no restaurant.”
“Well, then I’ll choose one and pick you up at 8:30. Same place I drop you off.”
We climbed back into the Suburban and I sped back to the mission. I couldn’t wait to tell Deborah the news.
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Excerpted from Same Kind of Different as Me by Ron Hall and Denver Moore with permission from Thomas Nelson. Unauthorized duplication prohibited.