Soup and Salvation

Lu and Martha Castillo founded the Light Mission as a beacon of hope for Miami's homeless. Like all lights, this one sometimes flickers.

Punching out an arrhythmic battery of beeps on his horn, Lu Castillo swings the well-worn white van off Biscayne Boulevard and into a paved parking area at Bicentennial Park. He stops the truck a short grassy stretch from the street, along the deep-water slip that leads to Biscayne Bay. A row of tumbledown shanties has been erected on each side of the slip.

Two men walk slowly past. "Food?" asks one man's mouth. Castillo nods.
Emerging from the back of the van, four men quickly pull out a folding table. They set it up and put out piles of paper plates and bags of Styrofoam cups, a box of used plastic spoons, a large cooler, a metal pot the shape of a flying saucer, mounds of bread slices and rolls. A line of about twenty people has silently materialized, and others are moving toward the gathering from the park and from across the boulevard, where homeless people have furnished a stretch of sidewalk with salvaged sofas, chairs, and mattresses. The growing line behind Castillo's truck includes one woman, a few transvestites, not a single white person, and only a handful over the age of 40. It is not a spirited crowd; the faces reflect dullness, wariness, weariness. About halfway back stands a man with a closed Bible in his hands and a look of resignation in his eyes.

Castillo, tall and bulky, strides out to face the assemblage and the table of food. He wears a faded red sport shirt over loose pink shorts, vivid yellow socks, and black sneakers. Neatly trimmed grayish hair and mustache frame square plastic glasses. Dressed in a suit, he would look more like the evangelist he is, or even the advertising executive he used to be. "Listen up, folks, we're going to give you a little teaching from the Bible, and then you can go eat all you want," he announces in a flat tone with a mild Southern accent.

Otis Hepburn, a smiling man in a baseball cap, stands at Castillo's right. Hepburn, from Freeport, Bahamas, has lived at the Light Mission, a small shelter for the homeless run by Castillo and his wife Martha, for nine months. Hepburn helps the Castillos manage the two-year-old mission, one of more than 50 religious groups and churches that regularly bring food to Dade County's estimated 6000 to 8000 homeless residents. Every Thursday, Castillo and two or three helpers take food to encampments around town.

As Castillo launches into a short sermon, some of the men in line begin talking. That doesn't faze him. His voice rises and somehow reverberates, bouncing off the buildings across the street and the concrete walls and walks in the park, probably off the humid overhang of the atmosphere, too. "God's not your enemy, He's your friend," Castillo insists, his voice working to capture the emotion of his words. "I know it's hard sometimes to believe God loves you when you're living on the streets. I know sometimes street life gets to you, and you're involved in drugs and alcohol. Let me tell you, my friends, Otis used to live out here. I was also an addict."

Several people in line are nodding, listening. The man with the Bible has closed his eyes. "That's right, believe it or not," continues Castillo, his left arm extended toward the waiting men and chopping the air like an ax. A black Mercedes, windows tinted black, drives slowly past, then speeds away. "God sees you're down and out, and He's waiting to help you, free you of all this. He's not happy about it and He suffers when you suffer. But you know what? There's nothing He can do until you say, 'God, I need help.' You gotta be willing to say yes to God. How many are willing to do that today?" Castillo asks. "Raise your hands."

Several do, including the man with the Bible, and Castillo urges them to speak to him or Otis after they've eaten.

For this Thursday's dinner, Martha Castillo has cooked up a huge batch of rice with vegetables, tasty with plenty of garlic. The big cooler is filled with diet raspberry-flavored tea and diet strawberry soda. Otis begins spooning the food onto paper plates.

The menu depends entirely upon the day's donations. As he does every Thursday morning, this morning Vince Martinez took a few fellow mission residents out to pick up food at several small markets. Formerly the unofficial mayor of Watson Island's homeless encampment, Martinez has been the mission's official fundraiser for a couple of months now. His run this morning resulted in a tremendous haul of vegetables: boxfuls of potatoes, zucchini, carrots, onions, tomatoes, eggplant. A bakery in Hollywood contributes fresh -- not day-old A baguettes and dinner rolls. "That's a blessing," Martha Castillo remarks. It is her standard positive response.

The bounty doesn't begin to fit in the mission's narrow kitchen. The men have piled the bags and boxes on the long plank, painted pink, that serves as a dining table, on an old upright piano and bench, on dining room chairs. Surrounded by a sturdy Cyclone fence, the mission, a Fifties-vintage frame house, stands between a car wash and a vacant lot piled high with trash and debris just north of 79th Street and east of North Miami Avenue. Across the street rests a wrecked station wagon, gutted and abandoned. A few weeks ago, the body of a murdered transvestite was discovered a block away. The house, now painted tan with brick-red trim, was a crack den with a rotting roof before the Castillos moved in two years ago. There was no electricity; the wiring and tubing had been scavenged either to sell or to use for crack-smoking paraphernalia. All the window screens had been torn out for the same purpose.

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