Bodies and Souls

A young pastor aims his church's meager resources at some of Miami's neediest.

They call this block the Slab.
Along the eroded sidewalks of North Miami Avenue between Eleventh and Twelfth streets, people are sitting on crates and boxes, a rare lawn chair or lounger, or reclining on makeshift mattresses and ragged bedding. Subdued by drugs, depression, or just the heavy heat, they have retreated to the arched concrete overhangs built a half-century ago to shade the businesses that once thrived along this downtown stretch. These days the block is home to a few restaurant-supply companies, while the archways serve as a residence of sorts for about two dozen (up to twice as many on weekends) of Dade's homeless. Some have lived here on and off for ten years. Nearly everyone on the Slab is black; most are men in their 30s and 40s.

They come for the social life, and for the food. Vans and trucks and cars, usually from church or social-service organizations, pull up throughout the week to dispense sandwiches or chicken dinners or macaroni-and-cheese and greens. This is also the place where a man sleeping on a blanket burned to death this past Memorial Day, having been doused with alcohol and lit like a campfire by a fellow Slab dweller. Some say it was a dispute over a woman.

Perhaps it's the nearness of annihilation that brings religion to the surface here. You need something strong to hold on to so as to keep from slipping: Among their few possessions, many guard well-worn Bibles and can quote Scripture (often learned during stints at Christian-run homeless shelters) with the ease of a Sunday-school teacher.

Jim Murray learned about religion at church, not at a shelter. The 41-year-old ex-trucker has lived for ten years on the street, long enough to have entered programs that house and rehabilitate homeless men, long enough to have been hired for and fired from good jobs and to have fought and lost battles against crack cocaine abuse. Through it all, as the hair on his head and above his lip sprouted more sprinklings of white, he has carried his Bible.

Religion and food brought Murray to Harriet Thomas one Saturday afternoon three months ago. Thomas, along with her niece, mother, and four other women, was starting a ministry for their church, the Abundant Life Worship Center in Opa-locka. They set up a long table under an overpass a few blocks from the Slab and carefully put together lunches of ham or turkey sandwiches, bags of chips, fruit, and juice. (Thomas, a registrar at Miami Children's Hospital, had wanted to make sure everyone got a nutritionally balanced meal.) But when the intended recipients discerned that the group had no experience dealing with street people, the scene grew rowdy and threatening. "You could see the wolves sharpening their teeth," recalls Murray, who walked over with a couple of fellow Slab residents to restore order.

After that, Murray surprised Thomas by telling her he'd like a lift to church.

Almost every Sunday morning at about ten o'clock, David Mitchell parks his silver Corolla at the curb. Clad in a dress shirt, tie, and conservative slacks, his eyes concealed by rose-tinted sunglasses, Mitchell stands in the street urging any and all to come with him to Abundant Life Worship Center, where he is a member. It's not important that his car holds no more than five; the Lord will make a way. Sometimes, as on this particular Sunday, the Lord sends out Lillian Carter in her midnight blue Cadillac to help with transportation.

Today five men want to go to church: Jim, Otto, Chicago, M.J., and Richard. The first three all live on the Slab; M.J. sleeps on a sidewalk not far away, while Richard isolates himself in a little tent/shack in an overgrown field near a highway overpass several blocks to the north. "I've been staying out in that field by myself eight months now," Richard says softly. Dressed for church in new jeans and a blue Western-style shirt, he has long, faint sideburns, a chipped front tooth, and a slow, bashful smile. "I'm ready to get up off of that. That's one of the reasons God led me here."

As the contingent is about to depart, Sidney appears, clutching a paperback Bible. He drops down on his pallet, knees bent, head propped on one palm. Sidney, too, is dressed for church: brown polyester slacks, tan dress shirt, striped tie, all bearing a light sheen of grime. He has round cheeks and large eyes that give the impression of merriment. But he's not going to church. The reason is in the scriptures he is attempting to recite, alternately talking and muttering. "'For that which I do I allow not; for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.' And that for me is drugs," he explains amiably, sweating in the dressy clothes. "Romans 7," explains Jim, nodding appreciatively. Everyone slides into the waiting cars, and a minute later they're speeding north on I-95.

Pastor Tony Johnson has a vision, and, as he likes to add in words he attributes to his former mentor, the Reverend Victor Curry, "God does not give a vision without provision." The 28-year-old spiritual leader of the Abundant Life Worship Center intends to build a church and, attached to it, a building to house homeless people, a place where they'll find help in dealing with finances, jobs, and interpersonal relations, a place from which they can re-enter mainstream society.

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