Bodies and Souls

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.

That's an ambitious goal for a two-year-old nondenominational independent congregation whose 29 members worship in a stark, rented chapel in the VanKara Christian School just south of NW 135th Street. A church where one in five attendees on any given Sunday is homeless. A church that doesn't believe in collecting money through bake sales or raffles or other such fundraising events, because, Johnson explains, the people of God are commanded to support God's work with their own tithes and offerings.

But the pastor, dressed in a double-breasted beige suit and singing sweetly to his congregation to taped accompaniment A "Jesus said, 'Fear not, my child/I feel every pain and tear. . . ./I'll make you strong and then/Your broken heart I'll mend'" -- has no doubt it will all happen in good time.

Though the son of a preacher, Johnson was raised in Palatka by his mother after his parents divorced and says he grew up without the slightest desire to become a pastor. Then, at age nineteen, he "got the call" while working at a gospel radio station not far from Jacksonville. "What happens to most people being called to preach or minister," Johnson explains, "it's actually supposed to be a supernatural experience from God, and I was no exception." One night, he recounts, his eyes were covered by the hand of God and a voice said, "I want you to preach my gospel." The following year he moved to Miami to find full-time employment and go to school. Since 1993 he has worked for the Mervyn's chain as a supervisor in the men's department. His studies have proceeded slowly, but by 1997 he expects to earn a bachelor's degree in theology from Theos' International Bible College in Opa-locka.

Soon after arriving in Miami, Johnson joined Mount Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, led by the charismatic Victor Curry, who quickly recognized his gift for teaching and appointed him to be one of the church's seventeen associate ministers. He left Mount Carmel to serve as interim pastor at the 500-member New Life Missionary Baptist Church, which had lost its preacher after a well-publicized financial scandal, but decided not to accept the church's offer to become the permanent pastor.

"That was two years ago," Johnson says. "When I left, four or five New Life members called me and said, 'We want you to be our pastor.' We began this church with five members, and met in our homes for three months."

Members' donations are accumulating, both big and small. At one recent service, treasurer Ruby Mitchell read the total contribution from that morning's Sunday school: "Attendance nine, total donations $9.50." But not long ago the congregation received a windfall from Denver Broncos cornerback Wymon Henderson, a South Florida native. "I'm not a member but my sister-in-law is, and last year I found out about the street ministry they have. With the donations, I was just being obedient to the Lord and what he has blessed me and my wife with," says Henderson, who adds that he'd prefer not to reveal publicly the amount he donated.

"God requires the church to feed the hungry and clothe the naked," Johnson says. "It just so happens the government does what little they do, but the actual burden of the church is to go out and take care of the widows and orphans."

Today's sermon is about sin. Johnson, a smallish man with a close-cropped beard, his hair cut in a conservative fade, is no fire-and-brimstone preacher. His voice is friendly and soft-edged. But when he lowers his head and fixes a blazing gaze on his flock, in spite of his angelic face there is no place to hide.

"Therefore we are buried with him by baptism into death," he intones. A train whistle sounds in the distance; outside the sky is turning dark with an oncoming rain. "Knowing this, that our old man is crucified with him, that the body of sin might be destroyed, that henceforth we should not serve sin."

He pauses. "We are dead. But yet we live. Do you follow what I'm saying?"
"Yes, pastor," Ruby Mitchell answers from the front row.
"This flesh cannot function any more for me. What you see isn't really me. You see the house I live in. You don't see me, because I live inside."

"That's right," agrees M.J.
"People are trying to change the outside of the house and they're not worried about changing the inside.! We're gonna be camped out here for a while, so you might as well pitch a tent."

A woman shakes a tambourine; the congregation claps hands. Straightening the lapels of his jacket, Johnson relaxes his shoulders and takes a deep breath. "You have a choice not to allow sin to reign in your mortal bodies. Hebrews 12:1 says we have the ability to lay aside pride. We have the ability to lay aside gossip. We have the ability to lay aside lying. Oh, y'all help me." He lowers his head, looks out with eyebrows arched.

"Come on, pastor, come on!" urges Ruby Mitchell.
"He says, 'You were slaves to sin.' Listen to me. And when you were slaves, you only do what the master says. But I bought you. I bought you with the blood of Christ. You're free. But if you still want to live on massa's plantation, I'm not gonna stop you. But if you want to follow me, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, you're free."

The sermon transports the homeless men out of their precarious daily existence and into a place of solace and hope. But afterward they know it's back to harsh facts and scant comforts. And even if the Lord manages to create in them a new heart, they wonder, what can they possibly do about the old, unchanged realities that hang over their lives like the drab archways of the Slab?

Sometimes Jim Murray looks every one of his 41 years, but most of the time he looks younger. His mouth, eyes, and brows seem to tilt slightly up, which gives him an upbeat look even when he speaks seriously, which is often. Born in Asheville, North Carolina, he grew up in Miami. Ten years ago, he and his wife separated; as a result, he's rarely seen his son, who is now 21. Since the separation, Murray has been in and out of jail for numerous violations, from burglary to cocaine possession, and in and out of drug rehab programs. When funding ran out for the two county-sponsored boarding-house rooms where he was placed in the early Nineties, Murray found himself back on the street. He lived in Bicentennial Park for a long time, until that huge assemblage was finally eradicated in 1994 as part of a purge of homeless encampments. Now he's on the Slab.

Chicago -- everyone calls him that or Chi-town, because that's where he's from -- says he got out of prison in Illinois earlier this year, having served about five years for "perjury and misuse of benefits." The term was longer than one might have expected, he explains, because he got into some brutal fights with his fellow inmates; he attributes his disciplinary problems in part to the fact that his mother died while he was inside. He blames her poor health on himself and his older brother, a crack addict.

Once released, Chicago drove to West Palm Beach, wanting to renew his relationship with his father, whom he hadn't seen in years. But his father threw him out after a dispute over money, and he wound up sleeping in his car on Key Biscayne until the car was impounded because it had no registration. After calling a tow truck, the police dropped Chicago at Camillus House downtown, but he soon found the Slab. "They made me feel all right," he says. "'You want to lay down?' 'Here, you want something to drink?' They gave me something to lay down on."

M.J.'s high-cheekboned face, lit by a sharp gold glint in his eyes, struggles to maintain its handsomeness against the ravages of drugs, hunger, disillusionment. Deep lines run down either side of his nose and mouth; his top front teeth are missing. A former Navy man who has roamed the U.S., he says he traveled to Miami in 1987 after his ex-wife got custody of their son in Ohio. He worked the labor pools and began smoking crack cocaine. For more than a year he and a friend lived in a parking lot in two cardboard refrigerator boxes with a hole cut between them so they could pass the crack pipe back and forth. Even during a year and a half at the Miami Rescue Mission, he continued to smoke crack. The stint at the mission imbued him with an impressive knowledge of the Bible, which he loves to discuss. Though he rarely misses a Sunday service, he holds back from much involvement with the church. "To adapt you would have to fit in," he says, preferring to leave it at that.

By most recent estimates, on any given night between 4000 and 6000 people sleep on the streets of Dade County. One reason they're not inside is simple: There aren't enough emergency beds. The scheduled September opening of a 350-bed Homeless Assistance Center in downtown Miami should ease the shortage. But drug addiction or mental illness (or denial of either condition) also keeps many homeless people away from shelters.

Nearly everyone on the Slab has taken some advantage of various relocation programs over the years, and all have slept, for one night or hundreds of nights, at Miami's large shelters. The main reason they give for choosing to live on the sidewalk is that they don't like living in shelters. They'll use the showers and eat the food at Camillus House and the downtown soup kitchen Grits 'n' Gravy, but that's the limit. They chafe under the rules and schedules all shelters impose; they resent the system that gives select groups of formerly homeless men authority to allot jobs around the shelters and to distribute clothes and other donated items. "I don't stay any place where somebody tells me what I have to do," is the way Jim Murray puts it, and he says it as though he's been repeating it most of his life. "I came back on the Slab, where you don't have to beg or plead with anybody. Why go through all that heartbreak when you can be here amongst friends?"

Social worker Bruce Netter of Catholic Community Services has known Slab residents ever since he moved to Miami ten years ago. He's seen many of them leave when they get real housing or enter a rehab program, and he's seen many return years -- or months -- later. Half of them end up back on the street, Netter says, despite their own best efforts to cope and the best efforts of pastors or social workers such as himself. "With many people who started off in life as unwanted children or brought up in social deprivation, they might never be stable in life," observes Netter. "There might be windows of opportunity for a certain period of time where they'll be able to get their life on track. That window will close, but I don't believe we should shut those people off."

Tony Johnson, for one, isn't about to shut them off. When churchgoers informed him that Jim Murray had been trying to scam money from them, Johnson says, he was disappointed but not surprised. "We know there are going to be roadblocks, that not everyone wants help," comments the pastor. "Even worse things are probably going to happen, but that's not going to stop us."

And Murray is still working toward a Class -- certification in trucking, which would allow him to drive eighteen-wheelers and other big rigs -- if he can find a job.

At the end of the service, Harriet Thomas unfolds two chairs at the front of the room and Pastor Johnson asks that anyone wishing to ask for prayer, or to become a member, or to be baptized, or to come back publicly to Jesus, come forward. "God wants you to know," Johnson says, "that beneath all the ashes there's still a spark."

"We offer Christ to you," the congregation sings softly. "He will give you new life/New life abundantly. . . . Oh, come just as you are."

Chicago takes off his baseball cap, rises a little awkwardly from his seat, and walks to the front, where Thomas leads him to a chair. They confer briefly, and he sits rocking back and forth, his baseball cap resting on his knees. Then Jim Murray comes forward, asking to be received formally as a member of the church. Then a woman who also has been attending regularly and wants to join the church formally.

Chicago wants to be baptized. "The way I've been feeling in my heart," he says in a shy voice that barely escapes from his body, "I haven't accepted Jesus into my heart entirely." Embracing him, Tony Johnson says, "We're going to accept you as one of our own and love you as a brother."

Chicago's baptism, it is decided, will take place in the waters of the Atlantic off Haulover Beach.

On the way back to North Miami Avenue, the Toyota and the Cadillac make a stop at a Church's Fried Chicken drive-through window. Everyone agrees it would be better to order individual dinners rather than a family-size bucket. The food stays in the big bags until the caravan of two pulls up at the curb, whereupon the passengers say polite thank-yous to their drivers and disperse. It is midafternoon, and a few feedings are going on up the street. People are everywhere, some barefoot, some barely clothed, some limping, some lugging over-stuffed plastic bags.

Jim Murray and Chicago take seats on overturned plastic milk crates on the Slab, next to a still-sleeping Sidney. "All these guys ever want to get is fried chicken. What's wrong with a hamburger?" Chicago complains good-naturedly, buoyed by the lingering effects of spiritual resolve and a three-piece chicken dinner. A tiny rhinestone twinkles in his left earlobe. His gap-tooth smile is cherubic.


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