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Soup and Salvation

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.

But the Castillos had been wanting a house like this for a long time, a place to shelter homeless people, preferably one that was located in an area like this, with few existing services for the homeless, instead of in downtown Miami, where most facilities are concentrated. Lu Castillo's aunt, who lives in North Carolina, owns the property and she gave them permission to move in, rent-free. Lu Castillo says they're saving to buy the house. Ultimately, they hope to expand the mission into another large building where they can offer lodging for single women and families. (The Light Mission does accept women and children now, but they must stay in separate quarters from the men, and with a capacity of twelve beds, there is seldom extra space.)

The Castillos didn't come from the streets. Lu, 38, was born in Cuba but grew up in Miami. For more than a decade he earned good money as an art director and graphic artist for advertising agencies in Miami and New York. He also drank and used drugs heavily until about ten years ago, when he had a satori on the subway from Manhattan to Queens. He stopped the drugs and started reading the Bible. He moved back to Miami, met Martha (this is the second marriage for both), and eventually left advertising and entered the riskier field of helping the homeless, especially those with substance-abuse problems.

Three years ago the Castillos were living in a small apartment in Miami Beach and attending religious services at Cristo Vive, a nondenominational evangelical church in Hialeah. Each Sunday after church, Lu recalls, he and Martha would come home, cook up as much food as they could, load it into their 1979 Impala, and take it around to homeless encampments. "We fed the people, then they'd ask us if we knew anyplace to stay," he says. "We'd talk to them, we'd ask them if they wanted to get off drugs, and they said they did but they didn't have anyplace to go. Our burden to help developed further," he explains -- like many evangelical Christians, he uses the word "burden" to characterize his sense of obligation or desire -- "to where we wanted to be able to meet the additional needs [the homeless] have."

So they moved into Lu's aunt's trashed house. The homeless men, women, and families they took in helped make repairs. Someone contributed a chicken and a rooster, which were housed in two coops under a tree in the back yard. Now there's another chicken, several chicks, and a steady supply of eggs. At first the Castillos lived in the front of the house while visitors slept in a rear addition. They later converted the back into their own sleeping and working quarters. A section of the front porch became a third bedroom. Though Otis Hepburn, as resident manager, has his own room, the scant quarters for sleeping are close; one bedroom is crammed with bunk beds. During the afternoons, still air clogs the un-air-conditioned front part of the house. Overhanging shades outside the windows don't let in much light.

The Light Mission, a nonprofit religious organization, subsists on donations and on money Castillo brings in from occasional free-lance art jobs. A marketing business he started this past year folded a few months ago. Castillo estimates the mission's monthly expenses at about $700; cash contributions usually amount to less than $200, he says, not counting donations of food and clothing. The Castillos say they are continually strapped for volunteer help and for money, to the point that they allowed the mission's state registration to lapse in July for lack of the $225 annual incorporation fee. But if they pay the fee and a late charge within a year, the mission will be reinstated as a nonprofit organization, and the Castillos say they'll soon be back in good stead with Tallahassee.  

They are restrained, soft-spoken people who seem utterly focused on their difficult undertaking. It's almost as though they believe that should their attention wander for an instant, it would all fall down around them. Martha, whose two grown daughters live in Broward, prays for a family to come and stay at the mission, because she wants another woman around to help with the unrelenting housework. (Each guest is required to help with household tasks, but not everyone is efficient or knows how to cook.)

"Everybody told us we were nuts, because this is a very, very dangerous part of town to live in, and we were going to get robbed and raped and killed taking street people into our own house," Lu Castillo says. "We realized the danger, but at the same time we knew if we were doing something we felt God directed us to do, we trusted He would protect us."

Some of the street people protect the shelter, too, he adds, alerting him to potential break-ins or other problems in the neighborhood. Lady, a resident mixed-breed dog, has thwarted one burglary. Many moderately valuable items around the house, however, such as tools and appliances, have been stolen by departing guests. Nothing really serious, though.

Standing in line at Bicentennial Park, Jerome Woodley feels nothing so much as a deep exhaustion. He's not high, but he's not straight. He's too enervated to think, but occasionally thoughts will crowd in from the night before. They'll remind him he doesn't really have a clue how to dig himself out of all this. Then they'll skip off again into the miasma like a swarm of mosquitoes.

Woodley, 43, tall and spare with mournful brown eyes, spent the previous night in Young Circle Park in Hollywood. He slept a little, lying back against a tree, he recalls, but "really I was thinking about what I was going to do with my life. I was thinking about why I'm on drugs and I can't stop by myself. I need help." What he ought to do, he decided, was go to the Miami Rescue Mission, which offers an eight-month rehabilitation program for homeless people with drug or alcohol addictions.

Woodley says he has lived on the street more than half his life, drifting from one town in Florida to another, moving back and forth mainly between Miami and points north in Broward. For the past five years, he has been addicted to cocaine in its evilest form, crack. Recently he had been working day labor jobs and selling slum A hawking fake 14K gold jewelry A to support his habit. Before that he was a pimp. And long before that he sang gospel in churches around Alabama. He sang the songs about higher ground, songs that spoke of wonder-working power in the blood of Jesus. Lately he had longed to stand on that higher ground. But he didn't know how to get there. He tried to pray for help.

At about 5:30 Thursday morning, aching from six hours on tree roots, Woodley caught the No. 1 bus down to Aventura Mall (the bus driver waived the fare, he says, because he was homeless). He carried about $3.50 in the pockets of his faded navy shorts and a dog-eared paperback Bible he had picked up at a soup kitchen in Hollywood a few months earlier. At the mall, he transferred to the No. 3 bus, rode down Biscayne to 20th Street, and walked a few blocks west to the Rescue Mission. There, he says, he was told to come back Monday to find out whether there was room in the rehab program. (It probably wasn't an employee who supplied that information. George Pearson, director of community relations at the mission, says the shelter's policy is to immediately provide a dwelling of some sort for people like Woodley.) Regardless, says Woodley, "I didn't think I could make it till Monday."

So he walked to Bicentennial Park, a place he knew well; he had stayed in the downtown-Overtown area even before the park was built nearly twenty years ago. Right away, Woodley says, two men he knew approached him with crack. To everyone's surprise, including his own, he told them he didn't want any. Instead he stretched out on a low concrete wall on the park's northwest side, his head on his Bible, and went to sleep. "Physically I felt tired," he says, his head dipping slightly. "But mentally I was wore out." He recalls sleeping for several hours, until someone came by to tell him about the people in the van who were giving out food. Clutching his Bible, he ambled over. He stood in line, and when Lu Castillo asked who was willing to say yes to God, he raised his hand.  

At dusk, when all the food is gone and the van is ready to head back to the mission, Woodley is sitting in one of the back seats, along with three other men who had been living in the park. "When I seen peoples in the truck," Woodley says, "something told me to ask, 'Do you house peoples?' And Lu says, 'Yeah, what's your problem?' I said, 'Well, I have a drug problem.' He said, 'If you really want to change your life, when we get through feeding, come with us.'"

As Castillo prepares to leave, someone notices that Otis is missing. He's soon spotted sitting next to several park residents on one of the concrete slabs heaped on the water's edge. His head is bowed and he is gripping one man's hands. "Call to him," urges Castillo. "Otis will pray forever."

A tall, thin, startled-looking man appears at the driver's window, and Castillo looks calmly down at him. "Y'all have places to stay?" he asks. "I'm from Philadelphia."

"Yes, what kind of problems you got?" Castillo wonders.
"A lot A alcohol, drugs."
"Do you want to get off 'em?"

"Yes," the man says emphatically. He can't be much older than twenty. Only a few hours earlier, after finishing off a fifth of Seagram's and a bag of marijuana, he and a friend mugged a man under the I-395 bridge. They came away with enough money to buy each of them an eight-ball -- an eighth of an ounce of crack, about $100 worth. Now they are broke and the rock is gone.

"Hop in there in the back," Castillo says.
As the man climbs in, he asks, "You got counselors?"
"God," someone replies. "That's the best counselor."

The sky has turned the violet just before deep dark, and Jerome Woodley, bouncing along in the cavernous van, surrounded by strangers, is struck by the realization that he has given up the freedom of the streets. He can always go back, of course, but he doesn't want to, even though he has no idea what to expect now. That makes him nervous.

When they reach the mission, everyone sits down around the dining room table while Castillo takes down each newcomer's name, birthdate, and birthplace, Social Security number, and emergency contact. He apprises them of the house rules: no drinking or drugs or profanity; help with chores; cleanliness. Then each is assigned a bed and provided with toothpaste and toothbrush, clean clothes, a razor, deodorant.

In the morning Otis Hepburn will wake them all at 6:30 for Bible study and general discussion around the table, and they'll help Martha with breakfast and the dishes. After that, Hepburn and a few of the other longer-term residents will go to work. Hepburn works right next door at the Busy Bee Car Wash, though he has other plans for the future A he wants to be a preacher. It won't be a big stretch; phrases about Jesus and the Scriptures weave themselves naturally into his conversation, and he speaks in rhythmic, mellifluous tones. "You see, I was a heavy crack-smoker," he begins his history. He shakes his head, puffs of silver-streaked black hair poking out from under his cap. "I had lost everything, with nobody caring nothing about me. The onliest thing I knew, I cried out to Jesus. I didn't know who He was at that time. But if you think it's a game -- that's right, it's no game. I became a new person." Hepburn had just left a treatment program, he says, when someone he met at a bus stop told him about the Light Mission. He came and stayed.

Generally, Lu Castillo doesn't allow any of his guests to work outside the house until they've lived at the mission for about a month. "They need at least three or four weeks to get their bodies cleaned out physically and get themselves rejuvenated spiritually to go out and work a steady job and get a paycheck, so they won't automatically go out and spend it on drugs," he asserts. "We used to let them go out and work right away. And the first thing they'd do is, when they'd get their paycheck we'd never see them again." Although newer arrivals have plenty of free time, they frequently are called on for duties ranging from mowing the lawn to laying carpet to helping pick up donations.

Castillo himself has no formal training as a counselor, nor is he an ordained minister for any Christian denomination. He prefers to maintain an independent ministry, he explains, because he has studied and attended numerous denominations and doesn't want to be limited to a single doctrine. As he says, "We go by the Bible."  

Silas Woodley, Jerome's father, preached the gospel to Baptist congregations in Birmingham from the Forties through the Seventies. Silas's wife, Mattie, and his ten children sang the gospel. But the Lord didn't do them any special favors. They still had to go to the back doors of restaurants and drink at Negroes-only drinking fountains and stay indoors after 9:00 p.m. Jerome, who came of age in the Old South as the civil rights movement was beginning to form a New South, says he watched a white insurance agent kick his father because he owed $1.50 on his policy. Another time, in the early Sixties, he recalls, he and his father discovered the body of a black man hanging from a tree in a nearby neighborhood. "That took a lot out of me," he remembers.

Woodley's only brother, Silas Jr., was five years older than he was and a gifted singer. But he died at fifteen, shot by someone as he was singing at a Birmingham club called Simon's. The bullet, Woodley says, had been meant for somebody else. After his brother's death, his mother started drinking A she died a few years later A and he started smoking reefer. The family gospel group, the Golden Voices, sang at different churches around Alabama and in Detroit, where his aunt lived. At the churches, Woodley could usually find time to slip out back to get high. He loved to sing, but he felt he was doing it to please his father; Silas Jr. had been the better singer, anyway. Finally, Woodley recalls, "I hoboed a train to Florida." He doesn't remember how old he was at the time, just that he was young, with barely a junior high school education.

He stayed in Jacksonville for a while, then another train took him to Miami. At first he helped out in a bar during the day and slept in an alley at night. He sold marijuana in exchange for a room at a hotel. He moved around, thieved, worked odd jobs, went to jail. In the Seventies he started sniffing cocaine, then shooting it, and finally, some five years ago, smoking it. In 1987 he went to Gainesville Work Camp for two years for possession. When he got out, he went back to Birmingham, where he learned that his father had died. He decided to move to Detroit, where four of his sisters were living. They helped get him a job as a machinist, and everything was steady for a time, until he started back on crack in 1991. He blamed his girlfriend, he remembers, even though he knew it was his own choice. No matter who he blamed, though, once he started "doing wrong," as he puts it, Woodley could not face his family. So he got on a bus to Miami and welcomed himself back with a big party. One of his friends was stabbed as the celebration wound down. That disgusted him enough, he says, to keep him off drugs for several days.

But now he's been clean even longer. It's Thursday again, and today marks the beginning of Woodley's second week at the Light Mission. He sits in the dining room amid the stifling afternoon heat, eyes closed and hands flat on the table, singing "Precious Lord" in a silvery tenor. "I walked through the storm, Lord, through the night/Take my hand, precious Lord/Lead me on to that light," he sings. Lu and Martha Castillo have cooked up vegetable curry, tofu salad, and a beef and rice dish to take to the homeless people tonight. The van will leave shortly for Bicentennial Park, and this time Jerome Woodley will help serve the food instead of waiting in line.

It's unusual for Castillo to allow anyone to return to his old haunts so soon, but Woodley has been so motivated, so enthusiastic about making a change, and so happy. Last Sunday, in fact, Castillo took him and two other residents to South Beach and baptized them in the Atlantic to the whine of jet skis and the laughter of tourists, lowering them under the water in a symbolic death of sin and rebirth in Christ. "When I came up out of the water, I knew I was new," Woodley says, deep creases showing around his eyes as he smiles. He is wearing neatly pressed jeans and black tasseled loafers, his hair freshly cut in a sleek fade.

At the park this week, as usual, Castillo gives a sermon before the food is served. But this week, Woodley stands alongside him and Hepburn, facing the line. There may be one or two people in line who were here last time, but nearly everyone is new. As Castillo concludes, he introduces Woodley: "He was on the street like you were no more than a week ago."  

"I ain't going to come out there and play that game with you," Woodley commences, a bit nervously. "My life has changed for the better, not the worse. I was one of the best [crack] smokers there was, but I'm glad God took it from me, because somebody was going to kill me. I know y'all relate."

At the end of Woodley's testimony, Castillo and Hepburn and some of the men in line applaud. And again, when the food is finished, three more men have decided to confront the unknown with a ride to the mission.

Jerome Woodley's stay at the Light Mission proved to be as impermanent as his other stops on the road. Just two days after Woodley's testimony at Bicentennial Park, several Dade County churches and religious groups had gathered at Miami's largest homeless encampment, the so-called Mud Flats under I-395, to distribute food. It was a big Saturday afternoon outreach effort, Lu Castillo explains, to help the county and the state's Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS) persuade Mud Flats residents to sign up for placement in permanent housing. Castillo sent a half-dozen men from the Light Mission, along with a cooler full of donated diet strawberry soda. Woodley also brought a box of shoes that had been given to the mission. He said he wanted to distribute them to the Mud Flats dwellers. Instead, he disappeared.

A week later, he came back, as some of the mission's prodigals do from time to time. The Castillos and other residents had been praying for Woodley's return, and they welcomed him. Again, he happily settled into the quiet routine, helping to lighten Martha Castillo's household tasks, making plans for steady work. (That was about the time Vince Martinez left, abruptly, just as Lu was mailing out newsletters announcing Martinez's appointment as fundraising director. Articulate, well-read, and with a chronic drug-abuse problem, Martinez was unaccustomed to stability: he had lived at the mission several months earlier, left, returned in midsummer, and now had departed a second time.)

Woodley stayed for another week. And then the addictions, regrets, illusions, and whatever else that kept him on the street for most of his life urged him on.

"I really didn't expect [him to leave]," Lu Castillo muses. "He was more special than most of the guys we get around here. Hard-working, good attitude. He wanted to go to cooking school, and we had arranged for him to start in a program, free."

Castillo pauses. It could be that he is second-guessing himself. Or perhaps he is steeling his optimism once again, running down a list of the many tasks that remain to be done for and by the people who are still at the mission. "It's very disappointing to see a person leave with that much going for him," he says finally. "Everything was set in place for a new life.


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