By: Katie Sobiech
One of the main reasons the Eutopia Report exists is to shine light on area ministries – many of which go un-noticed and unrecognized. There are people volunteering around the clock in the city of Akron, making sure that empty stomachs are filled, that people have clothing on their backs and that their spiritual needs are met.
One ministry in particular emulates Matthew 25:35-45, bringing hope to the discouraged and meeting physical and spiritual needs in a powerful way. This is the Salvation Army’s Canteen Outreach.
You don’t need a passport, you don’t need to find creative ways to earn thousands of dollars for a plane ticket and other expenses – you don’t have to do any of that to be involved in missions because there is a mission field right in your own back yard.
Take a trip to 190 Maple Street where the Salvation Army is located, and on most Saturdays and you will find a canteen truck getting loaded up with food and clothing. A small group departs at 6:30 p.m., searching the city streets for the homeless, or anyone in need. It’s quite an adventure. You never know what, or who, you will find.
On June 13th it wasn’t long until volunteers spotted Lenny King, a homeless man who had lived under a bridge for 28 months until strangers, who he referred to as “punks”, set him and his belongings on fire, trying to kill him. The news spread like wild fire, catching media attention and landing articles in the Akron Beacon Journal.
Lenny’s story is a story that not only made its way into the Akron Beacon Journal, but the hearts of those involved in the Canteen Outreach – who rescued Lenny from under the bridge and have kept in touch with him ever since.
After the clouds cleared and the rain stopped on June 13th, volunteers searched for King who was found walking the streets of a neighborhood not far away from the Salvation Army – so the Canteen stopped and caught up with him.
Catching Up With Lenny
Lenny called the Salvation Army requesting hygiene items, which they delivered seconds earlier to the home where he is staying with friends.
As Lenny boarded the canteen truck John Soza, Program Coordinator at the Salvation Army, said “I hear you’re looking for a tent Lenny. Are you planning on going camping?”
“No I’m not going camping. I’m moving out!” Lenny replied, “I only stay here for the winter. I can’t handle any more winters out there – they’ll kill old Lenny.”
He already has his eye on private property where he’ll pitch the tent, describing it as “nice”. It’s near an old machine shop.
Surprisingly, he wants to return to homelessness.
When asked what he’s doing these days he responded “I got a job pulling weeds – nothing too drastic.”
The Salvation Army helps men like Lenny every single day. Another example is Mark Powers, who went from being a heroine addict to local hero.
“This place (the Salvation Army) has done a whole lot for me,” Powers said.
Powers was homeless and lived in an abandoned building for 8 months due to his drug addiction.
“There was a time when I was drinking three fifths of whiskey a day and I had a 15 bag a day heroine habit,” he said, “Drugs always came first.”
His drinking and drug habit began at age twelve and were a big part of his life until age forty-five.
“I put the drugs and alcohol down before I became a Christian, but I was always spinning my wheels,” he said.
When living in the abandoned building, he said, “There were a couple of us in there. We hijacked electricity and cable. We were homeless and had all of the amentities.”
They even had someone come in and install a telephone.
“Two of the guys were car mechanics and I’m an electrician so I knew what I was doing,” he said.
Not So Glamorous
On the downside, Powers recalls not having running water and having to go out to fill jugs of water just to flush the toilet.
“We take those kinds of things for granted,” he said.
They also did not have heat and had to use an electric stove which they placed in the middle of the very large room.
“I have quite a life’s tale,” he said, “I’ve seen a lot of stuff on the street – a lot of deaths. I had a friend that overdosed, who was sitting as far away from me as I am from you now and I didn’t even realize it.”
He stayed sober for several years but says he let the effects of a divorce make him “fall off the wagon.”
“I’ve been in and out of jail a few times. Did a lot of nasty things – things I’m not proud of – burglary, robbery and stuff like that.”
He was in the army for 3 years then got let go because of drugs. He lost a lot because of the habit, including “many, many jobs”.
“There were some jobs where it was just a matter of me wanting to collect one paycheck and then leave,” he said.
Everything changed one cold, wet January day as Powers walked into downtown Akron to sell plasma so he could buy something to eat.
“They turned me down and I got as far as Aldi’s on South Main Street and a van pulled up. The lady asked me if I needed a ride and I said ‘you betcha I need a ride’. I had on an old pair of shoes, my feet were bleeding. I was cold and wet.”
As they drove, the woman, a complete stranger, said “I don’t do this but for some reason I felt I should come pick you up.”
She asked if she could pray for him and as she did, he cried. Two days later he got on his knees and called to Jesus for help. Two weeks later some friends of his who were with the Salvation Army found him and took him off of the street. They offered him a place to stay, under one condition – he had to go to church. He stayed there for 8 months until Soza asked him to move to the Salvation Army’s transitional home by the Citadel Church.
Soza became a mentor, confidant and close friend to Powers, helping with his transformation.
Eventually “John asked me to be the eyes and ears at the transitional home,” Powers said.
Powers has been volunteering there for a year and a half, as well as at many other outreaches and ministries with the Salvation Army.
A Man with a Mission
While detoxing, Powers’ doctor told him “The Lord must have a plan for you. For as much as you drink, your liver is pristine,” after looking at his blood tests.
“Christ helped me out of the mud,” Powers said, “There is a way out. There is another choice. You don’t have to live in despair, there is hope – hope in Christ.”
He went on to explain that he was diagnosed as Bipolar, but when he cried out to Christ and gave his life to Him, he believed He healed him of his alcoholism, drug addiction and Bipolar condition.
“I put those drugs down too (drugs for bipolar disorder),” he said, “I’ve never had a reason to return and if anybody asks – I’m far from depressed!”
Now Powers puts his whole heart into bringing others out of the darkness and bringing them truth.
“I was fortunate people came to me,” he said.
This is where the Canteen truck plays a significant role. It is doing what Jesus did – reaching out to the poor and meeting immediate needs.
Reaching Out to the Poor
“Just giving them one night of comfort with a full belly is a good thing,” Powers said.
And that is what they do. They travel the streets meeting the spiritual and physical needs of people, providing food, clothing and other necessities, along with prayer and support.
The menu includes hot dogs, apple juice and lemon aide. Other items were passed out that night as well, including a back pack, clothing, Bibles, and other essential amenities for surviving the outdoors.
One old man came out from underneath the bridge where Lenny used to stay. He smiled at the kindness of complete strangers and appreciated the offer for prayer and the invitation to church (including a shower before hand). They always offer the homeless the opportunity to come and shower at their facility before church. This is an incentive to get them to come.
The church, known as the Akron Citadel is very diverse.
Lindsay Bonilla, a Canteen Outreach volunteer and one of its active members said “It is an interesting group of people. More than half of the people don’t have a car to drive to church, so either John picks them up or they walk. Not many have a stable job either. Almost nobody. Its kinda like you just work when you can.”
Bonilla, who works side by side in the ministry with her husband Steve, continued “It’s not because they are lazy, but because their situation isn’t good.”
Linsday and Steve met at a Salvation Army outreach in Spain where they reached out to prostitutes. “We took sandwiches and hot chocolate and walked the streets, ministering to the them,” she said.
Although somewhat spontaneous, there is a plan when going out on Saturdays, including certain homeless “hot spots”. One being Grace Park by the Haven of Rest.
“We usually get swamped there,” Powers said.
“There’s always about 50-60 people there,” Soza added.
“And there’s another church cati-corner to the Haven and they’ll stay on the porch there,” Powers said.
They invite the people they meet not only to church, but Bible studies, Sunday school and anything else that they have going on.
“Many of them are looking to bust out of what they’re going through, so they’ll ask for prayer,” Powers said, “We’ve got some good things going on here in the streets.”
Reasons for Homelessness
Soza, who has been doing work like this for 10 years, in Cleveland for 3-4 years, shelters in Tennessee and Mississippi and now Akron said “About 40% of the people are out there because of mental problems. A lot of them have drug and alcohol problems and some just don’t want to be a part of society. A lot of them have destroyed relationships with their families, they have no place left to go and some just don’t want to be a part of society so they just stay out there.”
One man, new to homelessness, was hiding out because he is a sex offender. The ministry treated him the same as anyone else, showing him the unconditional love of Christ.
“Some don’t want to be caught up with the law,” Powers added, “they would be looking for them so the best way to stay away from that is to drop out of sight. If you’re not addressable then you’re out of sight and they prefer it that way. but the predominant factor is drugs and alcohol. It was for me. The drugs and alcohol had such a hold on me that I preferred to do those things the way I wanted to do them rather than become a part of society and live up to the mores of society.”
Soza’s two young boys, Ethan and Austin, have also had much experience with the homeless, seeing first hand the effects of drugs and alcohol. They helped make and pass out the hot dogs.
“That’s why I tell my boys, don’t ever start drinking – you’ve seen enough. It puts you on a slippery slope,” he said.
How YOU can Help!
“Socks and underwear are like gold,” Soza said, after being asked for both of the items by one homeless man.
They are also in need of blankets, winter coats, bug spray, back packs, soap, shampoo, deodorant and other hygiene items. Financial donations to buy food and beverages, as well as Bibles and other items are a huge blessing. When donations fallshort, Soza pays for the food and drinks himself.
For more information on this ministry and how you can help please contact the Salvation Army at 330-762-8481.
“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’ ” -Matthew 25:35-45