Thursday, February 7, 2013

Pacific Garden Mission: A Bed, A Meal and the Bright Light of Hope

In 1877, a woman named Sarah Dunn Clarke and her newly-wedded husband George started a rescue mission on Chicago’s south side.

They were wealthy, but their hearts were broken by the men and women who struggled to survive on the city’s streets.

The Pacific Garden Mission is the 2nd oldest operating rescue mission in the United States. Now located on 14th St and Canal – just south of Chicago’s loop – they offer shelter to as many as a thousand men and women on any given night.

As part of my book research to understand how the work of Sarah Clarke continues today, I visited the mission with my friend Dawn Pulgine.

Entering through the side, we felt a bit out of our element. Men, black and white, old and young, clustered near the doorway. Some carried bags of personal belongings. Others were working the desk and security. It was mid-day at the Mission.

We were given a tour by one of the “program men” – residents who choose to stay and live at the Mission for a one-year rehabilitation program. He was well-spoken and heart felt. “If you don’t do each job with prayer,” he told us, “It won’t mean anything. If your change a bed, and it’s just about the sheets, you won’t want to do it. It’s got to be about the people…praying for each person.” He told me he was just one of the Missions’ many “home grown fruit” – successes by any measure.

The Mission moved to its current location on Canal Street when the city bought their former property. The new building provides ample room:  an auditorium, huge dining room (note the enormous soup pot), dormitories for men, women and children, even a green house.

This is a “green” building – with solar power, lots of windows, and root top gardens. Our guide told us one overnight guest, a young muscular Irish boxer, became a permanent worker at PGM. He fell in love with his assigned job – gardening – and now works as a horticultural specialist, teaching others. Each program resident is assigned a job – making beds, waiting tables, even gardening.

We were amazed to see the Mission’s full medical clinic that provides free doctors, dentists, optometrists and more to the poorest of the city.

Touches of the old original buildings remain. The Clarke’s first mission was adorned only with Bible verses printed on huge banners on the wall – today’s auditorium has framed verses that date back to the 30s.
At the front of the auditorium is Billy Sunday’s piano. Sunday, one of Chicago’s original baseball White Stockings players became an American evangelist of the likes of today’s Billy Graham. He was saved at the Mission and gave his life to Jesus Christ.

The Mission is not just about feeding and sheltering the needy. It is about meeting both the physical and spiritual needs of men and women. The old cross was moved to the New Mission and still lights the way with the words “Jesus Saves.”
Flossie McNeill, who directs the Mission’s long-running dramatic radio program Unshackled, told me about the day that the Mission moved to Canal Street from their old location. The residents, impatient to wait for a bus, began to walk in mass the ten city blocks form State Street to 14th and Canal. She looked out the door of the new Mission headquarters and saw “a huge army of men” walking slowly toward the new building. The sight brought tears to her eyes.

“That’s why I do this,” she said. She and her husband make less income now than one of them did in the 1970s. But it’s not about the money, she insisted. It’s about the people.
Love drives this place. It did in the beginning, and it still does today.

God bless the Old Lighthouse, leading people to safety and the Savior.

For more information about Pacific Garden Mission or to donate to this worthy cause, visit:
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