It’s dinnertime at the Bowery Mission on the Lower East Side. As I sit and talk to 35-year-old David Gonzalez, a resident of the Bowery Mission who also works for the outreach program, I notice that he stopped eating his meal. “I can’t eat when I start talking about God,” he says. Smiling, he explains that above all, the discussion of his faith comes before his bodily needs. Gonzalez opens his Bible and instructs me to read a passage entitled, “Surrender Your Heart to God.” After I’m done reading, I look up and smile at him—he smiles right back. It’s a moment where words aren’t necessary, where the expression on his face alone does the talking. One can see the proud, warm look on his face; it’s a look that has experienced drug use at 14 years old; lost a mother to AIDS at 15; a look that has seen the four walls of numerous prisons; has been shot and shot at, many times very close calls. Most of all, it is the face of a man who has found redemption.
After a half hour of conversation, I feel lucky to have met Gonzalez, thank him numerous times and wish I could stay longer. After a final goodbye, he gives me a huge hug. I leave the Mission feeling as if I’ve known him all my life. But before July 14, Gonzalez was just another homeless individual living on the street, trying to get by.
According to the Bowery Mission website, “more than 36,000 homeless men, women and children sleep in homeless shelters and at least 3,000 more sleep on the streets and subways in the dead of winter.” Most of us usually pay no attention, only considering the homeless to be a part of the New York City landscape. The reasons for being homeless span from drug abuse to unstable homes to economic instability. However, the homeless should not be looked down upon nor should they be kicked to the side. They are human beings in unfortunate situations—situations anyone of us could be in. This holiday season, take a moment the next time you see a homeless individual on the street. Think about the home they once came from, where they grew up and how they won’t have anyone to go home to this winter break.
The day before I make my visit to the Bowery Mission, I meet with the Mission’s director of outreach, James Macklin, a man who was once homeless himself but has now traveled a vast road to deliverance. Macklin reminds me of a veteran boxer: a fighter who has been down and out, survived the hardest hits a man could take, only to regain the love of a crowd who is willing to give him a second chance. Macklin is a little under the weather today, but is still dressed in a fine pinstripe suit with numerous rings, a bracelet and watch. From this time on, he is not only my mentor, but also my source into a truly misunderstood world.
Born in Virginia to a 14-year-old mother, Macklin was later adopted by a family friend who took him in on their mansion of 50 acres. After nine years spent at the mansion, his adoptive mother passed away in 1949—yet again, leaving Macklin up for adoption, going from house to house. As time went on, Macklin grew older and was not blind to the racism occurring in the south, forcing him to leave for New Jersey. After managing a job and saving a little money here and there, Macklin started to overspend the money, usually on cars, suits and jewelry. Not before long, the money started to going to something far worse.
In 1986, Macklin started spending his money on alcohol, cocaine and heroin. Soon after, he admits he lost everything. “I was bouncing checks like Michael Jordan was bouncing a basketball,” he says. Besides his drug use, Macklin describes himself at the time as arrogant and conceded as “always a guy who made his presence known.” Macklin was soon homeless living on the streets on New York City.
However, a year later brought him the change he needed. While he was asleep on the A train, a woman suggested he pay a visit to the Bowery Mission. Macklin decided to give it a try, but found the transition difficult: people telling him what to do, serving the homeless.
After some years working at the Mission, becoming acquainted with the staff and claiming responsibility, Macklin’s faith in Christianity grew stronger, giving him the base he needed to eventually break out. Macklin was asked to take the position of associate director. Although honored, Macklin felt undeserving of the position. “What do you do in an undeserving opportunity? You try to be the best that ever did it. You know you received something didn’t work for. And that’s what I’ve done.”
Since 1987, Macklin has been a central figure in the Mission, acting as spokesperson across the nation as well as raising money corporately and locally. All because someone saw in him what he didn’t see in himself. “When you’ve been given much, you should give back in return. Show me what you are by what you do, not by what you say,” he said.
This past Thanksgiving, Macklin received yet another rude awakening at just how many homeless individuals there are in New York City. He says more than 4,000 people came into the Mission’s satellite stations, from New Jersey to Coney Island. At least 500 turkeys were cooked. “On your way up the ladder, you have to be careful of the people you pass by and how you treat them. There is a possibility you might stumble and fall down the ladder, and you come down much quicker than you went up,” he says.
Seeing Macklin in the mess hall of the Bowery Mission the next day, you would think Santa Claus had just strolled in. Dressed in some of his finest, he laughs, jokes and points me toward individuals such as David Gonzalez. Although Macklin says he is not a man who wears his religion on his shirt sleeve, he certainly seems to be a saint in many cases of the word. “My bank account isn’t as big as it used to be, but my checks don’t bounce,” he said.