You can give a man a fish, or you can teach him how to fish. The El Paso Rescue Mission is doing both: providing food, shelter and clothing in a crisis, and also teaching people carpentry skills, offering them a chance for something they want so badly--an independent life.
In what director Blake Barrow calls "life-saving work", the carpentry shop covers a vast area of two buildings at the mission on West Paisano, beneath the large twin silos which read "Jesus Lives".
Indeed, the project represents a path toward independence for workers who succeed. Trained in a range of carpentry equipment, they earn money by building furniture, both for the expanding mission itself, and for sale to the public. At arts and crafts markets, El Pasoans can buy the same dressers, trunks, and children's furniture that come out of the workshop. The Rescue Mission is also identifying new markets. It can't build tree planters fast enough to meet the demand by local nurseries.
For a person who gains refuge at the mission, the carpentry trade is good work--if they can get it. At this place where everyone arrives with their life in chaos, they don't get a job just by asking.
Blake Barrow explains, "We run a 13-week relapse prevention program, a drug and alcohol program here at the mission, and the people who go through that program have the first shot at getting a job in here. I want people who show they'll actually do something to improve their lives, and then we give them the opportunity for employment."
Even more impressive than the long hours of work are the stories of personal redemption. Every work day begins and ends in prayer, with members of the work crew holding hands in a circle. In these moments, El Pasoans who have lived their lives isolated in their addictions come together to form a community.
As she feeds lumber into an industrial sanding machine, Tammy reflects on the miracle of getting this second chance. Actually. she expected to be dead by now. "I've been a junkie since I was nine years old. I've been drinking alcohol since I was five. I've been a prostitute since I was 13. I've been in prison and institutions. But this place believed in me. This place saved my life."
After a couple of false starts in the Rescue Mission's sobriety program, Tammy became serious. But then something else hit hard: the need to show up daily and take personal responsibility for the first time in her life.
"A job? I could prostitute and make in two hours what I make here in a week. Why would I want the job? Why would I want to pay rent or do anything except run in the street? God. God. That's the answer to every question in my life".
Meanwhile, Karima's working her first day in the carpentry shop. After dropping out of UTEP after one semester, she was doing drugs, dancing in strip clubs, and worse. Judge Bill Moody sent her to the mission under terms of her probation. Moody and Barrow had spoken, and decided it was an opportunity for the older woman, Tammy, to mentor the 21-year old. And Tammy does teach her, not about sanding two-by-fours, but about the difficult choices a woman needs to make in order to live correctly and with dignity.
Karima says, "Now I do feel better about myself. I'm starting to have more respect for myself and I'm starting to look forward to the future."
Could this begin to change our minds about what it means to be homeless? Certainly, many present the stereotypical image of a man or woman reaching for handouts at traffic stops. But at the El Paso Rescue Mission, many are trying, and trying very hard, to become useful and productive citizens.
Tammy powers down the sanding machine where's she's worked nonstop for two hours. "I look forward to coming to this place. Today, I know that I'm worth it. I'm respected at my job. But most of all, I respect Tammy."
To ask about buying furniture and other wood products from the El Paso Rescue Mission, call (915) 577-9119