Back to Life University: A Story of Hope
According to a study from the National Alliance to End Homelessness, on a single night in January 2015, about 560,000 people were homeless, meaning they were “sleeping outside or in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program.” Research conducted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration showed substance abuse is more common among the homeless than the general population. Approximately 26 percent of the homeless population in America abuses drugs and another 38 percent abuses alcohol.
The latter certainly rang true for Jimmie Hale 73 years ago.
In the 1940s, well before the days of modern medicine and research, alcoholism was seen more as a characteristic of moral deviancy and less as a mental or physical health issue. Jimmie’s reputation preceded him, and he was not thought highly of in his community. That is until somewhere along his journey, something happened. He found God and thus found a new way of life. He got married and turned things around for himself, and soon got the urge to help others do the same. So he started a small storefront chapel in the same building he used to bartend in, and in 1944, the Jimmie Hale Mission was born.
However, decades of alcohol abuse reap unavoidable consequences, and eight months later, a worn out liver took Hale’s life. He was survived by his newlywed wife, Jessie, who was 27 years old at the time and pregnant with their first child. Affectionately called “Miss Jessie,” she made it her duty to continue her husband’s legacy. For 10 years she worked alone, leading the ministry and men’s shelter.
“She is really the matriarch that kept it all together,” Bonnie Hendrix, the mission’s director of advancement, says
In 1954, Leo Shepura arrived, and he and Miss Jessie worked as co-laborers for 36 years until their retirement in 1990, when Tony Cooper took over.
Today, the mission is an enormous blessing to the area. It has expanded to include Jessie’s Place, a shelter for women and children, and Royal Pines, an intensive rehabilitation center for men located in rural Hayden, Alabama. It also offers a thrift store, an education remediation program and has recently partnered with the AIDT Ready to Work program to make residents appealing to Alabama’s largest employers. In 2007, the mission relocated to its current facility on Second Avenue North, just up the street from Sloss Furnace. It’s deliberately set up to look like a school campus, which is why employees have nicknamed it “Back to Life University.” As opposed to the average homeless shelter, rather than giving a man a fish, their mission is to teach a man to fish.
“It’s hard to focus on changing your life when you’re hungry, and you don’t know where you’re going to sleep that night,” James Poe, the kitchen supervisor, says. “So if we can take those two basic needs out of the equation to start with, then we can start to get into the changing the life part because that’s the long-term goal.”
It’s impossible to know how many lives have been touched since the mission started 73 years ago, but one good story of triumph is all it takes to show what the Jimmie Hale Mission is all about.
James didn’t just walk in and become the head of the kitchen, responsible for overseeing more than 400 meals a day. His path took many dizzying twists and turns before landing him here today.
“I was never supposed to be here,” he says.
He grew up in the ‘60s and ‘70s in Pleasant Grove, Alabama. Back then, it was picturesque and peaceful, with not a stranger around for miles.
“It was like Mayberry!” he remembers. “Everybody knew their neighbors, and we didn’t lock our doors, and everybody went to church. It was a great place to grow up.”
James’ Christian, middle-class family had no history of abuse, poverty or addiction at any point. But at the age of 16, a rebellious spirit mixed with the desire to experiment and “be anywhere but Pleasant Grove, Alabama” threw him down a rabbit hole of various addictions and self-destruction that would take him decades to recover from.
At the age of 25, he decided getting married and settling down would solve all of his problems, so that’s what he did. For 8 1/2 years, he lived as a functional alcoholic, keeping his habit fairly well-hidden. That is until his addiction eventually caught up with him, and he was fired from his job at Delta Airlines in 1995. His divorce shortly followed, and the next 10 years would be a continuous downward spiral, with one bad decision following the other.
“Finally, in 2005, I picked up the phone and called the only phone number that I knew by heart,” he says.
He called home. After years of silence, not knowing if his parents still lived in the same house or even if they still lived at all, he called home.
His father answered the phone, and the first thing he told him was that his mom had died three years earlier and that he had suffered a stroke. Defeated, destitute and moments away from sleeping on the streets, James asked his father if he could come back home.
But old habits die hard, and even back in his hometown, the drinking and drugs continued. In 2008, James met a bartender who was also a former classmate. They began dating and eventually got married, enabling one another’s addictions until 2011 when his wife told him “I love you to death, but I can’t live with you anymore.”
It was then, after 30 years of alcoholism and drug abuse, that he decided to seek help. His wife would be the one to bring him to the Jimmie Hale Mission, and in April 2011, he began taking steps toward recovery.
During his 10-month stay, he got involved with New Faith Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove and eventually became the ordained minister of music and education. James and his wife gradually started to reconnect, and on Valentine’s Day 2012 they renewed their vows. Shortly after, a position opened up for a kitchen supervisor at the mission.
James recalls a time when his father came to visit him in the Bessemer County Jail, and still remembers his words: “You just don’t ever give up.” His father passed away two years ago, but not before finally seeing his son sober. Judging from his background, no one could have predicted he would have gone through all that he did, but none of that matters.
“People think about homeless people, and they think about the guy standing on the side of the road with signs,” he says. “I don’t care who you are, you’re really only about three bad decisions and three bad circumstances away from needing to be somewhere like the Jimmie Hale Mission.”
To come to peace with his past, he says he had to come to terms with two undeniable facts: there is a God, and he isn’t Him. The realization that he isn’t in control of his own life and that everything was a part of a divine plan brought a refreshing peace of mind. But the age-old question still stands: can people change? According to James, they can, but not on their own. A changed mind is temporary, and can easily be changed back; a changed heart, however, requires forces outside of human ability.
“God is the only answer: that’s what we believe, that’s what we teach, and we don’t apologize for it,” he says.
While his journey may be far from over, his is a tale of defeat, pain, faith and eventual triumph. It stands as a source of inspiration for all who hear it, and James Poe is living proof that through Christ, it is possible to come back to life.