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Winston-Salem Rescue Mission sprang from pastors’ road trip

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The iconic "Jesus Saves" sign of the Rescue Mission. (David Rolfe/Journal)

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — It’s not often that a nonprofit organization for homeless men would be the center of conversation during a road trip, but that’s how the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission went from being a dream to becoming reality, according to the Winston-Salem Journal.

On a spring day in 1966, five local preachers were on their way from Winston-Salem to a “pastor’s school” in Hammond, Ind., when they started discussing the need for a place in Winston-Salem for the homeless.

The Revs. Gene Chitwood, Harold Fletcher, John D. Moxley, Joe Myers and Bobby Roberson were praying so hard that the windshield started fogging up.

Before the trip, Roberson had wondered what could be done for the intoxicated men he had seen staggering along Trade Street and shared his thoughts with Moxley.

Chitwood recalled his memories of the road trip during a recent dinner in Winston-Salem in celebration of the faith-based nonprofit and its people, as well as the release of a book by the Rev. A. Neal Wilcox, the Rescue Mission’s first executive director.

Wilcox’s self-published book is titled “God’s Providence, My Privilege: Miracles of the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission.”

Chitwood said that Moxley wasn’t the only one with his hands on the steering wheel during that road trip.

“God drove that car,” Chitwood said. “He did. We’d been praying for about, I don’t know, maybe an hour, and all of a sudden I heard rocks hitting up under the car and I knew I was going to die. Of course, when you pray, you have to keep your eyes closed.”

Chitwood decided to peek at what was going on.

“I opened my eyes and we were going through somebody’s yard,” he said. “John D. was up wiping the windshield. What had happened, he told us later, that he’d come up on a road crew that was working there and there wasn’t nowhere to go and he couldn’t see it.”

Doors opened in 1967

When they returned home, the ministers continued to meet, eventually establishing a board of directors.

The doors of the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission officially opened July 22, 1967, shortly after Wilcox and his wife, Barbara, moved to Winston-Salem to run the new organization. The couple lived in an apartment above the Rescue Mission at 824 and 826 N. Trade St.

“I came here with a promise of $300 a month from churches,” Wilcox said.

By September 1967, the organization had about 15 male clients. Over the years, clients with talents needed at the Rescue Mission somehow showed up at the place they came to call home, including cooks and electricians.

At one time, the organization offered a children’s outreach program and a women’s division until other community programs became available for them.

The more Wilcox visited churches in the city seeking support, the more word of the Rescue Mission spread. When donations of food, clothes and furniture started flooding in, the organization opened a store to help support the Rescue Mission and those with limited finances.

“It came to the place during my time (as executive director) that we were giving as much as seven or eight tractor-trailer loads of furniture a year to needy families,” Wilcox said. “Thousands of pieces of clothing and food were given to those who were hungry.”

Integral part of community

The Rescue Mission expanded in the early 1970s after R.P. Reece donated the Lawrence Apartment Building on Oak Street — the former Lawrence Hospital — to the organization.

A cross installed on top of the building in 1975 that reads “Jesus Saves” no longer revolves and illuminates the night sky as it once did, but it’s still there as a beacon for those who need its services.

When Wilcox retired in 2000 after 33 years with the organization, he was replaced by Dan Parsons. Under Parsons’ leadership, the Rescue Mission launched a major building program that resulted in a four-story New Life Center shelter at 718 N. Trade St. in 2008.

Ken Heater joined the organization as assistant executive director in June 2013 and became the executive director in December 2013.

“We do believe that true change for an individual comes from the inside out through a relationship with Jesus Christ,” Heater said. “You don’t have to believe the Bible and the gospel to get service. Anyone can get service, but that is what we’re going to teach you and share with you.”

Heater said that the Rescue Mission is an integral part of the community for the programs it provides to people in need.

“We have a good partnership, I believe, with other community organizations that are also involved in reaching out to the homeless and the addicted.”

He said that the Rescue Mission has a three-fold thrust.

“In development, we’re looking to … develop more partners in this ministry and outreach so that we can help more people,” Heater said.

He also wants to continue strengthening the organization’s programs and Internet presence, and expand its educational focus.

Rescue Mission programs include Life Builders, a 90-day program for men, and Transformers, a one-year recovery program that includes Biblical counseling, Bible study classes, medical assistance, adult education and financial planning.

The organization also has a 110-acre farm called Alpha Acres in Yadkin County, which is a long-term drug and alcohol recovery center. Combined, the three programs can house 120 men.

‘Damaged pasts healed’

For the past nine years, an average of 400 men entered the Rescue Mission’s programs annually, Heater said.

As part of its education focus, the organization also provides men the opportunity to use a computer lab and enter a GED program.

The organization also operates a thrift store and has various community outreach programs, including a dental clinic, a medical clinic, a clothing ministry and food pantry.

The Rescue Mission’s annual budget for fiscal 2014-15 is $2.7 million.

“Our donations are probably 90 percent or more from individuals,” Heater said. “We have a lot of support from individuals, churches and organizations. There are some grants, but we need to develop more partners in these fields.”

The organization’s impact on the Forsyth County community has been enormous, Wilcox said.

“It gave the community a place they could give their leftovers,” Wilcox said. “They could give their funds that they felt confident was going to be used to reach hurting people and help these people not only with food, clothing and shelter but an opportunity for a new start in their life, with spiritual impetus in their life.”

Stuart Epperson Sr., the Rescue Mission’s first president, said that the organization has worked because it is a community effort.

He said he believes the organization’s biggest impact has been restoring families.

“Many a kid, who had no daddy, had a daddy again because of the witness of the Rescue Mission,” Epperson said.

David Parsons, a former assistant to the director, worked part time at the organization when he was just 16. In the mid-70s he worked there full time for six years in the warehouse.

“All those six years, I lived there,” he said. “I enjoyed it. It was a great opportunity to be around men like that to help them and encourage them.

“You saw a lot of men with damaged pasts — most of them by alcohol drinking, at that time. I’ve seen a lot of men come now because of drugs.”

He said it was nice seeing inebriated men, who had all types of skills and abilities, begin to use them again after they dried out.

Plenty of success stories

Ernie Mills, who was an assistant to the director at the Rescue Mission and its second employee, met his wife, Gail, when she came as a chaperone for a church youth group that conducted a service at the mission.

The couple has been married for 45 years and is the co-founders of the Durham Rescue Mission.

“Great things happen when you volunteer at the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission,” Ernie Mills said.

The Rev. Luke Money is one of the Rescue Mission’s many success stories. After a life of drug addiction, Money was ready for change.

“What finally brought me to my knees were prescription pain pills,” he said.

In July 2004, he went to Alpha Acres. His fondest memory there was gaining “a new life in Christ” by getting saved in August 2004.

Money went on to graduate from a Bible college and is now the manager of Alpha Acres.

Chester Draughn and Franklin Woods, current clients living at the Rescue Mission, said that the organization helped turned their lives around.

Draughn, 50, started a long history of alcohol and drug abuse when he was 17, but has been sober for four years. He entered the Rescue Mission in November 2012 and recently graduated from the one-year program.

“I have family members that say I have changed, not 100 percent but 200 percent. That makes me feel good. You’ve got to have the will power to come in here.”

Woods, 55, said that his alcoholism became critical in April when he ended up in a hospital emergency room. He said he was already on the Rescue Mission’s waiting list and was fortunate to be accepted into a program the next day.

He said that without the Rescue Mission “I’d probably be 6 feet under.”


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  • Bo Diddley

    I miss the days when hobos would just ride the trains from place to place and not pester anybody for handouts or lodging…

  • Curious

    What a blessing this mission has been for the Winston-Salem area. God bless those who give their time and funds to help bring hurting men to Jesus for healing and restoration.

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