The following true story is chapter 11 in an old book called “Skid Row Life Line,” by Arnold J. Vander Meulen. The book is about the Haven Of Rest Rescue Mission in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The chapter is about the remarkable changes that came into the life of the book’s author, named above, who, though he had been a slave to alcohol for many years, became a new man when he put his faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as his Savior. It is a powerful and moving story. I know it will bless you in some way. It proves that there is hope for alcoholics and other drug addicts who want to conquer their addictions. Please let others know about it.
Pastor Bruce K. Oyen
First Baptist Church
Skid Row Preacher
By Arnold J. Vander Meulen
A cold December wind was blowing down Madison Street, Chicago’s most notorious of several Skid Rows. It drove almost everyone off the street, some to the little protection of inviting doorways, others into flop-house rooms towering above the sidewalks, some to the warm confines of nearby saloons. Cold windy fingers caught up every scrap of paper and hurled them forward, only to drop them and reach for more. Theater throw aways, lodge announcements, dance hall ads and gospel tracts all mingled and danced in midair, swirling into the faces of passing pedestrians hurrying back and forth. It blew the dust and grime from every crack and crevice, blinding the eyes, stinging the exposed faces, and getting into the nose and mouth. The wind pulled hats from heads, tore scarves from around necks and billowed coats away from the body. The gutters were snow and ice encrusted, with old shoes, garbage, newspapers and liquor bottles firmly held in place at the base of great mounds of snow on the sidewalk. Scrapers had pushed the last snowstorm from the street and now these mounds were soot and filth covered, looking like some eruption from the pavement itself.
A wild-looking young man sat huddled in a large discarded packing case just inside the mouth of an adjacent alley, shivering against the cold. Great gaping holes in every side of the box made complete protection from the icy blasts impossible, and his threadbare clothing helped little to repel the cold. Icy fingers of wind snaked around his neck, lifting long greasy hair from the nape and caressing the sides of his head. It blew his eyelids open, plastering his wet lashes to his face. With head and eyeballs thus exposed to the freezing cold, he felt bald and nearly naked. It forced little clouds of dust and ashes into his face, at the same time pounding his ears with great fury and might. He was doing his best here in this out-of-the-way spot to lick the hangover from the night before, which made his head roar, his stomach churn and growl. His mouth felt furry, and he began to spit little fuzzy, cotton balls of saliva. The night before had been filled with bay rum and the little green men and he had promised himself an hour ago to quit drinking, but now a gnawing, craving desire for another bottle had erased this promise from his mind. He would have preferred a “blow” of heroin to a bottle, but in his desperate condition he could not be choosy, bay rum and shellac thinner being far easier to obtain when a man is destitute.
His aching, blood-shot eyes looked out over the nearly deserted street searching for better cover, always on the lookout for a “live one” who could purchase or obtain the desperately needed jug. To his left he vacantly watched the slow deliberate approach of the wagon, manned by two patrolmen whose eyes skillfully scanned doorways, sidewalks and dark alleys, searching out the drunks who were too far gone to take care of themselves in the bitter cold. Two blocks away from his vantage point the wagon pulled sharply to the curb, and one of the blue-coated officers climbed down to the sidewalk to assist a protesting drunk into the rear lockup, and as this staggering hulk was half carried, half walked around the wagon, the driver spotted another customer in a pawn shop doorway, leaning heavily against the plate-glass window which housed all manner of unredeemed treasures. It stopped for another pick-up there, then slowly rolled along, approaching the young man’s hideaway. The thought came to him that he would be far better off in jail and out of the weather, but the dread and fear of imprisonment is overpowering and he sat motionless, with bated breath, hoping against, and cursing, discovery. Fear subsided as the wagon drew abreast of his sanctuary, slowed for a moment, then passed on to disappear out of sight around the next corner.
This young man, only slightly past his twenty-third year, had experienced many times the awful brutality of incarceration. as well as the futility of alcoholism and dope addiction, and cringed each time his thoughts returned to this jail or that prison which for many months of his short life had housed him forcibly. As he lay hunched there, fighting the misery and pain of his filth-covered body, varied thoughts raced through his numbed brain, some bringing curses to his blue-cold lips, others making his eyes water the more as warm tears of sorrow welled up. He thought of the wonderful home he had left far behind, the love and respect of praying parents, the sweet companionship of friends and loved ones. His mind’s eye pictured his sweet Christian mother as she knelt in prayer before the God she loved and served, and again saw his born-again father reading the Word of God to his children in the dining room after a good hot meal. The thought of food made him sick, and he angrily wished again for another drink, brushing away the thoughts which threatened to drive him crazy.
A lone drunk passed by, staring vacantly ahead, his body doubled against the strong wind. Seconds later the packing case was emptied as the drunk ahead became a possible source of escape from the shakes which were setting in from too much booze in past months. The man from the packing case was now a relentless stalker as he closely followed the route of the staggerer up the street. Some blocks further the drunk disappeared into a half-open garage door which hung by one rusty hinge across the opening of a vacant dilapidated warehouse. The young man followed, and when his eyes became accustomed to the dimness of the interior he spotted a six-man bottle gang about to crack another jug. He hastily joined them, with only a feeble drunken voice or two protesting.
Several hours later he emerged, staggering now as he drunkenly made his way back from whence he came. The biting wind tore frantically at his ragged coat and he was all but oblivious to the cold. His desire for liquor temporarily curbed, he began to think of something to eat, but with no money he was faced with a problem which had confronted him many times before and he knew how to cope with it. As he neared the bright lights of the saloons and arcades, he veered off the main artery to an alley which parallels the street and began to examine the contents of the filled-to-overflowing garbage pails. Brushing away the maggot crust, he sorted out a piece of bread here and a meat bone there, filling both coat pockets with discarded scraps of food. He found his way back to the previously vacated packing case, crawled inside and hungrily gnawed on the bread as he sucked at the hidden marrow inside the mouldy meat bones. Despite the cold he became drowsy and fell asleep in a hunched up sitting position, shutting out the jangle and the noise of Skid Row.
The cold slowly crept through his clothing, making his flesh curl and shrink like fire consuming paper. he could not feel the soleless shoes on his feet as the cold had made his legs feel as if they ended in stumps of pain. The cold fastened on him, and in a drunken, half awake stupor he began to rub and claw at himself in an attempt to stave off frost bite or worse. Suddenly he came awake, the cold pain which had been boring in for several hours eliminating any possible chance of further rest. Hardly able to move, he half walked, half fell from the alley mouth into the now dimmed and quiet street, looking for a place of warmth although he knew there was none available to his kind.
A discarded newspaper lay at his feet and he picked it up and wrapped it around his middle, under his coat, to add some insulation. His feet tingled now as some movement brought back some of the circulation and his blue, dirt-streaked hands buried themselves deep into his pockets, feeling stiff and dead. He walked in the cold unbroken silence in great circles, block after block, in stumbling agony as the cold began to retreat from his body, leaving in its place shooting stabs of pain. His movement resembled that of a giant crab as he hobbled past greasy hash houses, variety and surplus stores, pawn shops and theaters, all closed now awaiting the coming of a new day. As he walked he thought of the past and the misery and despair that had been his lot for nearly eleven years.
His mind turned back the years to the time when, arriving home drunk for the first time, still just a little boy, his mother had admonished him from God’s Word, as she always did, and it was as if his mother walked there beside him in his torment of body and soul as he heard her voice from the whisper of the past: “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap….” and he cursed at the harvest of pain and misery he was this night reaping.
Newspaper trucks began their early morning rumbling through the city streets, and here and there could be seen lone pedestrians hurrying against the cold to an early morning job. A fat, slovenly woman, returning, perhaps, to a walk-up flat, passed by, probably just finished with a cleaning job which had taken most of the night in a loop office building. He turned the corner and came upon a large oil barrel which had been filled with refuse from the streets and waited longingly as a news hand from a corner stand lit a match to the rubbish. With the fire burning brightly, the flames licking up into the air as if attempting to reach the steel columns of the “El” tracks above, he moved closer, soaking up the warmth.
He stood there for a long time, letting the heat chase away the bitter cold, as the flames danced back and forth, singeing his coat and hair. As the warmth replaced the cold, he began to think again, his drunkenness nearly gone. He thought of many things: of incidents he had tucked back in his mind, determined not to remember, of happier days at home, of nightmare jails and of his prison experiences.
He thought of many things, but mostly he thought of that first prison term, and as he remembered, a cold chill raced up his back. He heard the judge commit him, and he saw his dad, great tears of sorrow streaming down his face as the sentence of five years maximum was passed. He heard his mother’s voice again…….”be sure your sins will find you out, son”……and then dad’s face appeared as he stood outside the cell of the county jail, imploring him to take Christ as his personal Savior; he’d laughed in his dad’s face at that. He remembered those three years in prison in the six by eight foot cell, surrounded by hundreds of like cubicles. He remembered the “hole” where he had spent forty-two days in solitary confinement on a bread and water diet. He thought of one-time associates in the rackets which came after prison, and the beating he’d taken from a competitor fighting with a broken whisky bottle. He shuddered involuntarily at the thought of the thirty-day sentence on the chain gang in Georgia, when he had been kept in an animal-like cage with forty or fifty other men, except for the daylight hours when they had to work, legs chained together to prohibit escape. He remembered…. and tears of remorse rolled down his dissipated face.
He turned over in his mind his father’s last words to him when they had last met, some months before, and he wondered if it really were true that Jesus loved him. His dad had said that all he needed to do was to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour and God would set him free from the awful life of sin he was chained to. Dad had even quoted a verse of Scripture to back up what he had said; something like, “If you confess your sins, Jesus is faithful and just to forgive you your sin and to cleanse you!” It sounded pretty good, but would it work for him? he wondered. His thoughts soon became a tormenting thing inside, and angrily he brushed away falling tears, and looked around for something to do.
Christmas Day, with its gaiety and solemnity, came and the bells of the Salvation Army and their collection kettles were gone. Eager, happy shoppers were at home now, enjoying the exchange of presents and the happy gleeful shouts of satisfied children. In homes all over the city, special dinners of chicken, turkey, or duck were being prepared, with all the traditional trimmings. The streets were nearly deserted, but for a few homeless and friendless men and women who eagerly awaited the time to go to one of the Missions for a special meeting and dinner of their own. Many of these inhabitants of the streets were already in a Mission out of the cold, but a few, daring to brave the wintry blasts, stood here and there talking, laughing and smoking, attempting to capture a gay festive feeling that none of them could share.
Three men walked down a dirty alley passed the opening between two buildings which fronted on South State Street, and spied the young man sitting there looking forlorn and alone. His head rested on his drawn-up knees, and every movement brought a new pain. Their voices, though not loud, hurt his ears, as they invited him to go along with them for a free hand-out from those “Mission Creeps.” The young man didn’t answer, didn’t move, and the men walked on, shrugging their shoulders. A dirty mongrel dog came up to him and sniffed at his pant leg, then moved off when no friendly pat was forthcoming. He had another hangover, one in a long series, and he was in no mood for companionship, animal or otherwise.
He was debating with himself whether or not to go to the Mission meeting and dinner, and decided against the Mission when he thought of the preaching he would have to listen to for an hour or more. He made his way slowly to the big hotel that overshadows the Loop, dwarfing nearby buildings, and ate from a huge can of steaming garbage which had just been wheeled into the alley for disposal by an approaching truck. Food-scented warmth blew on him from an overhead exhaust fan and it felt good. He could hear voices and music and laughter, and for a moment imagined he was part of the holiday crowd inside. His eyes dropped again to survey his surroundings, and bitterly the words escaped him that he had been holding back all morning, and he said to no one in particular, “Merry Christmas!” He moved away from his temporary comfort, heading for nowhere, his everyday destination in this alcoholic nightmare. Out on the street, he panhandled a few passers-by, who, in a holiday mood, gave him more than the ordinary nickel or dime. Clutching a few coins in one grimy hand, he made his way to a corner grocery, emerging minutes later tightly clutching a bottle of cheap wine. He began to drink to get away from his thoughts, but the more he drank the more he remembered until the bottle slipped from his fingers and rolled away, and he slept.
Days and nights merged together as he kept to himself, one bottle following another as his begging paid off time after time. He was wanted by the law for various crimes; some committed in this country, others in the Philipines, and he sought escape from punishment in an ever-growing alcoholic haze. He had no peace of mind until he slipped into unconsciousness; then often the delirium tremens came with the anguish and hallucinations of this dreaded disease. The cold ate away at his resistance, and he became weaker and weaker from lack of food and proper rest. Every moment was a nightmare, and he began to think that his only escape was death. He was convinced that he was a hopelessly lost sinner and that his only hope was in Christ, but he was too stubborn and proud to admit, to anyone but himself, that what he needed was a new life, a new heart, a new mind. He continued blindly to look for another way out and up, only to find every way blocked.
Whistles were blowing, church bells were ringing, horns were tooting and people were laughing and screaming, and he realized New year’s Eve had slipped up on him, and he was without a bottle. He began to look around for a likely looking prospect to con, but as he looked he saw them all cringe from him as they passed. His matted hair hung about his face, his body filthy and his clothing ragged and covered with vermin. His shoes, all torn up and nearly soleless, looked back at him as he wondered what was wrong with his feet. He could hardly tell where his legs ended and his feet began, and he questioned vaguely if they had become frostbitten. He shuffled on, able to cage one or two drinks in some of the traps which dot the area while picking up a dime or two from drunken celebrators.
He entered a neon-covered club far south of the loop, pushed his way wearily through the crowd which lined the bar, until he found a vacant stool. He ordered a cheap bar whisky, and while he waited he listened to the talk and noise of the merry-makers. Men and women cursed the past and made big promises for the coming year, while others simply laughed at the thought of the many new leaves they had turned over in bygone years, only to dirty them again when temptation became strong.
The bartender brought the drink, scooping up the waiting change as he wheeled to wait on another customer. The young man lifted the glass when the thought came to him that maybe he had better take inventory of his past and see if he couldn’t make some changes which would give him a better life. Slowly he lowered the glass, opening reluctant fingers as it touched the polished surface of the bar. He began to slip from the stool, when the Holy Spirit of God began to speak to his heart, and when he walked out into the street again, he realized he could do nothing to bring about a change.
He had tried to quit drinking many times, even taking an occasional cure, but it had never worked, and now look where he was. He had tried working and living in decent respectable society, but he could never manage to stay on the job more than a few hours. He had tried to leave the cards, dice, and ponies alone, but after a day of abstinence from the tables and bookies, he had returned, more addicted than ever. He had tried Alcoholics Anonymous and psychiatry, reformation and rehabilitation, medicine and medics, and nothing seemed to help. He had even tried a change of environment, traveling all over the country, only to find it wasn’t the thing he needed. Everything he had tried, in his own strength, had failed.
God continued to speak, and as He spoke, Bible lessons from childhood and Scripture verses learned at his mother’s knee came to mind, and he began to repeat one he couldn’t understand. It was something like “Ye must be born again,” and he longed to know how this was possible. He moved on, walking close to the buildings where the cold snow that was falling could not reach, walking aimlessly as, at that moment, a great battle was being fought for his soul. Sounds around him were all but shut out as conviction was brought to bear in his heart and life, and he began to long for his mother’s arms and her words of comfort and guidance. He wished he could hear his dad tell him God’s plan of salvation once more, but that was impossible. He stumbled and fell, only to pick himself up and struggle on.
He looked up through curiosity at the big sign that was overhead, blinking on and off in the night, and as his eyes cleared and he steadied himself, he could make out the outline of a huge red neon shaped cross which was beckoning the wanderer to his place of refuge. Inside the cross, in large lighted letters, he read this message, flashing on and off in the night: “JESUS SAVES!” He continued to look at the sign, tears of repentance wetting his eyes as he realized that Jesus had died for his sins on a cross shaped like this. As he gazed upward, God spoke and from the forty-fifth chapter of Isaiah he could hear once again: “Look unto me, and be ye saved” and he looked! Again, he heard from the tenth chapter of Romans, “If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thy heart that God raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” and he confessed! Then, from the wonderful Gospel of John, the first chapter, he heard: “But as many as received him, to them he gave power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name,” and he received! Paul’s message to the jailer came to mind, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” and he believed!
With his eyes wide open that night–it was New Year’s Eve, 1947–he prayed. Although his gaze was directed toward the sign which had attracted him, he was looking beyond, into the face of his lovely Saviour, who, in infinite love and mercy, reached down from heaven’s glory and scraped this poor hell-bound boy from the gutter of Skid Row and planted his feet on “higher ground” and put a song in his heart and a smile on his lips. That night, at exactly five minutes to eleven o’clock, God snapped the fetters of sin, and the old habits rolled away, replaced by a desire to win others to this wonderful Saviour. What man could not do, God did that night, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye. Another miracle of God’s grace as the Blood of Calvary cleansed from every stain and set the captive free. The sign which God used to win this boy to Christ hung over the doorway of the world-famous Pacific Garden Mission, and it was here that this boy stayed for five weeks, as a babe in Christ, growing in grace and in knowledge until it came time to make restitution for the past.
He went to prison, with Christ, and served two years, studying and witnessing and upon his release, entered into an unusual ministry…….Prison Evangelism. After touring the nation for several years, he founded the Mission he now directs, the Haven of Rest Rescue Mission in Grand Rapids, Michigan. That’s right, the above story is the testimony of the superintendent of this great faith ministry, a skid-row preacher to the down-and-out. What Christ did for Arnold Vander Meulen on New year’s Eve, 1947, he can do for others. He is doing it for others, here, as the Word is preached morning, noon, and night to crowds of poor, wretched, lost souls. Arnold still travels in the evangelistic field, having a competent staff to carry on in his absence at the Mission. He is available for special meetings and has proved a blessing to many over the land, who have heard of him, and invited him to speak in their church or organization.
A note from Pastor Bruce K. Oyen: Keep in mind that this chapter was taken from a book published in 1956. So, though it is presented as it was, it is now past tense.