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June 25, 2007

At the Bowery Mission, Songs of Faith and Redemption

New York Times:

Inside an empty chapel in Lower Manhattan, Dwight Walker stood with his back facing the empty rows of pews. His voice began to rise with songs that included words like faith, found and lost. Five other men joined him. “The storm is passing over — have faith in the Lord,” Mr. Walker sang in the sanctuary at the Bowery Mission.

The six men are known as Anointed Voices, an a cappella group that sings and preaches in churches, in hospitals, before youth groups and in prisons. Theirs is a small tale of redemption — of how hard work, willpower and faith can sometimes lead people away from lives of desolation. All were homeless at some point, struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. All forged a new path at the Bowery Mission, a faith-based organization that serves the homeless. “The message is, no matter where you come from, there is a place God has given you,” said James Macklin, 67, a member of Anointed Voices and director of outreach for the mission. “The only thing one has to do is mine for this goal and make a human being all he can be.”

In 2004, Ien Williams, 46, lost everything to his cocaine addiction: his marriage, his truck-driving business and his home in Queens. He carried his possessions in two suitcases through the streets of Manhattan. Someone told him about the Bowery Mission, and though he was wary of its emphasis on Christianity, he decided he had nothing to lose by going there. Spending time there helped him beat his addiction, he said, and now Mr. Williams lives at the mission, on the Bowery near Rivington Street, where he is in charge of housekeeping duties. The other singers call him “the minister” because of his preaching. “For me, it’s a total worship experience,” Mr. Williams said. “I sense the presence of God. This is where I’m safe.”

The life stories of the other singers — Eugene Chisholm, Dennis Ogarra and Carroll Baylor — are strikingly similar to Mr. Williams’s. Three of the six live at the mission, while the others have found their own places. Mr. Ogarra helped found Anointed Voices in 2006 and recruited Mr. Walker and Mr. Williams. The others joined soon after. Elvon R. Borst, manager of alumni programs at the mission, was impressed when she heard the group perform recently at a church in the Bronx. “It seems to me that the men really try to deliver a message of encouragement and hope,” she said.

Mr. Macklin serves as the group’s coordinator, arranging four or five performances a month. Some churches have been particularly welcoming, impressed with their music and their message. “Everyone,” Mr. Macklin said, “deserves a second chance.”

Two years ago, Mr. Walker, at 39 the youngest of the six members, was using large amounts of crack cocaine. His awakening came, he said, when he was shoved into a van in Manhattan with a bag over his head. The details, he said, are vague because he was high on crack. The next thing he remembers was a bright light shining through the bag into his eyes, he said. It was the police. Mr. Walker eventually found his way to the Bowery Mission. “This has helped me stay clean, helped me develop a relationship with God,” he said.

Mr. Ogarra, 49, who was born and raised in Brooklyn, joined the Army to escape living on the streets. He was stationed in Kansas at Fort Riley, but before long he was back to his old ways — using crack and cocaine and abusing alcohol. After he was discharged from the Army he moved back to Brooklyn. “I took the habit with me,” Mr. Ogarra said.

His addictions kept his life in chaos, preventing him from holding a steady job, and leading to the breakup of his marriage. In 2005, he said, he stood on a Long Island Rail Road platform on Atlantic Avenue and thought about killing himself. But something stopped him, he said, and someone who spotted him called the police. An officer suggested he seek help at the Bowery Mission. “I was just mixed up,” Mr. Ogarra said. “I drank many years away. I did many things. I had no direction, no drive and no hope.”

The mission has kept him free of drugs. and the musical group has given him a more hopeful view of life. He now lives in Washington Heights and has a job with U.S. Security Associates, a nationwide security firm. “It’s a godsend I got here,” Mr. Ogarra said. “I’ve learned to trust in my faith. If I was to give up I would be lost.”

A tear rolled down Mr. Ogarra’s right cheek as he spoke. But as the six men talked about their lives and prepared for another singing performance, there were plenty of jokes and laughter, too. “We’re kind of like a family,” Mr. Macklin said.

Posted by acapnews at June 25, 2007 10:33 PM


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