Written by Madoline Markham
Photography by Beau Gustafson
The only thing James Poe knew about Jimmie Hale Mission when he first drove up to its doors was that for 40 years his mother had donated to its work. He remembers that day in April 2011 well. “My wife told me, ‘I love you to death, but I can’t live with you anymore. You drink all day, take pills, smoke pot, and you are unemployable. We are going nowhere,’” Poe recalls. “We drew up papers for divorce, and she sent me on my way. I drove up here in my little pickup truck with everything I owned in the back.”
While many who come to the mission’s Shepura Men’s Center started life in rough homes, Poe’s story was different. “I was never supposed to have been here,” he says. “I came from a perfect, Leave it to Beaver, Mayberry, middle-class, church-going, daddy’s-a-deacon, momma’s-a-Sunday-school-
But, as Poe tells the story, he took his first drink at age 15, smoked pot for the first time at 17, and spent the next 35 years “living like an Israelite.” For a while in adulthood, he put together a “pretty good life.” He worked for Delta Airlines outside Atlanta. He and his first wife bought a house in Peachtree City and raised two children. He coached little league and went to daddy-daughter dances. “Everything was good until the drinking caught up with me,” he says. “Eventually I lost all of that, and then it was a steady spiral from there.”
After being fired from Delta, he would manage a strip club in Baton Rouge before moving to Las Vegas as he continued to fuel his addictions to drugs, alcohol, and gambling. He worked for furniture stores as a pattern continued: get a job, work into a management position, steal to pay for drugs or gambling, repeat. “Eventually even in a town as big as Las Vegas, you burn all your bridges, and so that’s what happened,” he says.
That’s when he says he hit rock bottom. So he called the only phone number he knew by heart—his parents’. He didn’t know if they would even be alive since he had not had contact with them (or his children, then ages 14 and 16) for eight years. His dad answered the phone. His mom had died three years earlier, he learned. “Just like the prodigal son, I asked him, ‘Could I come home?’ He said, ‘Sure.’ I didn’t even have the money, so he wired me the money and I flew home…There he was arms wide open, waiting for me when got off the airplane.”
Most people would think that would have “jolted me back into reality,” penniless at age 47 moving back in with his parents, Poe says, but it still took another six years for him to turn around. He first met a bartender he grew up with in Pleasant Grove and married her, continuing to live a “drugged and drunken life.” Throughout those years, he now sees that he was running from a calling he felt like God had on his life. In Georgia, he went to church on Sundays with his family because that was what he was supposed to do, but he says he was not invested in it. “It wasn’t in here,” he says, pointing to his heart. “It was just a part of the life we were trying to create.”
When he entered the mission, Poe says he knew he was broken and “who could fix him” because of the way he was raised. “But what I didn’t know was how to get there, how to stop long enough to get back to where I wanted to be,” he says, reflecting on that time. “And that’s what the mission afforded me was the time and resources to get my life back together. What I always felt like, especially in the last eight or 10 years, was a hamster on a wheel, just running and running but not getting anywhere. But I didn’t know how to stop, and I don’t know how to get off. That’s what the mission gave me…the spiritual resources to find my way back to God.”
These days Poe and his wife are involved in a church in Pleasant Grove where he serves as a part-time minister of music and education. They renewed their vows on Valentine’s Day 2012. His children are now 31 and 29. “We do have a relationship. It’s not where I would like it to be, but it didn’t get broke in a short period of time and it’s probably not going to get fixed in a short period of time,” he says honestly. “We are getting there in God’s time.”
Poe now spends his days running the kitchen at the mission where he was served his first meal in 2011, the same place that had employed him as a cook for several months while he lived at the shelter. Under his guidance as kitchen supervisor, the mission serves three meals a day—up to 400 plates in all—365 days a year. His job entails menu planning, ordering food, and partnering with community food banks to help keep the cost per meal at $1.95 in a process he likens to the TV show Chopped. You don’t always know what ingredients you are going to get in advance. But really his job is about much more than grocery coordination. “If you are hungry or you don’t know where you are going to spend the night or if your basic needs have not been met, it’s hard to focus on anything else, so it really starts here,” he says. Before people in the shelter can start to look at changing their lives, they simply need to be fed.
Before most meals, Poe speaks to a crowd of men who are in the program, numbering around 120, and to anywhere from 5 to 50 men who have just come in for the night who are encouraged to join the program for recovery, and tells them he too was once sitting where they are. It earns him instant credibility with them. “Sometimes they want to talk to someone who has actually been there,” he says. “I tell these guys on a regular basis, ‘My door is always open back there.’”
Many of the men who come through the door of the mission leave for one reason or another and fall back into old patterns. When some of them return for a meal, they will speak to Poe, remembering him from before, and knowing they have another chance, just as he did. “They know I have been there,” he says. “It also helps me empathize with them. It’s one thing to have sympathy, it’s another thing to be able to empathize because you literally have walked where they have walked…
“Mr. [Tony] Cooper uses the example all the time that if you just give a guy a fish, you feed him for one day, but if you can teach him to fish, you change his life. Ultimately that’s what we are trying to do here, but we do understand that it does start right here.”
To learn more about the Jimmie Hale Mission and how you can get involved or donate, visit jimmiehalemission.com.
Tags: december 2016