[Hpn] Ray of hope in the night

W.C.Tinker wtinker@metrocast.net
Sun, 21 Nov 2004 13:53:39 -0500

 Ray of hope in the night

 By Ron Grossman
Tribune staff reporter

 November 21, 2004

 Creaking and squeaking, The Night Ministry's outreach van, an aged school 
bus refitted as a mobile soup kitchen, pulled up to a stretch of West 63rd 
Street where, on many blocks, there was more rubble than buildings.

 It was a hellish street scene out of some modern Dante's vision.

 Elevated trains rumbled overhead, the light from their windows piercing the 
gloom like moving candles. Scarcely a passerby was to be seen.

 Then, at about 8 p.m., a folding table was set with the evening's offering: 
homemade chicken soup provided by Unity in Chicago, a church in a pleasant 
North Side neighborhood.

 As if from nowhere, children appeared. By the twos and threes, they stepped 
out of the darkness. Some were preteens. Others looked no bigger than 1st 
graders. There were perhaps several dozen in all.

 "They know they have to take care of themselves," explained Gregory 
Hardaway, a pastor who meets the van at its weekly stops in Woodlawn. "Their 
mothers might be on drugs. Not many have fathers at home."

 Approaching The Night Ministry van, the children wore hardened, tough 
expressions--a coping skill boys and girls learn early in an inner-city 
neighborhood. But with a cup of soup or hot chocolate in their hands, many 
broke out in smiles.

 Volunteer workers brought out a football to toss around with the kids. 
Basking in the unaccustomed adult attention, the youngsters squealed with 
delight, like children of more fortunate communities.

 A would-be drummer boy named Edward beat out rhythms on every ersatz 
tom-tom or crash symbol within reach: soup kettles, sidewalks, the folding 
table. His drumsticks were rounded slats from some abandoned baby crib.

 The after-dark outreach program is operated by The Night Ministry, one of 
the Chicago-area groups supported by Chicago Tribune Holiday Giving, a 
campaign of Chicago Tribune Charities, a McCormick Tribune Foundation fund.

 A nondenominational organization dependent on the efforts of scores of 
volunteers from all walks of life, The Night Ministry was founded in 1976. 
It has an annual budget of $3 million and runs a youth homeless shelter. It 
also sends out counselors to make contact with runaway and cast-off young 

 Loaded with cookies and birth-control devices, The Night Ministry van goes 
out six times a week to street corners of the forgotten and beaten.

 The back end of the former school bus is set up as medical clinic, staffed 
by a nurse. It is often trailed by a second vehicle equipped to do 
quick-reading HIV tests on denizens of a hardscrabble world of intravenous 
needles and casual sex--and, for some, a place of no fixed addresses.

 Initial ride a bit confusing

 Riding along for the first time can be a discombobulating experience. Fred 
Molzahn, a retired salesman and regular Night Ministry volunteer, recalled 
his initial outing. A prostitute came to the van's door to get a fistful of 

 "In her other arm, she was holding an infant," Molzahn said.

 But at the van's first stop on this night, there weren't many adults. 
Hardaway explained that experience has taught The Night Ministry to make a 
second stop in Woodlawn, a few blocks away, near the pool-hall hangout of 
area teenagers.

 "Before that, the gangbangers would come around here," he said. "They'd 
snatch the sandwiches out of the little kids' hands."

 At another stop, two middle-aged women got into the van. One was shaking 
uncontrollably, perhaps because she was thinly dressed. She also had 
multiple medical problems, and had no place to sleep that night.

 She sought out Matt Black, a seminary intern at McCormick Theological 
Seminary and Night Ministry volunteer. He thought it was because he was 
wearing a clerical collar. The woman wasn't as concerned about her immediate 
problems, he noted, while another staff member phoned a homeless shelter for 
a bed.

 "She wanted to know if God recognized what she was going through," Black 
said. "She was looking for a little bit of hope. We all are."

 `Those kids will make it'

 Mike Nash, another volunteer, explained that he goes out with the van 
weekly for the same reason he became a Chicago police officer 17 years ago. 
"I wanted to help people," he said. "Maybe, this way, one or two more of 
those kids will make it."

 He noted that The Night Ministry van gives him and other volunteers a peek 
at a world where some people never give up, no matter how much the cards are 
stacked against them.

 Hardaway noted those kids who show up for a weekly bowl of soup sometimes 
take over when adults have failed them.

 "If their mother is on drugs, they know a social worker will be coming to 
place them in different foster homes," Hardaway said. "So the oldest child 
will take the smaller ones to hide out in an abandoned building, trying to 
keep the family together."

 The children of the inner city also know how to say thank you, in their own 
way. As volunteers packed up the van, William the drummer boy asked: "You 
want me to do you a beat?"

 He beat on the folding table, even as it was being folded. . He was still 
pounding out a rhythm on the bus's metallic sides as the engine was started.

 Then off into the night The Night Ministry van, loaded with cookies and 
condoms, rumbled to its next stop, bringing a glimmer of hope to part the 

 Copyright (c) 2004, Chicago Tribune