“It was like the Acts of the Apostles all over again, miracle after miracle.”
Rev. Howard Cooper, Miracles in Sin City
The old Bronx Hotel certainly has some colorful history.
It’s seen its share of drunks, prostitutes and brawlers saddle up to the wormwood bar.
An ex-alcoholic once offered $20 as a down payment on the $150,000 purchase price – and got it.
And its name came from a congested metropolis 3,000 miles away from the barren Nevada desert.
That old hotel has since been razed (2009). But for more than three decades it ended up being the light of Reno.
For what once was a place for practicing alcoholics became a haven for recovering ones.
In the late 1960s, the wooden bar came down and the wooden cross went up. The Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission had arrived.
From humble beginnings, the Mission has become Northern Nevada’s largest Christian provider of services to the homeless, needy and addicted – affecting more than 200,000 different lives and families since 1963.
Men and women used to walk into the building at Third and West streets and stagger out drunk. Now, they walk out with of the Mission with their heads held high. In fact, more than 70,000 men and women who entered its doors left as changed creations.
They had become Christians.
“It’s what we do,” said Rick Redding, Executive Director of the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission. “We take hurting people and make them whole again through Christ. We’ve been doing that for 50 years now and we’ll continue on that path.
“We don’t cram anything down anyone’s throat. We accept people where they are and I think they respect us for that. But we are a Christian organization and we’ll never compromise our beliefs.
“People come to us for answers and we give them The Answer: Jesus. He’s the Way, the Truth and the Life. He’s where true success lies.”
Success, however, hasn’t been without its struggles.
Incorporated in 1963, the Mission’s first years of existence were spent sharing quarters with guests of the Mizpah Hotel on Second and Lake streets. It was cramped and yet ever-expanding.
Howard Cooper prayed for a miracle in Sin City.
He got it.
Scanning the newspaper classifieds, Cooper – the successful salesman turned skid row bum turned advocate for the homeless and addicted — spotted an ad for the dilapidated Bronx Hotel at 145 W. Third Street. He knocked on the owner’s door with one hand, clenching his small wad of cash in the other.
Minutes later, Cooper had left with a $120,000 purchase price – $30,000 off the original price tag – dropped $20 as a down payment, and even led the owner to become a Christian.
Oh, yeah, and the bar.
In the midst of this transaction, the hotel owner gave Cooper a beautiful wormwood bar. Complete with liquor. It was an odd contribution to an organization dedicated to separating men and women from alcohol – and perhaps an even stranger gift to a man who once lost all he had to the lure of the drink.
But these were God’s people. And they knew what to do.
“I felt like one of those policemen in prohibition days who poured away the bootleg booze,” Cooper wrote in Miracles in Sin City. “We gathered all the alcohol and took turns pouring it all down the sink…There was one less bar in Reno.”
The wormwood bar was torn apart and used to decorate the new office. Neon beer signs came down, replaced with ones of “Jesus Saves.”
Men who hadn’t worked an honest day in years volunteered to toil 18-hour days to renovate the new Mission. Donations of gas ranges and refrigerators and other supplies – including much needed cash — poured in.
Men from around Northern Nevada, California and elsewhere sought refuge inside the Mission, where Cooper had laid down the golden rules that exist today:
- There would be no compromise of the Gospel;
- A sin is a sin;
- And no one could preach unless they stressed the simple faith in Christ for salvation.
The transformation had begun, but it was far from complete.
The Bronx Hotel – now the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission – was rapidly becoming overcrowded. Nightly, men slept on the pews and ground, curling up wherever they could rest their heads. They waited outside in the winter for a cup of hot coffee. They filled the nightly chapel services, hungry for direction in life.
The Mission expanded, with staff and volunteers tearing down the roof of an adjacent storage room to build a 50-bed dormitory. Carpenters volunteered their time, using materials donated from the old First Evangelical Free Church.
The Mission’s growth brought such services as a thrift store and warehouse. But still it languished in financial struggles and identity problems. Many thought the Mission was the problem with downtown’s woes of decreased tourism and gaming.
Then the man with a slow, Southern drawl came into town.
Bringing with him more than 30 years of experience in working with the homeless, former Executive Director Rev. Kaleel Ellison and his family ushered the Mission into a new era.
In just a few short years, Rev. Ellison – with the backing of the Board of Directors – paid off mortgages to eliminate staggering interest rates. Upgraded a tattered vehicle fleet. Created an intensive recovery program. Expanded a struggling industrial operations division.
The work continues to pay off.
Up to 150 men and women now call the Mission “home” on any given night. About 100 are enrolled in the Christian Addiction Recovery and Education program, an intensive recovery program that stresses Christ while leading men and women through a year of rigorous Bible-based addiction studies, counseling, educational courses and a work therapy program that stresses ethics, responsibility and on-the-job training.
“We target the whole person,” Redding said. “They’re usually hurting pretty bad when they come through our doors, so our first encounter is usually one filled with pain and crisis.
“But once they’re stabilized, we then focus on their needs: Spiritual, vocational, educational. We want them to see that the year with us is spent productively in giving them a new start. Our hope is that this is the last program for everyone who comes here.”
The Mission continues to be innovative in its studies and approach to recovery, offering some of the finest services and programs in the nation.
Yet somehow, somewhere down the line, the Mission was labeled a “soup kitchen,” as if all it did was ladle soup to lines of indigents. The Mission continues to struggle to publicly combat that limiting image.
But those who work with the homeless or oversee public agencies know what the Mission means to the community.
“It’s one of the premier agencies in the city,” said former Reno Mayor Jeff Griffin. “The work the Mission does is truly needed and has responded to human needs. They do an outstanding job.”
Former Washoe County Sheriff Richard Kirkland recalled his days as a patrolman on the streets of Reno. Many times he’d come across drunks and homeless. Instead of hauling them to jail, Kirkland said frequently he’d call up the Gospel Mission to see if they had room for one more.
They usually did.
“You know, one the greatest satisfactions I’d get from law enforcement would be to run across one of these guys later holding a job and staying sober,” Kirkland said. “They’d say, ‘I know you probably thought I was just a bum, but thanks for having a little faith in me.’ That’s the kind of impact the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission has.
“How do you put a price tag on the work of the Mission? Their work and success has been proven over and over again. If it weren’t for them, the government would have to do it at great expense. I have nothing but praise and admiration for the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission. They are invaluable to this community.”
The Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission’s approach has been credited with helping change the way Washoe County deals with its homeless. Former Sheriff Kirkland, for example, publicly has stated that he borrowed aspects of the inmate work therapy program from the one he witnessed at the Mission.
The aggressive approach is what makes the Mission different, Redding says.
“We’re no flop house,” Redding said. “This is hard work. I tell the clients that they spent a lot of time and energy into ruining their lives, and it’s going to take that same commitment to turn things around.
“We have a big heart but we’re tough. No one is coddled. We don’t buy into the perpetual ‘victim’ mentality. We’re blunt. You want change, you’ve got to work for it. You want our help, we’re here for you.
“I’ll bend over backward to help someone who truly wants help. But if you’re here for ‘three hots and a cot’ and to play games, this isn’t the place for you.”
It’s that commitment that makes the Reno-Sparks Gospel Mission credible to other agencies and – more importantly – to the thousands of people who contribute to it annually, Redding said.
“People have misconceptions about us all the time, but they change their impression when they work with us and see us in action,” Redding said. “They see a professional, Christian agency in action.
“I believe that credibility has built up a loyal base of donors. They know they can trust us with their money. They know they’re making a difference in thousands of lives. We couldn’t do it without them.”