Hooked on drugs and cocaine, Kenny Parrish made his living off “prison drops.”
In exchange for cash, he’d help inmates smuggle cellphones, drugs and knives behind bars at a small jail in Georgia.
That existence proved to be short-lived, though, and Parrish found himself homeless and jobless. With $121 to his name, the Durham, N.C., native made his way to Charlotte. There, he found My Father’s Choice, a ministry providing released inmates, drug addicts and the mentally ill with temporary, drug-free housing. The organization started in 2011 in Charlotte, where the founder has opened 11 houses and serves about 70 people regularly.
Parrish, 55, said My Father’s Choice changed his life.
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“I’ve been clean ever since,” he said, sipping a cup of coffee and taking a few drags off a cigarette. Instead of using drugs, he spends his days combing the woods and searching under bridges for the homeless and downtrodden.
Parrish works at My Father’s Choice’s thrift store on Freedom Drive in Charlotte, which helps keep the ministry’s houses in the city open. He evangelizes, telling his story of salvation and seeking to “save” others from hopeless situations.
“I really had a messed up life,” he said. Now, “I have a place to live and food to eat.”
For the past six weeks, Parrish has been living in a house with four other men in a southern Rock Hill neighborhood. Among the people he shares a kitchen and bathroom with are recovering drug addicts, convicted felons and down-on-their-luck veterans.
On a typical day, they wake up together and eat together. Those who have jobs leave for the day, while the rest go to the group’s meeting space in Charlotte, where they have “Bible school,” he said. They attend church each Sunday and hold worship services each Wednesday.
The house has three bedrooms, equipped with two beds and a television set. It’s the first My Father’s Choice house opened in Rock Hill, but hopefully not the last, said Pastor Denise Smith-Lewis, the ministry’s founder.
Local homeowners recently donated six houses to My Father’s Choice, Smith-Lewis said.
“Our goal is to help get people off the street,” she said. “We cater to ex-offenders; people who are on parole ... people who are on supervised probation and people who are sex offenders.”
Born into what she describes as an abusive, dysfunctional family, Smith-Lewis said “different family members” sexually abused her when she was as young as 6.
That trauma “set the course” for a years-long addiction to drugs and alcohol. She once was beaten severely and left to die in a garbage bin in Massachusetts. She made her way to a Job Corps program in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she lived in a homeless shelter.
After becoming a housing and welfare paralegal specialist, Smith-Lewis spent 18 months in prison for mortgage fraud. From her jail cell, she penned a step-by-step program on how to change lives. Once released from prison on parole, she started a transitional housing program. She said she’s been drug-free for 26 years.
The group’s clientele, Smith-Lewis said, comprise people recently released from prison who need shelter, jobs and treatment for addictions. Clients take adult education classes, receive job skills training and undergo health assessments that include tips to prevent heart disease, HIV and recidivism.
“God saw fit for me to act as a guide for other people,” she said. “Here I am, 26 years later, clean, sober ... working with the same population I came from.”
She longs to help people who “make really, really bad decisions,” she said.
She doesn’t discriminate.
“As a pastor and minister, how can we decide who we help? What right do we have who we choose?” she said. “I don’t feel like I have a right to pick and choose who I help.”
There was a time for Smith-Lewis when picking and choosing seemed more appealing. Burned out and overwhelmed by the ungratefulness of the people she served, Smith-Lewis considered stopping her nonprofit work several years ago. Then, she said, she had a conversation with “my father,” God.
“He said, ‘I chose you,’ ” she said. “It’s my father’s choice. It is a ministry chosen by him to the lost, to the sick, to the suffering. There are so many people who need help, regardless of who they are, where they’re from,” she said.
But, Smith-Lewis said she’s not providing a crutch. The goal is to help her clients get back on their feet, help them one day own a home and link them with outside vocational programs and organizations that can help them find work.
“I do house the very worst people,” she said. “Somebody’s got to do it. Nobody wants to. People get out of jail; they’re scattered all over the place.”
It’s not a homeless shelter, which Smith-Lewis compares to a “quasi-prison.”
“They’re already institutionalized,” she said. “I believe the small house with five people living in the house, coming together, eating and living as a family is a perfect recipe for success.”
The ministry needs blankets, linens, curtains, “anything that makes a house a home,” Smith-Lewis said.
She chose Rock Hill because it’s a big city close to Charlotte.
“Rock Hill is in need of places like ours,” she said. “Homelessness is for real. It is everywhere.”
She calls herself and the group of men living in the Rock Hill house a band of “misfits.” She also calls them “potential leaders.”
Lee Bradley, 58, is among that number.
“I was a drug addict,” said Bradley, a fisherman by hobby. “They helped clean me up.”
Homeless, he learned about My Father’s Choice from a friend. He’s been with the ministry for nearly six months. Smith-Lewis describes him as a “leader.”
Early one morning last month, Bradley cooked breakfast – grits, bacon and coffee – for his housemates. He is no stranger to looking for others like him in the woods and helping them get off the streets.
He’s “a role model,” Smith-Lewis said.
“We just help each other,” Bradley said. “And, love each other.”