Nine local ministers spend a night among the homeless

Roger "Bubba" Rabon has lived underneath Interstate 77 on Cherry Road in Rock Hill for the past five years. Rabon recently allowed nine area ministers to live his life amid the rats and filth for one night. Inspired by his plight, the men hope to draw attention to homelessness.
Roger "Bubba" Rabon has lived underneath Interstate 77 on Cherry Road in Rock Hill for the past five years. Rabon recently allowed nine area ministers to live his life amid the rats and filth for one night. Inspired by his plight, the men hope to draw attention to homelessness.

Nine men wanted a lesson.

For one night, they would leave their houses, go to the streets and live among the homeless.

Most of the men are younger ministers, pulpit pastors or music leaders who spend Sundays preaching and praising Jesus.

But on the night of Dec. 27, they became students, trying to learn about the kind of people they believe Jesus ministered to.

The idea to spend a night among the homeless came after a November forum about the state of the area's black churches. During the forum, the Rev. Ronal King of Christians Feed the Hungry ministry received an award for his service to the community.

But King used his acceptance speech to challenge local churches. He told them he was feeding their members when the churches would not.

"My wife was asking me after the forum was over what we as ministers were going to do about it," said C.T. Kirk, an associate minister at First Calvary Baptist Church.

So Kirk started talking to another pastor about what they could do to show churches just how significant the problem of homelessness is here.

Other than a "warming center" that doesn't open its doors unless the mercury falls to 38 degrees or below, there's nowhere for homeless men to go in York County. So when the weather is 39 or 40 or 41 degrees, the homeless turn to abandoned houses and woods, anywhere to avoid the cold.

The offer to wear their shoes for the night went out to about 20 people, Kirk said, many of them pastors. Nine showed.

King introduced the nine to their instructor for the night: Roger "Bubba" Rabon.

Amid the thunder of tires

The 62-year-old welcomed them to what he calls his apartment complex, those spaces created by the metal rafters underneath the Interstate 77 overpass at Cherry Road.

Rabon told them about his five brothers and a sister, as well as three daughters. He also told them he's estranged from his family.

He's been homeless for seven years, living beneath this overpass for five of them.

Rabon likes the overpass because he's barely visible there. People don't mess with him and he's close enough to Bojangles', where, if the right manager's working, he can catch a free meal at 6 a.m. and at noon.

He gauges time by the sound of the traffic above.

If he can't get a free meal, he hits the trash cans or panhandles, though he says most of that money goes to booze. So does the monthly Social Security check he picks up, then takes to the liquor store to cash.

Rabon admits he's under the overpass because of poor choices and circumstances throughout his life.

He lost his job as a plant supervisor when he tried to sneak a cooler of beer into the office. He lost his home after his mother died and he couldn't bring himself to go back there.

He admits he's an alcoholic and has been drinking since he was 14. He also said the drinking got worse after his father died, and he often swigs booze just to fall asleep amid the thunder of tires.

Rabon lives in apartment 4. He chose that address because he stays behind the fourth column underneath the overpass.

To get to his home, he scales a steep concrete incline. He moves slowly, his hands to the ground, trying not to tumble like he has before, including that one time he rolled to the sidewalk and a woman who saw him bloodied called for an ambulance.

Once he creeps to the top, he's home: a small flat area where the rafters are maybe 8 feet apart.

There, he has wet blankets and wet sleeping bags. Everything's wet. Mixed in the dampness are numerous empty Cobra beer bottles. A red stub of a candle is his source of evening light.

There's a pillow that's so dark from dirt that it's hard to tell what it is until he explains.

And the rats, they hustle across the sleeping bag to the pile of empty fast food containers and beer bottles in the space beside his bed.

Rabon doesn't mind, though.

"I never have no company except my little rat," he said. "He don't bother me."

Rabon shared his complex with those nine that night, explaining what he deals with and why.

They learned about his bad foot and what it's like for him to pedal his bike from the overpass across town to the warming center on Charlotte Avenue, only to learn it's not cold enough so he can't stay there.

They learned about his drinking and losing his mother, father and sister.

They learned about ungodly loneliness.

Rabon nodded off around 10 p.m. The men then had time to talk about what they were learning in the wind, stink and cold.

The next morning, a Sunday, they followed Rabon on his usual breakfast trek to Bojangles'.

Then they left, but only in the physical sense.

'It's time to do something'

Demorrious Robinson of the Christian Faith Outreach Center in Chester went to church that morning to preach.

Still, he kept thinking about a wilted man under an overpass with worn clothes and a baseball cap with the word "Bubba" on it.

"Even as I sat there," Robinson said during a return trip to Rabon's overpass home, "I couldn't get myself from under here."

Kerry Kerns, a music minister at New Zion Missionary Baptist Church, remembers lying in bed and thanking God he could be there.

His roommate, Jonathan Scott, a Winthrop University alumnus, is talking about launching a fundraiser through Winthrop's Greek life to raise money for the homeless.

"I never will be able to pass a bridge again and not wonder who's under there," Scott said. "That's something I will never forget."

James Stover, music minister at Gethsemane Church in Rock Hill, hopes to light a fire under those sitting complacent in a pew -- or standing in a pulpit.

"You've got people out here suffering like crazy," Stover said. "I've heard every one of them preach about the rich man, poor man status. It's time to do something about it."

But it's easy to talk about being inspired and how infuriating it is to see million-dollar worship facilities and no homeless shelters.

What will they do about it?

It's New Year's Day. Around 9:30 a.m., many of the guys have gathered at the Shoney's on Cherry Road with a few friends who share their passion.

Bubba is here, too. They can't leave him alone. Kirk's been bringing him food. Stover took him a winter coat.

They can't leave the lesson or the teacher.

So they're here sorting out plans over bacon, eggs, hashbrowns and coffee.

"One of the most important lessons we learned, though, is effective ministry takes place outside the church," Kirk tells the group. "What we experienced last Saturday was definitely eye-opening. ... We can never go back to the same normal way."

King shows up to offer tips on finding donations and forming a nonprofit organization. He encourages them to determine a specific mission.

"I don't care what you call it," he says of their group. "Feed the sheep."

They talk for awhile. They decide they'll help King, begin taking over his ministry, the one he's run for more than 30 years, the one that will need new laborers in the wake of an increasingly abundant harvest.

King seems pleased with what he hears. He's ready for the help.

"This is the light that can't be hidden," he tells them. "That's what you are."