Often discouraged and depressed, the two dozen men sitting in the church service reflect the scars, the struggles, and the pain of hard lives on Atlanta's infamous Memorial Drive. To Reginald Robbins, they are nothing less than wayward children, ready to be reclaimed and reborn.
The men may be drug dealers or addicts, alcoholics, street thugs, or just homeless guys down on their luck. What they all have in common is a strong desire to find a better way of living.
And if the men — black, white, Hispanic, or any race — have families, their wives and children are equally welcomed into the Set Free Memorial Drive Ministries and Sanctuary Shelter, the inner-city church and homeless facility Robbins has pastored and directed for the past six years.
Supported by the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering, Robbins and wife Anna are among the over fifty-two hundred Southern Baptist North American missionaries in the United States, Canada, and their territories. Robbins is one of eight Southern Baptist missionaries to be highlighted as part of the annual Week of Prayer, March 5-12, 2006. The 2006 Annie Armstrong Easter Offering's goal is $56 million, 100 percent of which is used for missionaries like the Robbins.
The sixth child in a family of nine, Robbins grew up in a strong Christian home in Illinois, where his dad was a Baptist deacon and where church was the center of their lives. As a student at Lincoln Christian College in Lincoln, Illinois, he not only felt God calling him into the ministry, but also into home missions. He married Anna in 1978, the same year the couple moved to Atlanta, where he attended Morehouse School of Religion. Ironically, a native of Decatur, Illinois, today he and Anna — parents of three daughters — oversee Set Free Ministries in the east Atlanta suburb of Decatur, Georgia.
Set Free has three distinct ministries: a shelter for homeless families; a ministry to rehabilitate those with substance addictions; and a community outreach ministry — including a food pantry, serving some 1,500 hot meals a week, along with a clothing operation.
Set Free Sanctuary Shelter is the only homeless shelter in the metro Atlanta area that refuses to split up families, who can stay up to three months. To date, the largest family to ever live at the shelter included eight members. Families are provided with hot meals, clean beds, daycare for children, counseling, medical assistance, clothing, drug/alcohol addiction treatment, job training, and job search support. They also get a strong dose of the Gospel.
"It's All About Jesus" — that's Reggie's motto — is what this soft-spoken, humble missionary likes to announce. In fact, as he preaches to his 5 p.m. Sunday congregation at the shelter, he suddenly spins around to show off the motto on the back of his black T-shirt.
"First, we want to keep families together," Robbins said, "for the sake of the children and for the health of the marriage. Most shelters will immediately split up mom and dad, with smaller children going with mom to one shelter while Dad is hauled off to another. If there's a teenage son, he'll be sent along with his dad to the men's shelter.
"Next, we want to present Christ to the whole family."
The impact of homelessness on children and teenagers is both touching and difficult, according to Robbins.
"I remember a family with a six-year-old boy. When we showed the little boy where his room would be, he yelled, 'look Mom…look Dad…a bed.' You see, they had been sleeping in a car for two weeks."
Homelessness is tough on teenagers as well, because of the potential embarrassment. The shame and stigma of being in a shelter would be devastating if the other kids at school found out.
Robbins said homelessness also damages the father's self-esteem, and he cringes when he hears people say, "Well, if people would just try hard enough to find a job, then they wouldn't be homeless."
"True enough, there are the lazy that fit that category, but at the same time, the vast majority of the homeless are victims of circumstance. For instance, the economy isn't always very good. Often, we'll have families who have come to Atlanta from another city or state because the father has been promised a job. And they get here, and the employer tells them the job is no longer available.
"Then they exist by moving from motel to motel, and when the money runs out, they and their whole family will sleep in their car. And when there's no more gas money or when they have to sell the car, they start looking for housing in a shelter," Robbins said.
According to Robbins, many homeless families are the victims of home fires that totally destroyed their homes, which usually are not insured.
At the same time, people may also be homeless because of crime, addictions to drugs and alcohol, prostitution, and poverty.
"We have men and women who come to us and simply say they're sick and tired of being sick and tired," said Robbins. "They're tired of being on the street. They're tired of waking up in places in which they have no memory of how they got there. They're tired of hurting their families because of their addictions.
"The homeless come from all walks of life," he says. "Right now, we have an M.D. — a medical doctor — who was his own best customer. He got strung out on drugs, lost his medical license, and his wife left him."
Robbins says Set Free's introduction of structure, strict guidelines, and chore duties at the shelter are key steps to bringing a family back from the edge.
"Except for Saturday and Sunday, when the shelter is open twenty-four hours a day, the shelter closes during the day Monday-Friday" said Robbins. "That's to get the parents out looking for jobs, and to make sure their kids are either in daycare or school. If dad is out looking for a job, mom may be at Goodwill or another agency looking for long-term housing. We also require mom and dad to take a money management course."
Then at 7 o'clock each night, the family reconvenes for supper. After supper, the entire family has mandatory chores, such as cleaning sleeping areas or bathrooms or washing dishes and kitchen clean-up.
If Robbins has a prized "graduate" from Set Free Memorial Drive Ministries, it's big Marcus Linner, a six-foot-two-inch bull of a man who — after Robbins led him to Christ five years ago — traded in his gangster lifestyle on the streets of Atlanta, ill-gotten thousands of dollars from dope-dealing, illegal drugs, and guns for a Bible and a new life in Christ. He and wife Pam are now NAMB Mission Service Corps missionaries.
"About three weeks after his wife, Pam, gave her life to Christ at one of our services, big, tough Marcus — with tears streaming down his cheeks — came forward and professed Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior," Robbins said. He baptized Marcus in the East Lake YMCA swimming pool up the street from Set Free.
Soon, Marcus began waking up at 5 a.m. each day to read and study a chapter or two of the Bible. And today, Marcus is the youth pastor at Set Free Ministries. He also teaches the men's Bible study and takes turns preaching at worship services with Robbins. He uses "rap" and "hip-hop" to share the Gospel with kids and teens at the shelter.
Marcus constantly asks God why He chose him to become a member of "Jesus' gang."
"I ask Him why He called me to preach the Word," Marcus says. "God, why did You choose me after all the things I did? I remember being in gun battles and not getting hit. I once had ten guys shooting at me. All I ever got was a hole in my shirt. The bullets just seemed to bounce away. Now, I don't have to carry pistols any more. I don't have to look behind my back all the time. I can just teach, love people, and do all the things that God really called me to do.
"It's just really amazing — God's forgiveness, His mercy. I shouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I probably shouldn't even be alive. I probably wouldn't be if not for Reggie and Set Free Ministries," Marcus said.
Reggie Robbins has a simple credo for all the Marcus Linners — and there have been many — who wander off the streets and into Set Free Memorial Drive Ministries and Sanctuary Shelter.
"I tell them that once they cross the threshold into this place of ministry, 'I no longer look at you like you are or like you were, but I look at you with the aspirations and hopes that you will become what God intends for you to be'," Robbins says. "Some come in here and at first — like Marcus — look real rough, real hopeless situations. But I try to give everyone the opportunity, the benefit of the doubt. I try to look at them the way God sees them.
"And when they've come through our system and go out working again, adding to society, and at the same time, they're trusting in God and God is still developing their lives … those are the times I just want to shout!"
Week of Prayer for North American Missions
Date: March 5-12, 2006
Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions
2006 Goal: $56 million
North American Mission Study
Theme: "Tell His Story"
For more information about the Annie Armstrong Easter Offering for North American Missions go to www.anniearmstrong.com.