By JOEL CURRIER
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
(ST. LOUIS, AP) — The setting sunlight shoots through the gaps in the freight cars rolling behind Edward “Pastor Paul” Gonnella as he skims highlighted passages in his tattered, black Bible.
He greets familiar faces with a hug and smile. Darkness falls. A gas generator powers up flood lights and a portable stereo blasting Christian rock.
Nearby, steam swirls from tables lined with stockpots of mostaccioli, chili and pot roast. A line builds as volunteers hand out bread, salad and a sea of colorful desserts.
It’s a similar scene every Monday night at the foot of a shuttered, graffiti-washed train depot a few blocks from the glowing new Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge. It’s where Gonnella and fellow volunteers who make up the Churches on the Streets ministry have pledged to offer St. Louis’ homeless population a road off the streets.
Gonnella, 50, of St. Louis, delivers a short sermon before every meal. Recently, he reflected on his own life’s pitfalls: decades of drug abuse and crime that nearly robbed him of his dreams.
“I always wanted to be a father. I always wanted to be a husband,” he said. “But when I was strung out on dope, when I was in prison, when I was a womanizer, when I was hateful, I was unable to be any of those things.”
The congregation doesn’t care that he’s an ex-convict, thief and former crack addict. On the contrary, visitors say Gonnella’s past boosts his credibility and helps him connect with those battling the same demons.
“Everybody has a story down here,” Gonnella said in an interview.
Freight trains crawl by, their bells dinging over the impromptu singer or guitarist. There’s no dress code, rules, altars or acolytes. Stacks of worn lumber become pews. Anyone is welcome for a meal or to serve. The outdoor “service” runs like an open-door picnic at the old Cotton Belt Rail Depot, which is private property. The depot’s owners allow the Monday night services.
The only expectation is to bring an appetite and an open mind.
“It’s bait for the cross, and that may sound harsh,” said volunteer Carol Ann Worthington, 44, of O’Fallon, Ill. “But they have to hear the word of God before they can move forward.”
Other established churches and faith-based groups, including Faith Church and the Misfits for Jesus, served the homeless in the area in years past at the Bob Cassily-designed Rootwad Park. As those groups adopted new missions, Churches on the Streets filled the void last year.
“You have to go where there is need,” said organizer Ralph Valdes, 52, of Wood River. “A lot of the people here don’t feel welcome in the churches, which is sad. So we try to put out the idea that you are accepted here, that there is hope.”
For more than a year, the group’s leaders have collected food from several food pantries, church groups, grocers and restaurants that purge leftovers and expiring products. One of the leaders, Cindy Cooper, 62, says she often spends much of her Mondays cooking at her home near Millstadt. It’s a labor of love that also brings heartache, she says.
“We’re hoping to get them off the drugs, off the alcohol and get them lives,” Cooper said. “When they don’t show up for a certain length of time, I call the morgue. It tears your heart out because you get so attached to these people.”
The morgue is where six Churches on the Streets regulars ended up this year, turning Monday nights into memorial services, Cooper said.
One of them, Crystal N. Rives, 32, of Belleville, was found dead April 10 of a heroin overdose inside a vacant building on North Seventh Street in St. Louis. Another, Benjamin “Benny Mack” Murden, 39, overdosed on his mother’s painkillers Sept. 30. Though he is gone, his mother, Catherine Murden, of Affton, comes on Monday nights to serve to her son’s friends.
“This was Ben’s favorite place to come every Monday,” she said recently. “Every time I come down here, I get a blessing.”
Gonnella, who began preaching at the gatherings about a year ago, says his own addictions could have killed him. He started drinking, smoking and selling marijuana before high school and continued after finishing at Webster Groves High in 1983. He held jobs in restaurants through his 20s and became homeless because of his crack habit.
“There were times when we didn’t know if he would make it,” said Gonnella’s stepfather, George Hessler, 82, of Webster Groves, who also attends Monday nights to hear his stepson talk.
Gonnella went to prison several times between 1995 and 2005 for forgery and stealing. Gonnella said he once stole someone’s car. The crimes were all because of drugs.
“I was a mean, hateful person,” he said. “I hated myself. I hated life. I tried to cut my wrists with a box cutter, but I couldn’t break the skin.”
In his 19th round of drug rehab a few years ago, Gonnella was losing eyesight from withdrawal medications when two visiting preachers helped him speak to God.
“God opened my eyes and helped me see inside myself, and I saw a lot of stuff I didn’t like,” he said.
God told him to steer his passion for cooking into feeding the homeless, he says. His faith and his calling is what has helped him stay sober.
Gonnella is a husband and the father of a 1-year-old boy now. He works in the kitchen of an Olivette barbecue restaurant and runs recovery programs through his Pentecostal church, the St. Louis Harvest Church. He hopes his story inspires the homeless to help themselves off the streets. He also hopes to expand the ministry to more than once a week.
“They’re incredible people who have gotten lost,” he said. “We want to build confidence in people so that they not only believe in God, but also in themselves.”