(Editor's note: This story is published with permission from the Akron Area Eutopia Report. This is the first in a two-parts series.)
Jon Soza, program coordinator at the Salvation Army, pastor at the Citadel and local hero in the eyes of many, is known for putting the Gospel into action. You won't find him sitting very long; instead, he's out in the trenches searching for the homeless in Akron, leading Bible studies at the Salvation Army and Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC), mentoring and even inviting men to his home for fellowship.
A strong collaboration has recently been formed between the Salvation Army, Adult Rehabilitation Center (ARC) and Springtime of Hope, which has proven to be the key to truly changing the lives of the homeless, addicted, and ex-felons – those not often given much opportunity or a second chance.
Soza and his ever-growing team at the Salvation Army live out the Great Commission daily, whether it's working with those at the center, or going out into neglected and even potentially dangerous parts of the city that only police dare roam. It is there, deep in the woods, under bridges and in tents that they find the individuals who hurty the most, with whom they share the Good News, food and other items, offering the greatest hope.
'Tent City' update
As for this past summer, things have been looking up. Fewer men and women are setting up camps in the "tent cities" and roughing it in the elements, and more are checking themselves into rehab, homeless shelters and other programs.
"A number of us guys (ARC graduates and clients and those at the Salvation Army) went out (recently) into the woods behind Goodwill and met about 12 homeless guys under a bridge," Soza said of their previous night's adventure.
As for the homeless living in tents and under bridges, Soza said, "I don't think there are as many as last year, but some are way back there hiding because they said the cops have been very aggressive coming through the woods and walking down the railroad tracks, actually busting them and kicking them out."
The Akron Police Department is doing their job, trying to ensure safety for residents. There have been several incidences in the past couple of years where the homeless have actually been hit, and nearly hit, by trains going through. There is also the concern of fire spreading from their campfires.
"The cops are really trying to clear them out, so they're going way back in the woods and being very incognito," Soza shared.
When approaching the homeless, Soza and his team reach out by starting a conversation, explaining that they are with the Salvation Army and there to help. They offer food, clothing, blankets, books and essential items, followed by prayer. They also extend an invitation for the homeless to attend the Salvation Army Citadel for church, which is also where they can take a warm shower.
Once they get their foot in the door, other resources are offered such as addiction recovery programs and the tools needed to pull their lives back together and build relationships. Many have burned bridges and have no one to turn to. This offers them a fresh, new start and chance to rebuild their lives.
A humble preacher, it's Soza's ability to relate, combined with his great sense of humor and teaching, that draws men in, thinking, "Maybe I can do this," "Maybe it is possible to turn my life around."
Soza's heart for missions is passed down to those he ministers. This trickle-down effect causes men who were once bound in addictions, criminal behavior and any other type of darkness to want to pattern their lives after what they see going on at the Salvation Army.
Miraculously, lives are changing and men are even turning around and giving back now.
Reaching the down and out
Not too long ago, Doug Combs found himself not only down on his luck, but down in spirit.
"I was completely destitute in my life. I was going through a divorce, I lost my son to prison, and my mom and dad both died within a period of 18 months. It left me cut off at the knees," Combs recalled.
"I can't even describe how bad I felt at the time, going through a depression. But instead of going to the medical field and psychiatrists, I began to ask the question, 'Who am I?,' 'What am I here for?' and 'What's going to happen to me when I die?'" he continued.
During that time he had nowhere else to turn but the Salvation Army soup kitchen for a meal. It was there that he discovered that God has the answers.
"When I found out that God is the truth, the way and the life, and that no one comes to the Father but by Him, that's when it all began," Combs said.
He started going to church regularly and was sober by 2005.
"I found out that I had been through so much, but that most of it was from my own doing," Combs shared of his revelation.
Since 1865, when William Booth and his wife Catherine started the Salvation Army Church most known for their philanthropy and charity work, the Salvation Army has been actively reaching communities all over the world, planting seeds and watching them grow.
It is practicing what they preach that provides a life-model for others to follow.
Combs is now beginning to put what he's learned into action by starting his own discipleship home, the Watchman House, a house for men who are focused on recovery and turning their lives around.
"It frees them up from the strains of this world. We have a fellowship of men and a support group," Combs said.
He would like to eventually open three rooms for men to stay, with the vision of them working together to support the home financially.
"I want to model it after what happened to me. I fell into the Salvation Army soup kitchen. I had to go and eat at the Haven of Rest," he shared.
And he's come a long way since. "We want to ensure that this is theirs, that they're building something and actually contributing. We like to express that if a man doesn't work, he really doesn't deserve to eat. God says that. That's New Testament. So we want to make strong industrious men," Combs said.
Birthing new leaders
Once the men at the Watchman House feel strong enough to be on their own, Combs says that they will be "let loose" to reproduce the model in another home.
"From there we can branch off. We will buy or lease another house and take one of the men who were trained by either me or John and went through Bible study, who's seen how we do it, and plant them in the next house," Combs said.
"We're not just going to send them out there without being taught, without having experience and without having a support group, because it's very important that we have accountability," he continued. "We want to take them from their old world thinking. God says it's better to give than to receive. We need to get the truth out there."
"I do live an extremely humble lifestyle right now, but I'm better for it. I came from middle class parents. I've never been as poor as I am financially right now, but I've never been as rich because of my experience with John and the Salvation Army and the people over at the Haven of Rest and some other ministries and people I've come in contact with," Combs said.
"It shows you it's not really about me. It's really about the mission. The mission is 'Can we get people close to God?' 'Can we draw them away from what they were used to doing and get them on a path and show them scriptures that they can pattern after?'"
"There are a lot of positive things going on," he said.
To find out more about this mission, call Jon Soza at (330) 958-2684.