Years ago, while a young airman with the U.S. Air Force, I received a much-needed weekend off. Free time was a rare treat for me back then and I didn’t want to waste it. A few of my buddies and I decided to go to Chicago and see the town. In little more time than it takes to tell it, we loaded into a friend’s car and headed up Interstate 57, away from Chanute Air Force base and military discipline.

Our forty-eight hours of freedom was exhilarating and we basked in it. The guys and I did the usual tourist things once we hit town. We went to the museums and parks and explored the famous city. As night approached, the realization struck that we would have to find a place to sleep. In the excitement of the day it hadn’t crossed our minds. Nineteen- year-old service men at that time were always short on cash, so we needed a cheap spot to crash.

The shadows in the windy city were lengthening as we found ourselves drifting along south State Street. It was beginning to look grim until we found ourselves standing outside Pacific Garden Mission. Our little group stood outside sizing the place up when I decided to go in and see what kind of a place it was. We weren’t sure what a mission was, but it looked kind of inviting.

Standing in a semi-circle outside, the guys peered in as I strode into the building. A friendly looking man glanced up and then rose to greet me as I walked across the tile floor. Smiling, he held out his hand as if I was an old friend that he hadn’t seen for a while. Oddly enough, I immediately felt like one. “How are you?” he asked as if he genuinely cared. I was dumbstruck. I didn’t expect this kind of congeniality in a big city like Chicago.

I stood mute for a moment and then answered haltingly, “I’m just fine sir.” I smiled, he smiled. There was a momentary awkward pause as I gathered up my senses.

“Me and my buddies were looking for a place to sleep tonight,” I, ahh, is this a hotel or something?

“No son, this is a mission.”

“I’m not sure what a mission is,” I replied, “but, can we stay here tonight? We’ve got some money.”

Smiling broadly he answered that it wouldn’t cost anything and that a meal and a clean cot would be provided. Grinning, I held up my index finger in the universal sign that means wait a second. Retracing my steps, I reported back to my friends.

The guys thought it was great and soon we were dining on tasty soup and hot coffee. We shared our meal with many of Chicago’s homeless and drifters who just stopped in for a meal and a safe place to sleep before they moved on. The mission was clean and well lit and there was no feeling of danger like one would expect in such a situation.

Years later, I wondered about the history of the old mission that welcomed some weary airmen one night long ago. I did some research and what I found was amazing.

In 1880, George and Sarah Clarke, a devout Christian couple bought the lease from the Pacific Beer Garden located in what was then known as “Whiskey Row,” in Chicago. They quickly changed the name to Pacific Garden Mission of Chicago and started a ministry to help alcoholics, the homeless and other unfortunates. In fact, the famous mission welcomed everyone. Prostitutes, gamblers, crooks and drunks were all invited inside and many had life changing experiences within its walls. Billy Sunday, the famed evangelist, converted to Christianity at the mission. Mel Trotter (who later became a famed evangelist) was on his way to commit suicide when he wondered in one night. D.L. Moody often preached at the mission, which he considered to be a beacon of hope in a sea of despair.

The Clarkes operated and funded the ministry themselves. There weren’t any taxpayer-funded agencies to help back then. The financial burden was heavy and it was a constant struggle to keep the doors open. At one point they were unable to pay the rent and were informed that if payment was not received within twenty-four hours they would lose the lease.

The good couple turned to God and began a nightlong prayer vigil. They prayed that a way could be found to keep the mission open, because of all the people that were being helped and the souls that were being won for Christ.

When they came out of their house the next day they were shocked at what they saw. Hundreds of mushrooms had sprung up on their yard overnight. It reminded them of the manna that fed the Israelites in the desert for forty years.

Acting quickly, they gathered up the unexpected gifts and took them to the famous Palmer House, a nearby hotel on Michigan Avenue. The chefs who worked there were happy to purchase the heavenly crop which was of the finest quality. The money that the Clarkes received was more than enough to pay the rent and some of it was used for other ministry needs as well.

Pacific Garden Mission still exists and provides meals and shelter for up to a thousand people a day. As of this writing it is in negotiations with the city on moving to 14th Place and Canal.  (they  have  since  moved.) It recently marked 126 years of serving the Lord Jesus Christ.

Because of one God fearing couple that believed strongly in the power of prayer, untold thousands of people have been helped. The Clarke’s enduring faith and devotion has enabled their dream to live on to this day.

-Jim Adkins lives in  Tell City, IN and is a  member of the  Tell City Church of Christ