Two unlikely friends write a book, help homeless

12/12/2008 9:33 PM

09/03/2009 11:26 PM

FORT WORTH -- From the pulpit a nearly sightless man known as Brother Bill welcomes the flock to the pews of the Union Gospel Mission.

They come, every day. Homeless. Jobless. Hungry.

Some limp in. A few make their way in wheelchairs, about 150 world-worn souls drawn to the warmth and comfort of the chapel and the promise of a hot lunch.

The Tarrant County mission served 190,000 meals last year.

More than 300 men, women and children are sheltered every night.

Bill Russell can't see the small lighted Christmas tree or read the open Bible he holds in one outstretched hand. Legally blind, the bearded preacher quotes scripture from memory during a brief sermon about the shed blood of a loving Jesus on the Old Rugged Cross.

"Are you prepared for the land beyond?"

Brother Bill urges the unsaved not to wait.

“You may tie your shoestrings in the morning, but the undertaker may untie them before day's end."

The solemn words evoke nods and a scattering of amens.

After the altar call, as the mission's "guests" began filing into the dining room, a street person seated on the back row notices a framed portrait gracing one wall.

"Who is that lady?" he asks.

Don Shisler, the mission director, says the beaming face is that of the woman whose name is lettered above the entrance to the memorial chapel at 1331 E. Lancaster Ave.

Deborah L. Hall.

A scary beginning

Ron Hall wasn't surprised she wanted to help.

When his wife, Debbie, read a story about the mission in the Star-Telegram 10 years ago this selfless, active woman with a compassionate heart felt moved to become involved. Unlike his wife, Ron, a wealthy international art dealer, held a low opinion of the down and out.

"I thought they were trash on the streets that the city needed to clean up," he recalled.

Hall nevertheless agreed to help Debbie serve a meal at the mission one night a week.

This story -- chronicled in the bestselling book Same Kind of Different as Me -- began one evening when a shirtless black man charged into the dining hall, screaming, cursing and throwing fists and chairs. Fighting mad, he vowed to kill whoever had stolen his shoes.

"Scary," Ron Hall recalled. "Security guard came in, but he was hard to handle."

Debbie later told her husband she recognized the angry figure.

The person looked, she said, like the stranger she had dreamed about -- a man who changed the city.

She urged Ron to try to get to know him, but the homeless man wanted no part of a friendship, with anyone. In his early 60s, Denver Moore was a sullen, frightening and fearless character. He spent the first half of his life doing stoop labor on a Louisiana plantation. A sharecropper, he never attended a day of school. Unable to read or write, Moore served 10 years in Angola prison for armed robbery.

Now he roamed the Fort Worth streets, bedding down in doorways, or on cold nights, sleeping atop the heat vents behind the Worthington Hotel.

Hall tried to engage the stranger, but the man refused to even make eye contact in the dining hall.

Debbie wasn't intimidated. She continued reaching out. In the food line she greeted him by name.

Denver, how are you? Denver, how was your day? Denver, when is your birthday?

Suspicious and distrustful, the homeless man thought the real reason this meddlesome white woman and her husband volunteered at the mission was that they were trying to make themselves feel better about being rich. He refused to consider the possibility that "Mrs. Tuesday" genuinely cared about him and accepted him, unconditionally.

"Prison gives a person an attitude," Moore said. "You don't trust nobody. You mind your own business. If you don't you'll never make it out of there."

Goodbye to Miss Debbie

Months passed. Tired of being stonewalled, Ron Hall decided Moore wasn't worth the trouble.

Finally the street person lowered his guard, just an inch. Hall took the man out for coffee. They looked each other eye to eye. They began to talk.

"What's your name?" the homeless man asked.

"Ron Hall," came the reply.

"Mr. Ron."

"No, just Ron," Hall said.

"What's your wife's name?"

"Deborah."

"Miss Debbie," Moore said, and smiled.

In April 1999, Hall's wife underwent an annual physical exam. This health-conscious woman, who had given Moore his first birthday party, when Denver turned 63, learned she had colon cancer. She had the flowers that filled her hospital room after surgery sent to the mission.

Ron and his new friend united in their devotion to the person Moore came to regard as an "angel."

She fought, bravely, for 19 months. Moore gave a moving eulogy at her funeral. Debbie, 55, was laid to rest on a hilltop at the Halls' ranch in Palo Pinto County, buried as she had asked, in a pine box, like the paupers she served.

The woman had made another death-bed request to her husband.

"Don't give up on Denver."

In the weeks after the funeral, some remarkable events occurred.

Moore attended a National Philanthropy Day ceremony at the Worthington, the same hotel where he once had slept on the grates outside. When a security guard found him sleeping, he would kick him gently to make sure the homeless man hadn't frozen to death. In the hotel ballroom, in the presence of Fort Worth's wealthiest citizens, Moore accepted an award on Debbie Hall's behalf.

Meanwhile the mission began receiving checks.

"I've never seen anything like it," Don Shisler said.

Within a few months the Union Gospel Mission received about $500,000 in donations for its new chapel, which was in the planning stage. Hundreds gave, sending contributions in Debbie's memory.

The structure features two rows of polished wooden pews, a 20-foot wooden cross and squares of colored glass. "Our homeless come here and find a peace, calmness. ... They know nothing ugly is going to happen to them.

"It's truly a sanctuary."

A lasting friendship

One day Denver Moore broke into a laugh.

"What's so funny," Hall asked.

"Ain't nobody going to believe our story," Moore said. "We gotta do a book."

Hall spent 3 1/2 years writing and rewriting a manuscript that was published in 2006. Told in two distinct voices, Same Kind of Different as Me traces the journeys of strangers who became the unlikeliest of friends. Their respect and admiration for each other continues to grow.

Moore, 71, lives with Hall in a $7 million home in Dallas. Hall still buys and sells expensive paintings. After visiting museums and galleries, Moore became interested in art, too, and took up painting.

Hall studied his friend's first work on canvas, a picture of an angel. "How much you want for it?" the art dealer asked.

"Oh, I suppose about a million dollars -- like those Picassos," Moore replied.

"Denver, I can't afford your painting," Hall said.

"I ain't asking you to buy it," Moore said with a grin. "Just to sell it."

But art is secondary in importance to the work the men do as advocates for the homeless. Traveling together, Hall and Moore have visited more than 200 missions and have shared their inspirational story across the country, speaking at about 400 events, many of them fundraisers. Hall said they've helped raise about $20 million for the homeless since his wife's death. Their book royalties support the Fort Worth mission where they met.

Hall, 63, likes to say that art made him wealthy but his friendship with Moore has made his life rich. "I didn't give up on Denver, and he didn't give up on me," Hall said.

"I know Debbie is smiling."

Moore looked at the man he still calls Mr. Ron -- but loves like a brother.

"God took me off the bottom and put me on the top," he said quietly, gratefully, with feeling.

"Every day for me is a miracle."

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