We were able to share Tony's story with Fox5DC news on Thursday. Here is the link to the video! Fox 5
"Society has a way of pushing people back to their past, of punishing them over and over again for choices."
Tony shakes his head slightly, his face warm not only with compassion for those he describes, but a painfully real amount of empathy. We stand in the small but clean and busy space of the kitchen at Central Union Mission,*where Tony first came seeking help and now works as a staff member.
"I was very fortunate with my first experience in homelessness--hopefully last," he confides, looking around at the space. "Now I get to serve here, and it is clean; safe."
"In my mission, it's not about people's past. It doesn't matter what you've done; that's behind you. What matters now, and what I'm concerned with, is the future. What are you going to do now? Who are you going to be? How will you live, today? That's the promise of the future; that it should be new, that it should let you have that clean start."
"During my years in prison, I had lots of time. I was asking God, what next? What do you want from me when I get out? And I came up with a whole business plan. It was jokingly referred to as my "manifesto."
"How did you come up with your mission?" I ask Tony, fascinated. "Making muffins seems like such an unusual solution to just come up with out of the blue."
He looks directly at me and says, "All I can say is, God just gave me a vision."
When Tony realized that the FBI had come to arrest him back in 2009, he made the decision to end his life. "It didn't work. It was the end of my old life, but the beginning of this new one." While slipping away into unconsciousness, Tony had found himself thinking of his recently passed mother and strangely, praying. "I asked God to forgive me."As he puts it, however, when you ask God for forgiveness, you are also acknowledging God's existence, and that means things have to change.
Mission Muffins lets participants learn baking, retail, marketing, and business administration. "They're the sort of skills that can help reintegrate them back into society. It teaches them how to be around people, think about others; how to work and what they can do. Helps get them back on their feet and independent."
He walks over to an oven behind us and pulls out a tray loaded with the most delicious smelling assortment of baked goods. Scones, sausage hand pies, peach muffins, the quintessential blueberry muffin ("Everybody knows blueberry muffins; everybody eats those," Tony notes, chuckling a little). Holding the tray out to us, he offers us as many as we want to try from the decadent selection.
"We want to set up a stationary truck outside the mission, sell these from there. We just have a few steps to work through until then, like getting this kitchen reinspected to meet industry standards for selling food."
"Go on, have one--" he encourages me, and I regretfully inform him of my allergies. "No, no--that's good. You know, we don't have things for you yet, unfortunately, but that's one of the things I'm excited about. These things like allergies, even intolerances and diets, they are what we want for this program. It will teach them to be entrepreneurial. Maybe in a year from when we open, they'll come up with some steps to provide food that meets your needs and works for the business. That's when it will really be successful. I don't want to just give them a recipe for life and coax them step by step. I want to teach and equip them to do it all themselves, on their own."
He sets the tray down and we head out of the kitchen into the cafeteria space, where boxes of the baked goods are stacked on one of the tables for us to look at, too.
Now it's my turn to shake my head as I process everything we have just seen and heard. Tony catches my expression and smiles again.
"I realized I had squandered more opportunities than the guys in prison with me ever had in their lives. Not anymore"
Founded in 1884, Central Union Mission is a faith-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization with seven locations throughout the Washington metropolitan area. In addition to its family ministries, the Mission operates an emergency shelter program, a rehabilitation program for men with life-controlling issues, a food, clothing and furniture distribution center, a retreat and recreation center with a camp for underprivileged children, programs for isolated seniors, computer and job training and transitional and low-cost housing. The Mission also offers work force development programing and literacy and educational training opportunities.
The Mission is continually developing its programs to meet the changing needs of the community. Its current programs serve homeless men, underprivileged women, children, seniors, families, and veterans.
One life at a time, the Mission works to help transform the area's toughest rehabilitation cases, including drug addicts, gang members, criminal offenders, and the chronically homeless into productive members of society. The Mission's programs have an extremely high success rate at helping individuals overcome addiction and homelessness, and achieve independent living.
Our work at Central Union Mission is to proclaim the Gospel, lead people to Christ, develop disciples and work to meet the physical, spiritual and emotional needs of the people we serve. We strive to always display a gracious, sincere spirit of integrity and Christian love in everything we do. By displaying excellence in all aspects of this ministry, we honor God and inspire the people we serve, our community, donors, volunteers and staff. Our motto is serving neighbors...changing lives.
Guest Writer: Heather Hill
Heather Hill is the Assistant Manager of donor acquisition & digital fundraising at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. She is a graduate of Houghton College, and Vermont College of Fine Arts. She is the Human Rights Co-Chair of the United Nations Association of the National Capitol Area, and you can find her performance reviews on MD Theatre Guide.