In 1992, there was a gathering. The gathering was run by two white nuns. In attendance, were the mostly Black and Hispanic adult men who lived there – “there” being New York City’s notorious “House of Pain,” a men’s homeless shelter in Fort Washington.
Those two nuns were Sister Teresa Skehan and Sister Dorothy Gallant, Sisters of Mercy who were moved by the harsh life of the homeless of New York City. Those gatherings were an arm of the Life Experience & Faith Sharing Association (LEFSA), formed in 1986. But in 1992, one of the homeless men at that gathering was a 39-year old man named James Addison.
“I did get caught up in the gang life and the drug life,” James recalled in a LEFSA documentary, “and eventually I got on the drugs. I lived in this condition from a teenager all the way up into my mid-thirties – in this cycle. This way of life brought me to jail, to institutions, and finally homelessness.
“I grew up in the South Bronx – Fort Apache,” James told Brian Lehrer when he was interviewed for his contribution to Susan Greenfield’s book Sacred Shelter: 13 Journeys of Homelessness and Healing. “I wound up in the streets because of an abusive step-father. I lived on the streets. Gangs, drugs– I had children when I was out on the street too. In and out of jails and the drug-use took me – it transitioned me to the streets and eventually inside the shelters.”
After becoming homeless and while living at the Fort Washington Men’s shelter, James went to visit his father’s job one day to ask for money to get high. That’s when James’ father told him that he was going to be a grandfather. He was shaken. “I was 39 years old. I didn’t know who my daughter was. I had a son out there who I hadn’t seen since he was three years old. His mother had died of a drug overdose. At this point I got an epiphany – I wanted to get my life together.”
Susan Greenfield appeared as a guest on Catholic Charities Executive Director Monsignor Sullivan’s SiriusXM show, JustLove, where she discussesd the lives of the thirteen people in her book, including James Addison, who all experienced homelessness and graduated from the interfaith life skills empowerment program. She talks about the traumas they experienced in their youth, the devastation of homelessness, and the healing they discovered through community and faith. Monsignor Sullivan told Catholic New York at the Sacred Shelter book launch that, “Homelessness is not hopelessness.” James Addison’s drive is emblematic of that mantra and his desire to turn his life around is just part of his journey.
CATHOLIC CHARITIES LENDS A HAND
After attending a few regular meetings with Sisters Teresa and Dorothy, James took part in some programs run by LEFSA then applied to take part in Catholic Charities of New York’s Employment Opportunity Program. George B. Horton, the director of the EOP program at the time told the NY Times, “Mr. Addison applied for the 3-month program and was accepted on the condition that he join a recovery program. He signed up for help at the Reality House drug rehabilitation center.” Three years later, James Addison overcame his addiction to crack.
A MISSION AND A MAN
In 1994, James Addison, now clean and living a new quality of life, started a full-time job as a discussion group leader and financial officer at the Life Experience and Faith Sharing Association. He was doing the kind of work that had saved him, but he was doing it for others.
Speaking about LEFSA, James says, “The Team here is special. We’re here together and we’re helping each other to get better. When you can get a group of homeless people like that who have come up from the ashes and can show this kind of a love to one another, it’s powerful.”
James has been with LEFSA for 26 years. Among many highlights of his work and vocation, James delivered a personal testimony about his experience at a 2019 interfaith Thanksgiving Mass as St. Patrick’s Cathedral with Cardinal Timothy Dolan and other faith leaders. This is a natural fit for James because he had also recently become an ordained minister.
James is an advocate for homeless people and people struggling with substance abuse. He is the Operations Manager and Interim Director of LEFSA, helping to guide the work that means so much to him personally. “LEFSA gave me my life back. But it didn’t just give me my life back, it gave me my family’s life back too. And not only did my family get better, but my community got a little better.” And that is the formula for how you change the world.
BLACK HISTORY MONTH
The history we revisit on special occasions like Black History Month are events and the people that played roles in them; events that left a lasting mark on our culture and society. James Addison is doing that work, and being that person and he is in that place where changes are so desperately needed. Through his experience and faith and compassion, he is making a vital difference. That difference will someday be a history that others will look back on with pride.