It’s the woman at the bus stop holding a toddler’s hand. It’s the woman using food stamps in front of you at the grocery store. It’s the woman at the soup kitchen who can sing like no one else. These women and their families eat, sleep, and live a few blocks away but their stories are too gruesome to share, and it makes us a little uncomfortable to talk about them, much less look at them, eat with them, or live with them. With labels like drug addicts, criminals, prostitutes, and homeless worn like a stubborn Sharpie mark across their forehead, these women need more than just a hot meal. They need a way to erase the horrors that have been done to them and the unspeakable actions that they themselves have done. In the early 1990s in Jackson, Tennessee, these women were merely statistics standing in line to receive food and clothing, until a couple moved into a deteriorating building downtown and chose to take them in.
Twenty-five years ago, Nathan and Susan Young chose to not only feed, clothe, and house the homeless, the prostitutes, the criminals, and the unwanted; they chose to live with them.
Six days after Nathan and Susan Young moved into 351 North Liberty Street, they took in their first two homeless women. The women were grateful to be off the streets and accepted Nathan’s offer of sheets, a towel, and soap. They were all he had. The women hardly noticed the condition of the broken, condemned house where they would be sleeping or the fact that there was no food.
At the time, there were no shelters in Jackson for women and children, and what would become the Care Center was nothing more than a neglected, decaying shell of a house.
When the Youngs moved in, they spent the first few days carrying off dirty carpet, litter, and glass. The previous owners had urinated all over the furniture, which the Youngs carried across the yard to the garbage bin. The first night they stayed in the Care Center, their daughter won the record for most bug bites: eighty-seven. Holes in the wall as large as fourteen inches allowed the humid West Tennessee air to pour in; there was no relief from the heat. It also quickly became clear the plumbing wasn’t working. If the children had to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, their parents had to walk them down the stairs and outside to another small building with a working bathroom.
Susan didn’t stop crying for the first three days that they lived at the Care Center. Though it wouldn’t be the last time she cried, she soon got to work doing the thing most natural to her; she prayed, and so
Hardly an obvious candidate to run a homeless shelter, Nathan Young had worked for several multi-million dollar businesses when he, his wife, and their two neatly dressed young children met Gary Deaton and Elizabeth Taylor, two of the original founders of the Care Center, a shelter for women and children.
With all of his business experience, Nathan wasn’t prepared for the intense questioning from the two old prayer warriors. Nathan was highly qualified to do many things, but they weren’t sure that caring for women and children was one of them. However, throughout the first meeting, Nathan’s goal became clear; he wanted to be used by God and bring people to Christ by feeding, housing, and loving them. He wanted to give them the opportunity to be changed, to throw off the past and become someone new. Gary and Elizabeth would not be able to pay him a salary or give him food, but he was willing to come for no money and trust God to take care of his family.
Over the last twenty-five years, the Care Center has clothed, fed, and nourished almost 3,700 women and children without functioning as a government agency and without formal fundraising; and it started with a dilapidated building with boarded windows.
Nathan has taken in women who have stabbed their husbands and overdosed on drugs. He has taken in women who have been gang raped and left for dead. He has housed thieves, liars, prostitutes, and women who have never known what it means to feel loved. Women who were cast out during the holidays simply because they were an embarrassment to the rest of the family were given a home. Women who have abused and have been abused have found a new way to live. Every single one has told Nathan their dark story, and he has given them the opportunity to start over.
From day one, Nathan was being used to clean from the inside out.
In the early days, Nathan and Susan were eager to care for more women, but food was scarce, and the family had to work on the building every day to simply make it inhabitable. A farmer heard about the new shelter and dropped by with a July harvest of tomatoes. For three days, the Youngs ate tomatoes while they cleaned the house.
Another man offered eight chickens with a stipulation: the Youngs had to come kill the chickens. “They were so tough we finally decided to make soup out of them,” Nathan said.
In the midst of cleaning out the building every day, with no plan to receive more food, Nathan got a phone call about an overturned truck full of orange juice and spaghetti sauce. “It’s laying on its side, but you can haul off all you want,” he was told. It was late summer, and they weren’t the only hungry ones; flies and bees came out to feast on the gallons of sweet juice laying on the ground. The family loaded as much as they could, took it back to the Care Center, and washed off the containers.
“That’s when we started giving food away,” Nathan said. “We couldn’t drink 300 gallons of orange juice, so we gave it away in the neighborhood and to organizations that fed the homeless. People started calling us because they knew we would take it off their hands and distribute it to those who needed it most.”
Elizabeth had given Nathan an old van that he used to get food. The driver’s seat was barely held down and would rock while driving. They tore out the other seats so they could load it with food. Eventually, they were able to buy a box truck that they still use today to feed hundreds of
families a week.
Having read the account of missionary George Mueller Nathan had a vision that he and his family would live by faith. In twenty-five years, the Care Center has never held a fundraiser yet has fed thousands of people and housed almost 3,700 women and children.
Numerous problems existed in the house in the early days as they struggled to feed not only themselves but also those whom God sent to them. In particular, the building needed new windows, but with hardly any food and no money, this was an impossible expense. A doctor in town came by to see the new shelter in the early winter. He asked Nathan about his greatest need.
“Then get them,” the doctor said.
“You don’t even know what how much it is; it’s $11,500.”
The doctor wrote him a check. It wasn’t the last time that Nathan would see God show up.
During the first year, Woodland Baptist Church asked Nathan to speak about the Care Center. People swarmed in to hear Nathan’s own testimony and his journey to the Care Center. He recounted the first few months of rescuing women and giving shelter in the dilapidated building. He also shared the Scripture that God had laid on his heart when he first came and how his family was living by faith.
Afterward, the pastor walked up onto the stage next to him and spoke words that seemed unreal. “I feel moved in my heart to give them $25,000,” he said. All over the building, the people began to clap, and Nathan broke down crying. For months, he had trusted that God would take care of them. He recounted how moved his heart was watching the people’s faces as they cheered for the chance to give. The money was used to begin making repairs to the house, and skilled laborers in the church donated their time to repair the plumbing.
While renovation began on the house, the neighborhood was still dangerous. On the street in front of the house, drug deals were made on the corner, the dumpster was set on fire, and women were stalked and hunted down. Nathan and his son sat outside the house to guard it at night. Like something from a horror movie, sometimes Nathan wore furry, puppy dog house shoes, a fire engine hat, and tie-dyed shirts while expertly shooting targets with a pellet gun in the front yard to send a message to the neighbors about who they were dealing with. Susan began praying fervently about the neighborhood where she was now raising her two children.
On their first Christmas Day, the family heard shots ring out in the dark. Nathan ran outside to find a man who had been shot three times. He quickly began bandaging him until help came.
“I have always believed that God put big, ugly angels all around this property,” said board member Elizabeth Taylor. “In a neighborhood full of danger, this has been a place of great blessing.”
Susan prayed that the houses around them would be completely removed. After several years of praying, JEA tore down the houses all around them. The LIFT was built a stone’s throw away. Today, hundreds of cars obliviously pass the white house behind the Tennergy building on a daily basis.
“I’ve seen so many miracles, more than anyone I know,” Nathan said. “I don’t mean just changes in people’s lives, but also God keeping his promises. I miss seeing them sometimes because I’m in the mess. I get lost in the horrible stories and forget to look up and see just how faithful God has been. There are people in this city who love these women and don’t even know them. That’s a miracle. There are people in this city who give year after year. That’s a miracle. There are people who call and say, ‘What do you need?’ and they bring it. That’s a miracle. The girls pass out the food we have been given. They have nothing and then turn around and give away what’s been given to them. That’s a miracle.”
From the group of elderly women in a Sunday School class who give fifteen dollars every month to the gifts of a roof, clothing, and beds, the story of the Care Center is really a story of people investing in people and God cleaning them from the inside out, said Nathan.
“The Care Center is so much more than a homeless shelter,” said Nancy, a former addict and resident of the Care Center. “On the first day, Mr. Nathan told me that he was gonna love me till I learned how to love myself, and he did just that. I will never forget those words. At the Care Center, I learned how to respect myself and how to love the Lord. I learned that God is a loving and forgiving God, not a punishing God. I have a new freedom from my past, and it doesn’t have to define who I am today.”
The life of an addict has the droning whirr of endless hunger and despair that builds until the sound is deafening, and the only thing to drown out the storm is more of the same. The guilt and the darkness envelops its victims; it’s the most familiar place in the world.
Another arrest, another night in jail; it’s all the same. Then, one day, instead of jail, the addict is taken to a room and fed. Several women and a large, bald man sit and wait. The man offers them a home and a respite from their hell.
It’s doubtful that anyone would picture Nathan Young as a knight in shining armor. No, he’s just a man. But in that dark veil of impending doom, he is the man that pokes a hole into the darkness just enough for the light to swarm in.
“Are you ready to leave all of this? Are you ready to be made new?” he asks.
Jennifer, a past resident, recalls her story of coming to the Care Center. Her friend, Brooke, begged her to get in the car and go out, but Jennifer was done. Thirty years of drugs, prostitution, and more drugs was a downward spiral; it was a story with only one ending.
“I knew if I got in that car, it was over. Eventually, all of this was going to kill me.”
She called her brother to come get her, and Brooke walked out. As Jennifer climbed into her brother’s car, her phone rang. Brooke’s car had been shot up. Bullet holes covered the side of the car; shattered glass was blasted across the empty seat in the back.
Jennifer stared into space, knowing that if she had stayed, she might not be alive.
“Have you ever been to a Christian rehab center?” Jennifer’s brother asked. Thirteen rehab locations hadn’t put a dent in eliminating the pain and hungry monster inside Jennifer, but she had never been in a place where the credit for getting clean was given to God. Jennifer looked up toward heaven and said, “You win.” She knew this time God was making it clear that he was rescuing her from death for a new life.
“All those other programs were about reprogramming someone; the Care Center was different,” Jennifer said. “Here, Nathan teaches us to puke up the old, to kill it, become someone new, someone new in Christ.”
The stories of the women at the Care Center are messy, but Nathan and Susan still take them into their home and choose to love the unlovable.
Five years after serving at the Care Center, Nathan became restless. Was this it, or should he be doing more? He considered opening another shelter. After all, this house could only touch so many, and would God really be pleased with this work?
“Just shut up,” a board member told him abruptly. “Just shut up. Every day you take a stranger into your house, you clothe the naked, and you feed the hungry. What more is there?”
It broke Nathan. He repented. He became satisfied to stay and continue the work. What should be better than that? With all our worries and doubts, we have the opportunity to do all this for Jesus, he said. “There is an odd contentment in our hearts knowing that,” he said. “Many times, I wanted to do something easier or better, but he has empowered us to be here. Otherwise, we would not have survived. I don’t know if I’m a happy person, but I have an odd joy being here. I don’t have to question if we are being used by the Lord. I have purpose.”
The success of Care Center isn’t measurable. The nearly 4,000 women and children represent hundreds of relationships and conversations. They represent decisions not to pursue drugs, prostitution, and abuse.
“Success is giving people opportunities and loving those who are unlovable and giving them the chance to walk out of here different,” Nathan said.
Nathan readily admits that any good that he does is not his own doing. In his own words, “We don’t really do anything except run the Care Center and help women.”
Severely understated yet true. Nathan gives the credit to God for working in people. The people who serve, teach Bible study, and give are essential to the Care Center’s mission of giving people the opportunity to have a new life.
“We are grateful to so many who have helped us to serve,” he said. “I would love to publicly thank each one, but the people who give here don’t do it for the recognition. It’s pure, and I love that. I let them give as though it’s to the Lord. They will get their reward.”
The work is never-ending.
“We don’t set this aside, this is always in us,” Nathan said. “I know thousands of horrible stories that have become part of me. I have acclimated to them, but some are stories I wish I didn’t know. I wish I didn’t know the awful things that humans did to other humans. These years have taught me that being poured out is part of what is required of a Christian. There is some degree of being used up. Having my heart broken means I opened it up.”
Most homeless shelter directors who live in the shelter last about two years; the Youngs recently celebrated twenty-five years as the live-in directors of the Care Center. After so many years of living by faith, Nathan and Susan are still being used by God to repair the broken, clean the filth, and make what is dirty new again.
In June 2017, the front porch is covered with young women swapping stories. Children play on the swings, and two women are talking privately in a newly built pavilion. Another woman just arrived, and she is cleaning her clothes in the donated high-efficiency washers and dryers in the outside storage building. From the foyer, you can smell dinner cooking in
In the common room, once full of roaches, broken glass, and urine, the Care Center board members are sitting on the couches. There’s a cake on the coffee table.
Gary Deaton reads Philippians 2, “let each one esteem others better than themselves,” and leads the room in prayer. He is briefly moved to tears as he thanks God for changing the lives of so many women who have lived in the house.
Gary and Elizabeth reminisce about the days when it was just an unwanted building. They give credit to a God who moved the hearts of people to give and serve. The board members hand Nathan and Susan a letter and money, thanking them for twenty-five years of service.
“We often take people that no one else wants, but it’s not just about getting people off the streets,” Nathan reminds the group. “We’ve been able to promote Jesus Christ and give God glory for so many miracles. I’m a blessed man. My wife is a blessed woman. I don’t know how many people I would recommend to do what we have done, but I consider this an honor to do this for the Lord. He has equipped us to do it.”
The Care Center is located at 351 North Liberty Street in downtown Jackson. To learn more, call them at 731.427.2273 or visit their Facebook page.
Photography by Jeremy Rasnic.