Finding Redemption

Two men find salvation sheltering the homeless and serving the poor. Christian Boone tells the amazing story of Gene Beckstein and Thomas Ramirez.


Next week: Losing custody of her children motivates Toshia Brown to kick her pill addiction.

HOW WE GOT THE STORY

Staff writer Christian Boone  was a sophomore at Gainesville High School when he first met Gene Beckstein. Boone was in hot water for being inebriated on school grounds and Beckstein was the teacher in charge of in-school suspension. Boone has written about Beckstein on other occasions over the years, but never with the depth and nuance that Personal Journeys allows. And he’s never reported on Thomas Ramirez and the controversy that surrounded his rising role at the ministry. It’s the kind of complex, inspiring story you’ll only find in Personal Journeys. Suzanne Van AttenFeatures Enterprise Editorpersonaljourneys@ajc.com

 

About the reporter

Christian Boone joined the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2007, after attending the University of Southern California’s graduate screenwriting program. Boone, an Atlanta native, is a member of the AJC’s Breaking News team and is one of the newspaper’s most prolific writers. 

About the photographer

Phil Skinner has been a photojournalist at the AJC for 16 years, working on a variety of stories, including the Masters, Olympics, Atlanta Braves, presidential campaigns, hurricanes and all kinds of human interest stories. Previously he worked at the Sun-Sentinel, the Boca Raton News, the Sarasota Herald Tribune and the Jupiter Journal.

He was the gangster made good, living proof that redemption was more than an ecumenical talking point.

Thomas Ramirez was just the type of lost soul Gene Beckstein had set out to reach when he founded Good News at Noon in the late 1980s. Gainesville’s guardian angel had big plans for the Mexican immigrant, anointing Ramirez as his eventual successor despite deep misgivings from many of the homeless ministry’s supporters. Even Beckstein’s wife held doubts.

So did Ramirez, who had recently moved into an apartment above Good News’ headquarters in the northeast Georgia town’s grimy industrial sector. It was an area he knew well, having gotten his first job in one of the poultry-processing plants that has lured generations of Mexicans to Gainesville. Ramirez worked on the assembly line, wringing the necks of live chickens. At night he’d escape into a cloud of marijuana smoke with a beer chaser.

Old habits were proving hard to break.

Even as he apprenticed under the retired schoolteacher, Ramirez nursed those persistent demons, using the drugs and drinking the booze he would confiscate from men staying in the shelter.

“I thought I had everybody fooled,” says Ramirez, now 50.

But there’s no deceiving a fellow traveler, no matter how much Binaca and air freshener you spray. Beckstein, who doesn’t mind telling you he once sinned with the best of them, started making unannounced, late-night visits to Ramirez’s cinder-block apartment.

Though Ramirez’s double life was no longer a secret, the wiry ex-Marine stood by him.

“I’d hear people say, ‘Why are you wasting your time with Thomas?’” Ramirez says. “He had more faith in me than I had in myself.” 

 

Faith intervenes

“My doctor gets mad at me because I forget to put on the hand sanitizer,” says the man everyone calls Mr. B, 90, and confined — temporarily, he insists — to a wheelchair. He’s survived a heart attack, pneumonia and strokes. Six months ago, he was fitted with his first hearing aid.

He’ll shake dozens of hands today, as he does every afternoon at Good News at Noon. It’s a tradition that started when Beckstein began the ministry in the home he shared with his wife, Margie, in southwest Gainesville. About a dozen people showed up that first week. Now, a staff of volunteers, usually from area churches, serve roughly 50,000 meals a year — lunch and dinner, every day of the week.

Mr. B is in his standard uniform — a white sweatshirt he designed that reads, “The Lord God Jesus Loves Red, Yellow, Brown, Black.” Though frail, his mind is still sharp and his joy, boundless.

Fittingly, Good News is probably the least segregated place in town. Some stop by from the poultry plants on their lunch break. Others come off the streets.

Darold Boone, 58, is one of the more unlikely tenants at the Good News shelter. Three years ago, he was laid off from his job and has been unable to find work. Along the way he lost his home, then car.

“I’m too old to get hired,” he says. “So I’m staying here.”

But amid the despair, Boone has found hope, teaching a Bible study at the shelter.

Beckstein, he says, “truly cares. He knows who you are. He’s genuinely interested.”

Surveying the lunchtime crowd of around 50 people, Mr. B takes inventory.

“That lady, her husband just moved back to Mexico, left her with five kids,” he said. “Over there, in the green — she lives in a tent. We’ve tried to get her off the streets, but she won’t do it. The girl next to her, in the white shirt ... she just got out of jail. But she’s doing good.”

As the chow line forms, Mr. B assumes the role of greeter, shaking every hand and telling them, “Glad you’re here.”

A familiar face approaches.

“Are you sober?” he asks with a smile.

“I am today,” the man responds, drawing laughs all around.

Mr. B can relate.
He was born in a Buffalo, N.Y., tenement in 1922 to a Irish mother with a fourth-grade education and a onetime prizefighter named “Kid Dale,” who drank away what little money he earned. The couple’s eight kids were left to fend mostly for themselves.

Gene, the youngest, learned survival skills from his six brothers. They taught him how to steal hubcaps and whatever else he could get his hands on. Fighting was second nature.

He was rescued, ironically, by World War II. The G.I. Bill paid for his education at New York University, where he received his teaching degree.

While in college he said a friend “tricked” him into attending a church revival in Rochester. His father had taught him that religion was for the weak, but Beckstein’s soul craved a peace he had yet to find.

“It was the first time I felt the Holy Spirit in my life,” Beckstein says. “They asked me if I would like to pray. I burst out in tears. I told them I felt very far away from God.”

All you have to do is lift up Jesus, they told him.

He’s been a faithful disciple ever since.

 

An unlikely acolyte

When Mr. B first met Thomas Ramirez, he did something uncharacteristic

“For some reason I gave him $75, and we don’t usually do handouts like that,” he says. “But there was something about Thomas.”

Something familiar.

Ramirez grew up poor in Puebla, Mexico, about a two-hour drive southeast of Mexico City. He and his nine siblings regularly witnessed their father beat up his mother.

When he turned 14, they sent him to Georgia along with a brother and two cousins, who had heard they might be able to land a job at Milliken’s cotton mill. It was the late 1970s, before the first wave of Hispanic immigrants had come to Gainesville; now, nearly 30 percent of the city’s population are foreign-born Mexicans.

“I felt like I was on another planet,” says Ramirez, whose energy belies his age.

The teenage boys ended up in a small house with no furniture. They didn’t know how to turn on the water or gas. On sunny days, they’d stay outside just to keep warm.

Ramirez adapted as best he could, ending up with a soul-draining job and a marriage he wasn’t ready for.

“When you hang the chickens, they pee all over you,” he says. “And you don’t have time to brush it off. You just get used to it.”

Drugs became a welcome escape. Soon he began selling them, eventually hooking up with a Mexican street gang. He was the muscle. Beating heads seemed a better option than wringing necks.

“If you didn’t like a guy for some reason, and you wanted him to spend a few weeks in the hospital, we’d take care of it,” he says. “We took care of each other. It was a family.”

Then one night, for the first time in years, Ramirez saw things clearly.

He had missed the pre-beatdown ritual of cocaine and Jim Beam. As his fellow gang members huddled in the dark, waiting to jump their subject, Ramirez stood back.

The light of the moon illuminated their target.

“I could see it was one of my friends,” he remembers.

After six years in the gang, his conscience had finally had enough.

Extricating himself wasn’t easy. “Thomas, you think you’re better than us,” they’d say. And it’s not like he had a lot of options. He was pushing 30, and his past made employers wary.

“Society didn’t trust me. The gang had rejected me,” he says.

Going straight meant going it alone.

Soon Ramirez was living out of his Oldsmobile. He had no job, no prospects and, often, nothing to eat.

One day, while applying for a job he wouldn’t get, someone told him about Mr. B.

 

A mission is born

In the early 1950s, Beckstein landed in Chicago and got a job teaching biology. One summer, while working a side gig as a salesman, he met no-nonsense bookkeeper Margie.

“She was the steady one, he was the dreamer,” says son-in-law Bryan Stiles. “But they were perfect for each other. Every practical person needs a dreamer, and vice-versa.”

They shared a troubled past. Beckstein was briefly homeless following his stint in the military. When they met, Margie was pregnant with her second child. Her husband had just committed suicide.

“I proposed and she said no,” Beckstein says. But she loved him, and one year after rejecting him, she wrote him a letter.

“I love you and I think you still love me. Just know I’m a package deal.”

Two kids was nothing. Together they would raise six more and eventually take in 48 foster children.

Beckstein’s career was taking off. He landed a job as a school administrator in Forsyth County, but the classroom was where he belonged.

When the opportunity arose to become one of two white teachers at the segregated, all-black E.E. Butler High School in Gainesville, he took it.

It was the first time he took comfort in being out of his element. It wouldn’t be the last.

Beckstein remained in the Gainesville City School system through the late 1980s, often working with at-risk kids.

“I never sent a kid to the office,” he said. “If there was a problem, I took care of it.”

He saw kids coming to school hungry, with no supervision or role models.

“Churches aren’t always the most welcome place if you’re poor,” he says. “When you’re dressed like a bum, they don’t talk to you.”

With retirement looming, Beckstein felt a calling to serve the less fortunate.

“I don’t have these Pentecostal moments where God appears to me in a vision,” Beckstein says. “But every night when I close my eyes, I have a conversation with God.”

He went to his wife, telling her he wanted to move from their comfortable home in a good neighborhood to Airport Road, among Gainesville’s neediest.

“Are you sure you know what you’re doing?” Beckstein recalls his wife asking. “She made me think these things through, but she never stopped me or said a negative thing to me in 50 years of marriage.”

Once they made the decision to move, she was all in.

“People think we are weird for living over here,” Margie Beckstein was quoted in a newspaper article in 1992. “We are.”

Margie prepared meatloaf for that first Good News at Noon lunch in 1987. The couple placed a sign in their yard inviting all who were hungry. Word spread, and soon they relocated to a cramped community center at Melrose Apartments — a low-income housing development across the street from Good News’ present headquarters.

Beckstein was the public face of the ministry. Margie took care of the little things, always in the background, until her death in 2006, two weeks shy of the couple’s 50th anniversary.

“She never lost patience with me,” Beckstein says.

Meanwhile, the ministry they started together continues to grow beyond anyone’s expectations.

Each Thursday night, more than 100 boxes of groceries are distributed to needy families, along with clothing, diapers, sleeping bags — even the occasional automobile.

There’s a shelter that can house up to 20 men, who, in exchange, are required to help out around the ministry. Volunteers staff an after-school youth center, where at-risk kids are tutored and mentored.

They receive no public funds and never ask for money.

“God always provides,” Beckstein says.

 

A test of loyalty

Ramirez didn’t know what to make of Mr. B when they first met in the early 1990s.

“Who is this white guy telling me he loves me, telling me Jesus loves me? He’d never seen me before, but he’s talking to me like he knows me for a long time,” Ramirez says. “In my world, you’re not nice unless you’re trying to get something.”

But Mr. B’s spirit was contagious, and Ramirez found himself drawn back to Good News.

“I knew I needed to change, but it was hard,” he says. “Mr. B, he knew what I was going through.”

Ramirez would show up and do whatever was needed, Beckstein recalls. He was eager to work, and no job was beneath him.

One night, Ramirez’ spiritual journey led him to a local church, where he met a woman with two kids who had nothing to eat and nowhere to go.

“So the preacher says, we’ll pray for you,” Ramirez recalls. But that wasn’t enough for him. “Praying is good, but this woman needs food now,” he thought.

They arrived at Beckstein’s house just around dinner time.

Without skipping a beat, Mr. B took over.

“Follow me,” he said, climbing into his old Datsun pick-up.

An hour later, the truck was loaded with box springs and bedding, plus enough food to feed the woman and her children for a month.

“She was so grateful,” Ramirez says. “I thought to myself, ‘OK, God, I know what I need to do.’”

Eventually Beckstein hired Ramirez full-time, anointing him as his successor.

“Thomas had a servant’s heart, and I could tell he was sincere,” Beckstein says. “I knew he was the guy I was looking for.”

That faith would be put to the test. Repeatedly.

In the late 1990s, Ramirez was charged with his third DUI. He faced serious jail time. Meanwhile, some members of the Good News board told Beckstein that Ramirez had to go.

“It was a very tough time,” says board president John Lilly. “There were people calling for his head. I was torn myself.”

Beckstein made it clear he was sticking by Ramirez.

“When I think of Thomas, the way he used to be, and I see him now ... I know how far he’s come,” Beckstein says.

When the time came, Beckstein made it clear to the board how strongly he felt about Ramirez.

“If he goes, I go,” he told them.

Eventually, some members of the board departed. Ramirez stayed.

“We’re called to forgive,” says Lilly, who stood with Mr. B and Ramirez.

Keeping Ramirez out of jail was a bigger challenge. The judge hearing his DUI case needed something more tangible than faith if he was going to let someone with his rap sheet serve probation instead of jail time.

Beckstein offered the title to his house. He’d lose it, the judge said, if Ramirez got in trouble again.

“Man, for someone to believe in you like that is incredible,” Ramirez says.

He hasn’t had a drink since.

“How could I let this man down?” he says. “He helped me understand the forgiveness Jesus gave us. He lives it. He’s taught me so much. He’s still teaching me.”

To Lilly, Beckstein is the living embodiment of what the metaphorical church is supposed to do.

“I’ve seen him clean defecation off people — people most of us wouldn’t touch,” Lilly says.

And there are no lost causes.

When Willie Alexander was released from prison in Monroe, he had nowhere to go. Someone told the convicted murderer to go to Gainesville and look up Mr. B. “He’ll accept you,” Alexander was told. The ex-con has lived there ever since, doing whatever needs doing around the shelter.

“Nam,” as they call her, has been there since the shelter opened. She speaks no English, so no one knows how she ended up at Good News, or whether she has any family in the area. But it’s home for her.

Then there’s Frank Moore Jr., whom Beckstein rescued from a poorly supervised state home for the developmentally disabled. At first he wouldn’t talk to anyone. Now, he accompanies Mr. B on the stage singing hymns at the daily lunch services, filled with the spirit, if not badly off-key.

But these days, Ramirez is the ministry’s backbone.

“No one works harder,” Lilly says, whether it’s serving as a mentor to at-risk youth, a counselor to the alcoholic or a teacher to the spiritually lost.

Ramirez still lives above the shelter with his third wife, their three daughters and the two latest additions to their family.

Ramirez met his son the first time late one night about three years ago. The child’s birth parents had been brought to Good News by a Hall County Sheriff’s deputy.

Inside of what Thomas thought was a bundle of laundry lay 2-month-old Riley.

“They were carrying him like he was dirty clothes,” Ramirez recalls.

He brought the baby upstairs to his apartment, away from his bickering parents. Eventually, their older son, Brandon, moved in after the grandfather who raised him passed away. As time passed the parents’ visits became less frequent.

“They were left with us for a reason,” Ramirez says.

Ramirez and his wife, Betty, are now foster parents to the little boys, ages 8 and 3, and are raising them as their own.

“Riley’s got blond hair, blue eyes and he speaks Spanish all the way,” says Ramirez, beaming. “I want to be a good father to them. I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my past, but I’m constantly learning.”

“You don’t know how your life is going to end up. If I hadn’t met Mr. B I’d probably be dead or in jail.”

 

In capable hands

Mr. B lights up as he hovers over the dimly lit overhead projector — still teaching after all these years.

“Don’t worry. I was 39 years old before I figured this out,” he reassures the students at his weekly Bible study. Roughly 30 men have gathered, most homeless, many taking notes.

These days, it takes some effort to get Beckstein to and from the shelter on Davis Street from his home near the old Gainesville mill. But with the aid of his son-in-law, he makes the trip daily — twice on Thursdays.

“It keeps me young,” Beckstein says.

That he’s here at all is something of a miracle. In late 2011 he was hospitalized with a bowel obstruction. A heart attack followed. He’s suffered multiple strokes and has diabetes.

“There’s no reason for him to be with us today,” says his grandson, Zack Ivey, 31. “God kept him around for a reason.”

Good News sustains.

“That’s what he lives for,” Ivey says. “Always has been.”

Ivey didn’t see much of his grandfather growing up. Eventually he understood why, and since his grandmother’s death, he’s become more involved in the ministry and now serves on the board.

When asked how Mr. B’s passing will affect Good News, Ivey doesn’t hesitate.

“I think, none,” he says. “Not because he won’t be missed, but because it’s not about him. Never was. That’s the way he’d want it to be.”

And Beckstein knows he’s leaving the ministry in capable hands.

“I was a drunk, Thomas was a drunk. I was homeless, Thomas was homeless,” Beckstein says. “It’s amazing what God can do.”

Next week: Losing custody of her children motivates Toshia Brown to kick her pill addiction.



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