A man who was welcoming people into a dinner line at a Lakewood, Colo., church ministry for the homeless was asked how he became comfortable talking and ministering to those with whom he seemingly had little in common. How had he avoided coming off as a do-gooder? What did he say about Jesus?
“God puts you outside your comfort zone,” he replied, “and then it becomes your comfort zone.”
That was nearly 18 months ago when a group from Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church (CGLC) in Gilbert, Ariz., traveled to Denver to visit The Table, a weekly meal and worship service at Bethlehem Lutheran Church. The CGLC parishioners, led by Vicar Jacob Boessling, represented La Mesa (Spanish for The Table), a ministry that was in the early planning stages.
Vicar Jacob Boessling (left) of Christ’s Greenfield Lutheran Church and the pastoral leader of La Mesa, first met Doc Ingalls last January. Doc had been on homeless for nearly a year.
A committee of a dozen people met and prayed for nine months in 2014 before launching La Mesa in September of that year. Now at its one-year anniversary of feeding body and spirit from a church cafeteria in an older, low-income neighborhood of nearby Mesa, Ariz., La Mesa has become a ministry where an average of 125 people from all walks of life gather weekly to Be Fed. Already, La Mesa has outgrown its space.
Followed by a home-cooked meal that is lovingly prepared and served by smiling, dedicated volunteers, the worship service always opens with this Bible verse:
“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.” (Colossians 3:11)
As the man in Denver said, God has opened up a new comfort zone for His people in Arizona. Under His guidance, one wedding and three baptisms have been performed at La Mesa, and the Word has been spoken and the Lord’s Supper served about 40 times. The CGLC congregation has embraced La Mesa with prayers, time and monetary and in-kind donations, and the homeless community has hugged La Mesa right back, showing up early and staying late to set up chairs and tables, prepare hot coffee and icy lemonade, and take out the garbage.
“Homeless people need advocates,” said Leila Woodard, community outreach chair of the SouthEast Valley Regional Association of Realtors, who is such an advocate. “There’s such a stigma about them. People turn their heads when they see them, but most are people who have had some unfortunate circumstances and are working so hard to get out of it. They just deserve a chance.”
La Mesa offers brothers and sisters a chance to come in our of the heat or cold, to dine and worship, to sing loudly, pray steadfastly and care for each other incessantly. There’s Stephen, the artist, Tomas, the cook, and Brian, a Jack-of-all-trades and La Mesa cheerleader.
And then there’s Doc, the wise.
Meeting Doc at La Mesa
Among the brothers at La Mesa is Doc Ingalls, a tall, handlebar-mustachioed man with a grey ponytail, a colorful past and a recent bout with homelessness. He lost everything in a messy divorce, was hit hard by the recession and was relegated to sleeping on a bedroll under a tree for a year.
Doc is an atheist who said he needs tangible proof that God created the universe and sent His Son to die on the cross for the redemption of sinners. Doc’s strength, he said, has always come from inside himself.
“Religion is based on who you know, what you know,” he said. “Did Jesus really make people see? Did He really die for your sins? I wasn’t there, I didn’t see it. Was He a good man? He probably was.”
Doc was among the first people Boessling met at St. Vincent de Paul when he visited last year to introduce himself and invite the “Vinny’s” guests to La Mesa.
“I vividly remember him saying, ‘No thanks, I’m an atheist,’” Boessling said. “But he was still so open and personable about himself. I sat down and talked with him as much as I could each week. But some weeks I didn’t even talk to him because he kept telling me, ‘I’m an atheist!’ Doc had seen so many different churches come and go in his community, and the jury was still out on ours.”
Doc with La Mesa leaders Laurie and Rick McClellan
Doc comes to La Mesa for the food and to hear scripture. “When the pastors talk about gentleness or kindness or giving or taking, they are good rules to live by, and you start to think, ‘Was I a little too harsh on the guy who asked me for some change?’” he said. “Within my own mind, I decipher yes or no, I was or was not hard. That helps me.”
Doc first visited La Mesa in January and got back on his feet this spring (he and Boessling disagree on who gets credit for that, Doc or God). Doc has an apartment and a good job, but it angers him that, despite dozens of productive years, the homeless label still sticks to him.
“I’m 63, and it doesn’t define me,” said the self-taught carpenter, leather artist and contractor, a former U.S. Marine who has owned businesses, worked on an urchin boat and tried farming. “Being homeless was an experience. It wasn’t my life.”
The rise and fall of Doc
Mark Dennis Ingalls was born in New York, the youngest of four children, and the family soon moved to Southern California. He “always thought a little differently, marched to my own drummer,” and by the time he was in first grade, Doc said he had his own corner “to put my nose in.”
High school, Doc said, was his social playground. He joined the Marines after graduating, serving from 1970-74 as a supplies sergeant, and grew up quickly. Shortly before being discharged from the military after contracting the measles, he picked up the “Doc” moniker while unloading supplies on a dock. A fellow Marine needed medical attention, and an officer, seeing Doc’s name listed on the roster as “Ingalls, M.D.,” (last name, first name and middle name as initials), called for the doctor.
“I said, well, I can wrap him up and ship him to the hospital, for cryin’ out loud,” he said. “The name just stuck.”
Doc at La Mesa
Back in California, Doc took up an interest in riding motorcycles and collecting guns, and started working a series of jobs. He assembled lamps, sold firearms in a shop in a sketchy area of south Los Angeles, refurbished antique furniture and bent sheet metal. He co-owned a bar and a video equipment sales and installation company with customers that included pro athletes and Muslim dictators.
Doc was a film and broadcast major in college, attending Moorpark College and Ventura College, where as an intern he recorded commercials and did the weather reports for a local radio station. But he was short a couple of classes and did not graduate, preferring instead to be a student of opportunities.
In 1974, Doc learned he was a father. He met his 5-year-old daughter from a brief relationship he’d had before he joined the Marines. He supported his daughter and also her mother, who has since died. But Ingalls has not seen his daughter, nor his two teenaged grandchildren, in some time.
“My father always asked me do you have a plan? Well, I didn’t then, and I still don’t,” he said. “I’ve been flying by the seat of my pants since I was born, and I prefer it that way. I’ve given up good jobs for lesser jobs and enjoyed them just as much. They may not have lasted as long as that first job, but I learned something. I want to learn as much as I can.”
Working as a cook on a pack train, Doc met a man who taught him to harness and drive horse teams. He found work driving stagecoaches at charitable events, private weddings and parades, and then took off with a circus, heading the horse department and seeing the western U.S.
In 1982, when Doc’s mother asked him to care for the dying man, he didn’t hesitate. His elder Ingalls died two months later, and his mother soon relocated to Arizona.
Doc has become a regular fixture at La Mesa.
It was a billboard on the California-Arizona border that convinced Doc to move, too: “Welcome to Arizona, a California gun-owner’s sanctuary state.” Doc settled in Chandler, and soon found work, as an artist’s model for western painters, selling western clothing and being an interpreter for the Pioneer Living History Museum in north Phoenix. He was an expert on life in the late 1800s, the buffalo hunters, wars with Indians, the proliferation of stagecoaches and how long Wyatt Earp and Buffalo Bill lived. For many years, Doc was an interpreter for the Arizona State Historical Society.
By the, Doc was dressing smartly in Victorian suits — checked or striped trousers and vests, overcoats, hat, ties and stick pins.
“I feel comfortable in these clothes,” he said. “I would never want to live in that era, but cooking utensils, cups, plates, just feel good in my hands.”
He favors biographies and histories from the 1800s to 1910, but also loves Jules Verne for his revolutionary science fiction. For a period of time, he was a clerk at Tombstone Old West Books, where he bought more books than he sold.
By 1998, Doc was doing well. He owned three homes and three undeveloped lots, and he was married, he thought, happily. It didn’t last.
“I was all into the marriage and taking care of my wife, and she was all into ‘let’s see how much I can get,’” he said. “It took nine years, and she wiped me out. When the money was gone, so was she, and before I knew it, I owned nothing.”
Doc said he had an incompetent lawyer and no way to recover when the economy turned back, beginning in 2008. He lost his apartment and started working temporary jobs, moving rocks and digging ditches and doing other hard labor that he wasn’t accustomed to. With his motorcycle, two changes of clothes and a blanket, Doc set up home alongside a Mesa canal in February 2014.
“I had my spot and I had to shoo people away from it. You have to get tough or you have nothing,” he said. “You don’t have walls, you’re out in the open, you have to hide your things and if they find them, they’re gone.”
Doc works long days as a contractor, but he still attempts to get to La Mesa every week.
Doc needed a permanent address to land a better job, and so he went to the Veteran’s Administration for help with rent. He said he “got the royal runaround” and was denied help because he didn’t drink, take drugs or have a mental illness.
“They were telling me that because I lived the good life, I was being penalized,” he said. “I was fortunate in that I had the McDonalds to go to to write letters to congressmen, senators, local officials, the VA, to tell them what I was up against, and to fill out job applications. But I had no place to clean up, no clean clothes.”
He went to the Mesa Public Library and continued to look for work and fill out applications and wrote letters to the library to suggest better open hours for the working public. “It gave me something to do rather than hang out on a street corner,” Doc said.
No one wrote back.
Doc remembered lashing out at a person who happened to be following him into the library and didn’t realize Doc was homeless. The man was criticizing homeless people, saying they were lazy and unwilling to work. Doc had heard enough.
“They haven’t been among them,” he said with exasperation. “They are seeing it from the outside and putting everyone into the same basket, when in reality there are a lot of people trying very hard to get off the street.”
Doc climbs back into the saddle
A series of fortunate events have helped Doc’s life turn around.
- At Boessling’s invitation, Doc dropped by La Mesa on a cold evening in January earlier this year. He’d been on the streets for nearly a year and was happy to receive a hot meal and warm welcome.
- “Tony,” a security guard at St. Vincent de Paul, told Doc about its rental assistance program, and within two hours of applying, Doc had one month’s rent in his hand. He found an apartment and had 40 days to worry about coming up with the next month’s rent.
- A homeless friend at Vinny’s told him about a community garden that Woodard’s realtors’ association was building at Paz de Cristo, another church-based nonprofit that provides services to the homeless. Doc hates – hates – gardening because it was used as punishment when he was a child, but he showed up anyway and shoveled sand to help create a brick patio. There, he met Woodard, who insisted on helping him.
“Leila called, and asked me if I needed a dining room set, and I said sure. Well, she brings over that, plus end tables, coffee tables, bed, pots, pans, food, just everything. She gave me a TV, even though I had one,” Doc said.”
Doc was not looking for a free hand, but the association and its members were undeterred, collecting four truckloads of furniture and other goods.
“I learned from the homeless community that Doc was the guy who helps everyone else, and I thought that was admirable,” Woodard said. “And I could see from his work at the garden that he was a very skilled workman.”
Woodard knew a busy contractor, Phil Habib, whom she thought would hit it off with Doc. She put the two together, and Phil made Doc a job offer, apologizing that he could only offer him $20 an hour. A living wage, Doc thought, accepting right away.
“That first weekend, I made my second month’s rent in three days,” said Doc, who’s been working for Habib’s company, PTMJ Services, for four months and is pleased that his boss values his opinions and ideas.
Habib feels like he’s hit the jackpot.
“I’m amazed at my luck in getting hooked up with Doc,” he said. “His story seemed like one of those where everything was chugging along and then – oops – he didn’t just hit a speed bump, but about 50 of them.
“It was easy to become comfortable with Doc,” Habib said. “He turned out to be extremely reliable, he gives his honest opinion on this, and I trust his opinions. I’ve got a small business, and I can’t afford to have a ‘yes’ man.”
Habib is picky about handling his customers himself, but said Doc is someone who can handle that, too.
“If I have to leave a job or drop him off at a job and go somewhere else, I know he’s going to be professional,” Habib said. “I trust him with my truck and my tools, and I’d ask him to babysit my kids.”
Boessling and Doc are friends who have frequent discussions about God.
Boessling said the good things that have happened recently to Doc are a God thing.
“My prayer for Doc is that he will soon realize that Jesus has been orchestrating his whole story and ours in his life as well. Jesus sent us to Mesa and knew we would meet up with Doc at Vinny’s,” Boessling said. “I pray that Doc would not only see that our church is different than his other experiences have been in the past with churches, but that they living risen Jesus Christ is directing us all towards His grace each and every week.”
Doc, along with Brian and Tomas and other new friends from La Mesa, recently have started attending church at Christ’s Greenfield.
Doc at La Mesa
If there’s a takeaway from Doc’s experiences as a homeless person, it’s this: being homeless is dehumanizing.
“I’ve been through agencies — veterans, housing, welfare, DES, some churches — and when I’ve tried to talk to them to get something, my time is limited, I understand that,” he said. “But to go to these agencies is so dehumanizing. It shouldn’t be that way.”
Boessling has noticed Doc practicing the Golden Rule, doling out smiles, kindness and wisdom at every turn. He brings joy – and a large cowboy hat – to La Mesa.
Doc with the kitchen volunteers
“He respects people, opens doors, listens well and cares for people,” Boessling said. “I consistently see Doc taking the person who has recently found themselves living on the streets under his wing to give them advice about how to survive.”
One of the reasons Doc keeps coming back to La Mesa (other than the constant adulation from the kitchen crew) is that there is no pressure to sit in one place or behave a certain way.
“Too many religions they feed you, but you’ve got to stay,” Doc said. “Usually they feed you the sermon first and then your body after. But I feel comfortable there. These people don’t judge you, don’t pressure you. I would do anything for them.”
There’s that comfort zone again.
By Janie Magruder