Since 1948 the Rescue Mission has continued a tradition of comprehensive care to those in crisis.
On the third day of August 1942, Gus Johnson staggered into a Rescue Mission on Chicago’s Skidrow. That event became the pivotal point of his life. A violent, dirty, alcoholic criminal was transformed into a person of integrity, kindness and persevering vision. Having experienced this dramatic lifestyle change, he vowed to dedicate the remainder of his life to rescuing others just like himself.
For more than 62 years the Rescue Mission has continued a tradition of comprehensive care to those in crisis.
The Rescue Mission is a Christ centered organization offering programs to help people physically, psychologically, socially and spiritually. The programs are holistic and involve the elements of personal responsibility, self determination and an internal transformation of values and vision and a restoration of self respect. The homeless, the hungry, the sick, the addicted, the abused and the hopeless have all found a warm welcome at the Rescue Mission. Men, women and children have found a safe place and compassionate friends in their darkest moments.
Because the Rescue Mission is open 24 hours a day, it is the essential part of Southwest Virginia’s safety net for those in crisis. Before it is over, someone you love will need the Rescue Mission. It may be a son or daughter, a favorite niece or brother. It may be a neighbor or your best friend. It may even be you.
Gustaf Adolphus Johnson was the baby of 13 children born to an affluent Swedish family in 1897.
The son of a well-known architect, Gus led a rather sheltered existence amid servants and tutors and a houseful of older brothers and sisters. He was five years old when his mother died. By the age of 10 he had already established a reputation for mischief. When the city offered a bounty for rat’s tails, he followed the city employee to see where the tails were being buried so that he could dig them up and collect the bounty again. Digging was easier than catching live rats, he explained when the officials became suspicious and came to his father to complain about his entrepreneurial activities.
He was bright, but undisciplined. After being expelled from the university, his father urged him to accept a commission in the Swedish Navy. His ship was sent to Russia at a time of great political unrest. Instead of curbing his son’s appetite for adventure, the time in Russia had the opposite effect. His father then “encouraged” his rebellious son to go with a cousin to America. There was an uncle in Iowa with a large farm who might be able to get him to “settle down and make something of himself.”
Gustaf came to America, but did not go to the uncle’s farm in Iowa. He went to New York and then on to Chicago and began running with a “fast crowd.”
He served with distinction in the Marines. He became a naturalized citizen. He was a big man and when he finished his tour of duty it was easy for him to get work as a “strong arm” or “bouncer” in bars and brothels. His desire for more money led him to a brief career of robbing banks and a series of “stick-ups.”
Eventually daily drinking became a regular part of his life, but even criminals need to be sober. In a drunken brawl, he knifed another man and awoke the next day to find himself in jail. The injured man did not die and soon Gus was out and back on the streets.
The next fifteen years he spent in and out of prison, drinking more and more. He was no longer a young man. In his forties, he looked like thousands of others on Skidrow—broken, dirty and all used up.
“There is no honor among thieves.” One night the bottle gang was standing in a huddle. “One by one they looked at my shoes,” he said “Finally, without a word, I went around the corner to sell them in order to buy one more bottle. When I got the bottle of cheap wine in my hands, I didn’t go back to my friends. I went the other way and settled in an alleyway to drink and to forget.”
It was on that same night he went to the Chicago United Mission. A fight broke out and the big Swede was put out of the Mission. Afterwards, unbeknownst to Gus Johnson, one of the Christians asked if those at the Mission would stop the service and pray for the big angry Swede they had to put out of the Mission.
The next night, Gus came back to the Mission. Less violent and more hungry, he hoped they would let him in and give him something to eat. He didn’t listen to the hymns or the testimonies or the sermon. He’d heard it all before. He just wanted it to be over so he could eat and maybe “if he was lucky”, get a bed for the night.
As they played the hymn of invitation, a young seminary student came up to him and said “Jesus loves you.” “Nobody loves me,” said Gus as he pushed the young man away. “Jesus loves you,” repeated the young man as he put his arms around the angry, drunken man. That night Gus Johnson traded in a life of violence and betrayal and booze for a new life of hope and grace and redemption. It was the third day of August, nineteen hundred and forty-two when Gus Johnson became a Christian and everything changed.
The time in the armed services had been hard, doing “time” in Joliet. The maximum security prison had been difficult and life on the street had been rough, but the next two years were the greatest challenge of all. Gus was no longer accepted as a part of the old gang from the street and the Christians were still waiting to see if he would fall back into his old life style. He was very lonely.
Seeing his struggle, the Mission Director’s wife, Mrs. Leonard (Frances) Hunt, invited him to come to their home for lunch. The Hunts had a family that included small children. While she was trying to prepare lunch, Mrs. Hunt asked Gus to hold the baby. When she returned to the dining room a few minutes later she found Gus in tears. Mrs. Hunt did not know what to do. She offered to take the baby from his arms, but with tears running down his face he asked, “Do you think I could ever have a little baby like this one?” he asked. Mrs. Hunt paused for a moment and then gave an unexpected response, “I don’t know what God has in store for you Gus, but let’s just take a moment right now and pray. God wants you to have the desire of your heart. So we will pray that if it’s in God’s will, that one day you will have a little one just like this of your very own and if it is not God’s will that God will change the desire of your heart. “
Gus began to pray specifically for a family. He prayed that if it were God’s will he would be led to someone who could love him and love mission work. He prayed very specifically that God would send him a wife. He added in his prayers that it would be good if she had some musical ability since he had none, that she would be young enough to have children and that it would be all right with him if she were pretty.
One Sunday afternoon, as he finished giving his testimony in the cellblock at Cook County Jail, Gus heard an organ playing. The music was coming from a little pump organ which was being wheeled around the corridors of the jail. At the organ sat a young girl with dark brown hair and a complexion so perfect, that her nickname was “Peachy.” Gus raised his eyes toward heaven and said “Thank You Lord.”
He asked if he might escort her to her home following the jail service. She agreed to ride home on the street car with him. On the way home they talked of many things. Finally, he turned to her and said, “How much money does it cost to get married in America?” She thought it was a strange question, but she answered “At least a thousand dollars.” “I have that much saved,” he said. “Will you marry me?”
She thought he was joking. He assured her he was not.
When they arrived at her apartment building, she invited him in to meet her mother. As he was leaving he asked if he might have the picture of her that was on the coffee table. When she said yes, he asked if she would accompany him downtown the next day to buy a frame for the picture and have lunch at Marshall Fields. Again she agreed.
The next day they rode “The El” down to Chicago’s “Loop” to buy the frame. After buying the frame, they walked along window shopping and talking. He paused in front of the jewelry store and asked her opinion about the diamonds on display. He pointed to one that cost $40. She said it was nice but she liked the one that cost $150 more. He asked if she would like to go in and buy the one she had chosen. She still didn’t really believe this man she had met the day before was serious, but she followed him into the jewelry store. Eight days later (June 6, 1945) they were married.
During the next three years they continued to volunteer at a host of Chicago Rescue Missions and in the jails. They opened a small soda shop and, much to everyone’s surprise, seemed to be very happy.
One day, Lois’s father Fred attended a Christian Businessman’s Luncheon at a downtown hotel. He heard an evangelist speak about the need for more rescue missions. The evangelist specifically made a plea for a place called Roanoke, Virginia, which had a city market area near the railroad station where there were large numbers of homeless men on the street.
Fred Ingersoll had heard enough. He asked the evangelist to write down the name of the town that needed a mission on the back of an envelope. That night the Johnsons and the Ingersolls and some of their Mission friends gathered around the diner table to talk and pray about the establishment of a rescue mission in Roanoke, Virginia.
Within a matter of weeks, arrangements were made for Gus and Lois to go to Roanoke, Virginia, to start a new rescue mission there. All of their friends gave a huge party, held a special prayer meeting for them and put them on a train bound for Roanoke. They arrived in Roanoke, July 1, 1948.
The evangelist had told them that there was a building to house the Mission and they could live in the 7-room apartment on the second floor.
When the Johnson’s got off the train, they went to 111 East Salem Avenue. The building was dark and dirty. The floor was littered with trash and cock roaches scurried along the walls. In a corner of the darkened room they found a fellow under some rags “sleeping off a drunk.”
Gus and Lois were very disappointed. Gus did not want to stay in such a place with his young bride. Lois said they needed to pray about what to do, so the two of them knelt down next to their steamer trunks and asked God for guidance.
When they finished praying, Gus said he was ready to return to Chicago, but Lois said they had to stay. She later confided that she said this not because God had told her to stay, but because her pride would not allow her to return to Chicago as a missionary failure.
They scrubbed and mopped and cleaned up the room and made a bed out of a pallet of quilts. Gus had to nail the door shut because there was no lock on the door. Just as they were about to go to sleep, a police officer broke down the front door.
“Are you the new Madam?” he asked Lois as she sat up from her makeshift bed on the floor.
“No, I’m the new missionary!” she responded.
“Oh, is that what you call yourselves nowadays…” he said with no little skepticism.
Lois and Gus explained who they were and what they had come to Roanoke to do. The officer must have believed them because later that same week, he brought a family to the Mission who needed help.
Gus and Lois opened the Rescue Mission on Salem Avenue on July 2, 1948.
Between 1948 and 1950 the Johnsons, with the help of Dr. Lapsley of First Presbyterian Church, managed to keep the mission open every night.
In 1950, two years after their July arrival, the Johnsons convened a group of men to become the first “Rescue Mission Board of Directors.” It was at this time that the Rescue Mission became incorporated and received the endorsement of the Roanoke Minister’s Conference under the direction of Dr. Harry Gamble of Calvary Baptist Church.
Gus and Lois were faithful. They stayed at the Salem Avenue location for 14 years. During that time they were the only “staff.” Gus was hired as the Executive Director at a rate of $200 per month and Lois was named Associate Director (sans salary).
When there was not enough money to pay the rent, Gus would take his push lawn mower on the bus and go to South Roanoke, an exclusive section of Roanoke, to mow lawns.
To get items for the supper meal served at the Mission, Lois would take a shopping bag and visit the city market area at the close of business. Farmers who had items that did not sell that day were encouraged to put them into the shopping bags so that they could make the famous Rescue Mission “Enthusiastic Soup” so named because “we put everything we’ve got into it!”
In 1954, Mrs. Eberhardt of the Union Gospel Mission in Washington DC visited the Roanoke Mission to assist Lois with the establishment of a Woman’s Auxiliary and a children’s ministry.
The oldest surviving records list the board members in 1958 as follows: Dr. L.J. Walton (a local dentist was named president), Glenwood Deacon (an architect served as secretary), and Mr. E.J. Harris (a businessman served as treasurer). Other members included Richard Pence (attorney), Mr. E.R. Wooldridge, Mr. Grubbs, Mr. Wm. R. Mayes (engineer), Mr. Wiley N. Jackson (contractor) , Mr. James W. Michael (Michael’s Bakery), Dr. Wade Bryant (pastor of First Baptist Church), Mr. S.L. (Buddy) Fellers (attorney), Mr. Clyde Reynolds, Mr. Howard E. Sigmon (realtor), Mr. Aaron Conner (contractor) and Mr. Glenn Howell.
At the December meeting in 1958 the board voted to purchase the property at 114 East Salem Avenue at a price of $16,500 for a planned Mission expansion. At the next meeting, it is recorded that the building they had purchased had burned to the ground, but they voted to go forward and consider building a new Rescue Mission at that location. The City asked to buy the lot for parking. This lot is where today the Taubman Art Museum now stands.
Property on First Street was purchased and the property on Salem Avenue was eventually sold back to the City for parking in 1962. The first capital campaign was held in 1961 to raise funds to build a new Rescue Mission on First Street. Plans were drawn, funds were raised ($50,000) and J. Walker Contractors were retained to build the building.
Later this property was sold for $20,000 to the City of Roanoke to accommodate a new highway (I-581) and a building at 732 First Street (adjoining the vacant property on First Street) was also purchased at a cost of $9,200. Mr. H.A. Lucas was retained to renovate the building to accommodate the Rescue Mission’s expansion
In 1959 the Johnsons went to an auction held at Natural Bridge. A used truck was purchased at auction for $300.11 (11 cents over the next highest bid!) and home pick-ups were made to bring donated inventory for the two stores the Mission operated on the City Market.
The Rescue Mission got title to and moved into the newly renovated space ($70,000 renovation cost) on First Street in June of 1962. Within months there was discussion at City Hall that the property was needed to accommodate the changes in Elmwood Park and the construction of the roadway leading to Community Hospital.
There is discussion in the minutes of early “case management” activities to assist families in need, a jail ministry and increased activity of the Ladies Auxiliary which had its start in 1958.
By November of 1962, the “Children’s Work” of the mission had grown from one class on Saturdays to four classes during the week. The “Happybag Program” had grown to accommodate hundreds of children at Christmas. Laundry facilities were added to the building (previously laundry had been done by hand in an old bathtub or sent out to a commercial laundry.) A chest freezer was needed to accommodate increased food donations.
In 1963 an addressograph with 1,000 metal plates was purchased to help standardize the Mission’s handwritten “mailing list.” In 1966, Mr. Johnson reported to the board that a Mrs. Booth had sent a donation of $1 to the board. Mrs. Booth was 91 years old and had a monthly income of $41. The Johnsons were aware and pleased that the Mission’s financial base was composed of many givers (such as Mrs. Booth) who gave sacrificially. They believed that gifts given by many cheerful givers made the best financial base for the Mission.
In 1965 the Rescue Mission learned that their property was going to be condemned to accommodate “urban renewal.” The City offered to pay the Rescue Mission $56,000 for their property. The Mission offered to sell the property to the City for $200,000.
The board decided in 1967 to have a capital campaign to raise $200,000 to build a new Rescue Mission in SE Roanoke. In 1968, against the advice of the “experts,” luncheons were held for prospective donors not at a local hotel but on site at the Rescue Mission so that people could see the work being discussed. Also, in 1968, the City Rescue Mission hosted the International Union of Gospel Missions (a fellowship of rescue missions from all over the United States).
In 1969, 35 children from the Mission’s programs were taken to camp for the first time.
The Tazewell Methodist Church and adjoining property were purchased as a future site of the Mission. The condemnation suit with the City had been settled to the satisfaction of the board. TA Carter was asked to design the new mission building to be located on 4th Street in SE.
The Rescue Mission moved into their new building in 1973 (enough funds were raised to finish paying for the building by the end of the year).
In December of that year, Lois suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. On the day she went home, Gus Johnson suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. Their daughter Joy was completing her first semester at Southern Seminary in Louisville and their son Wayne was graduating from Perdue University in Indiana and preparing for a wedding December 29 in Ft. Wayne to his fiancé Jenny.
Gus died the next day and was buried on a snowy Christmas Eve 1973. Joy led the Mission in the traditional children’s “Happybag Program” and Christmas Feast. She then drove Lois (who was too sick to fly) to the wedding in Ft. Wayne.
Due to Lois’s health, Joy did not return to seminary the next semester, but remained in Roanoke to help direct the Mission until Lois was well enough to continue.
Lois was named the Executive Director of the Rescue Mission in January of 1974. During that year she was called to the men’s shelter division when a man refused to come out of the shower area and the staff was too afraid to go in after him. She told the man that he had better come out or she would be coming in. The man responded “…Come on in, the water’s fine.” It was at that moment Lois decided there were some things that required a “man” in the running of the Mission.
A year later (1974), Lois married George Bettis. George became the Associate Director of the Mission and took on the responsibility of the physical plant.
In 1985 Joy was asked to come to Roanoke from her home in NY to accompany Lois (who had suffered another heart attack) to the IUGM Convention in Seattle WA. While at the convention, Joy and Lois had a very significant meeting with two other women, Mrs. Leonard Hunt and Mrs. Herbert Eberhardt.
In this meeting, Mrs. Hunt (who had been present at Gus’ conversion at the United Rescue Mission in Chicago) told Lois and Joy about the event half a century before when Gus had prayed for a baby and dedicated that “hoped for child” to God’s service. Mrs. Eberhardt, retired from the Washington DC Mission (who had been such an encouragement to Lois in the early days of the Roanoke Mission) also confided that she had been praying for Joy to work at the Roanoke Rescue Mission since 1968, when she was still a student at Taylor University in Indiana.
Lois confided to the women that due to her health issues she was very concerned about the future of the Rescue Mission and she had been praying that her son Wayne might come and direct the Mission, but that he did not see himself in that role. Mrs. Eberhardt gently suggested that Lois might have been praying for the wrong child.
The four women retired to Mrs. Eberhardt’s room and had a season of prayer in which they prayed for God’s discernment about Joy coming to direct the Rescue Mission in Roanoke.
Joy and her husband John and their two children (Anders age 7 and Jon Kara age 28 days) moved to Roanoke for Joy to begin work as Director of Development and Outreach on May 1, 1986.
In 1986 the Rescue Mission had 13 staff members and an annual budget of $200,000.
The first challenge was to computerize the Mission’s data base and create a monthly newsletter. Joy bought two computers and began writing the monthly newsletter and monthly thank-you letters to all donors. This was followed by the creation of a weekly television program on public television to broaden the donor base of the Mission. The Mission staff learned how to do a capital campaign when they raised a million dollars to build the Family Shelter (currently the Men’s Shelter) in 1989. Another challenge was to begin the foundation work for the Lifeline Foundation (aka The Rescue Mission Foundation) and a planned giving program.
In the following years, Joy as Director of Development and Outreach and John as Director of the Recovery Program were to design and implement the Mission’s first recovery programs, learning center and camping program at Jubilee Acres (a property built in 1993).
In 1998, Lois celebrated 50 years at the Rescue Mission and the musical “Soup, Soap and Salvation” was written by Joy and Dr. John Priddy to commemorate the occasion. Plans were made to build a new campus for the Rescue Mission including a new thrift store, administration building, kitchen and dining room, women’s recovery building and single women’s shelter.
Within weeks of the celebration, Lois suffered a massive coronary attack and was hospitalized. She and George retired from Mission work later that year.
Joy was named Chief Executive Officer. She and Judy Perfater (a full-time volunteer recently retired from the Roanoke Times) ran a capital campaign that eventually raised more than four million dollars to pay for the new thrift store, the new KDAC (Kitchen, Dining, Admin and Chapel), and the caretakers House at Jubilee Acres.
The Art On A Mission Store was opened at Tanglewood Mall to give the Mission the opportunity to sell at a higher price the antiques and collectibles that come into the Thrift Store. To make the store consistently viable, the addition of local artists’ works on a consignment basis was also added to this location.
Zoning problems delayed the building of the proposed Women and Children’s Center. In retrospect, this allowed time to build the clinic, the new learning center, the pottery studio and the Rescued House at 402 Bullitt Avenue.
At a construction cost of 4 million dollars, the Women and Children’s Center was completed in 2005. Pledges were raised to completely pay for the building in the same year. The first three graduates of the new women’s program completed their program in 2006.
In 2007 the Rescue Mission formed a strategic visioning team representing all the various Mission departments. This team identified that aftercare was a major concern at the Mission. Providing a program to keep in touch with graduates and their families and providing transitional housing for graduates as they re-entered life outside the Mission were considered paramount. In 2008 property was found at 6th and Bullitt and was purchased for just under one million dollars. Plans were made to convert three of the four buildings at the site into aftercare apartments. Plans were drawn for three of the buildings on the site and construction began on two of the properties in the Spring of 2009.
The medical clinic, in 2008 added a portable dental clinic and staff soon realized that a larger facility was needed to house medical/psychiatric and dental clinics that could operate simultaneously to accommodate the great number of patients who needed help. Renovation of an existing building on the Mission’s campus was started in the latter part of 2009 to accommodate the new clinic. A generous donation by a board member enabled 2nd helpings, a new earned income project that included a high end resale retail shop, an art gallery and a café was opened on Williamson Road (2 blocks north of the Civic Center) to raise the additional operating funds the new expanded clinic would need.
Using its “Conviction Based Development Strategy”, the Rescue Mission will always be looking for better ways to address human suffering in the name of Christ. Once a need is perceived the team investigates if there is anyone else better qualified to address that particular need. If no one is found, the team designs a program to address the need, then designs a strategy to fund the program. This three part process (all done prayerfully) is the way the Rescue Mission determines when to expand or increase its scope.
Lois and Gus’ vision of a Rescue Mission that was open and available to all people, supported by many and open 24/7 to people in need, has become a reality. Today the Rescue Mission is the largest homeless shelter in the state of Virginia and with the partnership of churches, businesses and other organizations, offers a variety of programs to help thousands of hurting people.
Today there is a state of the art campus with more than 398 beds to accommodate the Mission’s programs. There is a dedicated staff of 95 talented and faithful people. There are over 4,000 willing and cheerful volunteers. There is an Executive Board of 24 passionate people from the community. There is a budget of approximately 3 million dollars.
Most important of all, the Rescue Mission has remained true to its original purpose of “helping hurting people in Jesus’ name.” The Rescue Mission continues to be an open door to people in crisis—people just like Gus Johnson. We believe that if we are faithful to the One who has been faithful to us, that God will honor our work and complete the transformation from brokenness to wholeness, from darkness to light, from despair to hope.