HE LOOKS ME IN THE EYE, smiles, offers his hand, and says, "Hi, I'm Kenny Simmons. Pleased to meet you." Don't bother looking in Kenny Simmons's eyes or at his bearing for shadows of his life on the streets, on drugs, in jail. I saw none. When he talks about his past, it's as though he's describing another person, someone he only vaguely recalls.
Simmons remembers clearly, though, how he became homeless and jobless. "I was addicted to cocaine and to alcohol, and my life at that time had crumbled. I lost a good job and was in total darkness. It seemed as though I was washed up.
"I was living with a young lady, and she happened to be a drug pusher. That made it even easier for me to get drugs. To somebody else, it might have seemed like a really opportune thing to be in that situation. But for me, the more drugs I got the more miserable I became... I wasn't even enjoying getting high anymore." He felt he was spiraling downward into "a really deep, dark pit." But even amid the misery and darkness, in his clearer moments he knew he had to find a way out. Underneath the hunger for cocaine and alcohol there was a deeper hunger, a spiritual hunger, buried yet asking to be fed.
Simmons didn't have religion in his life as a child. "I didn't get into religion until later on, like in my late twenties, early thirties." He became a Muslim, and later explored Buddhism. "Then I experienced what they call the Apostolic religion," in Pentecostal and Baptist churches.
In the Apostolic churches he found hope and learned about Jesus Christ. "The Master said, 'Seek ye first the kingdom,' you know. I think you can't put too much emphasis on that. 'Seek ye first the kingdom,' because I guess that's where your true satisfaction is, in acquiring an understanding of God. That spiritual understanding of God and His will for us—I think that's the kingdom.
"I was just looking... really searching. I needed something to hold on to. I needed more than a belief that maybe God existed, or maybe He'll do this for me. Some people have the belief that God could be evil or could hate you for doing something wrong. All of those beliefs vanished when I came to the understanding that God is Love."
"If I were to put a title on what's happened to me, that title would have to have 'understanding God' in it."
A way out
While Chicago's West Side can be a tough place to live, for some it can be a harder place to leave. But when Kenny Simmons hit bottom, he decided to walk away from his Lake Street neighborhood, where drugs had been so easy to get. "I went to what they call a mission. I stayed there a little while, and then something just led me to Evanston, because I needed more than the mission was offering. I was homeless, so I found a shelter in Evanston."
Chicago's Red Line elevated train makes its last northbound stop at Howard Street. Change for the Purple Line, and as soon as you leave the station, you're in Evanston. As in many major cities, you may have only traveled a few miles, but you're in a different world—in Evanston's case, a world of tree-lined streets, older well-kept homes, steepled and domed houses of worship, and restful greenspaces, including Dawes Park at the lakefront. The Michigan shoreline is over 20 miles away at that point, so for someone seeking solace, or a better life, there is in that all-water eastern horizon a hint of the infinite.
In his search for Soul-help, Simmons often went walking. One of his favorite routes took him east toward Lake Michigan. "One day I was walking down Grove Street, and I passed the Christian Science Reading Room. I saw it said 'Christian Science' on the door, and the question that hit me the hardest—it really lit me up—was, 'What is Christian Science?' I had never heard that term before. I didn't even know you could associate the two together—Christian and Science. I tell everybody this: It must have been the same way when Moses saw the burning bush. It was an attraction when I saw . . . 'Christian Science Reading Room.'
"I was curious, and I walked in and asked the attendant that question, 'What is Christian Science?' " She told Simmons about Mary Baker Eddy, about the revelation she received over a century ago, and about the prayer-based healing practice that Mrs. Eddy's followers have become known for in the years since. "It was 'the practical application' — that's the way she put it — 'of divine healing as set forth by Jesus Christ,' the way that he demonstrated God's power to heal. That pretty much got me really interested."
Did he think he might have found a way to heal himself of the addictions, to get out of the darkness? "Well, I'll tell you what did cross my mind. It was a hope that this was real. I had a hope that . . . there was something actually out there that could heal somebody or help them. I hadn't found that anywhere else. I didn't get an understanding of what Jesus set forth until I encountered Christian Science.
"I think the most important part for me, in the beginning, was that I was presented with the Christian Science textbook, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy. As I began reading Science and Health, my thoughts concerning different things—life, my past, everything—began to elevate, to take off.
"I had tried to stop using drugs before. I had been through programs. But I still had doubts, and sooner or later the desire to use drugs came back. But once I got the understanding of . . . addiction as being nothing more than a belief—once I got to understanding it wasn't real and that there was actually no satisfaction in a harmful physical indulgence, it gave me a comfort." He says he learned that evil no power over him because God is the only true power.
Spiritual things satisfy
"Spiritual things were more satisfying to me, and that took the place of physical desires. I began actually to enjoy reflecting on spiritual things and enjoy reflecting on spiritual things and reading Science and Health and the Bible. As a matter of fact, those things that I used to do—running the street, or trying to hook up with friends to go to the bars or whatever. I didn't have an interest in those things anymore. My whole outlook on life and my desires changed."
Does he miss the old neighborhood, the friends and familiar streets? He went back once, Simmons says, but it was a last look back. "At first I had this feeling of loneliness, because I really didn't know anybody in Evanston except the people I went to church with, and I just saw them on Wednesdays and Sundays. However, there are some members of my church that invite me over to dinner and different things like that. So what seemed to be loneliness, it just evaporated. I had new friends, new ideas, new understanding about God, and all of those things were uplifting."
Simmons also found a new job with Baker & Taylor, a leading book distributor. He started on the shipping dock and now works at a computer. He moved from the shelter to a room at the YMCA, then to an apartment—a home of his own.
To Simmons, having a home and meaningful work is the natural effect of understanding that God's law of good includes everyone in its care. He believes that if you seek first those "new ideas" from God, you'll have whatever you need. "It's like what Mrs. Eddy says, 'Divine Love always has met and always will meet every human need' (Science and Health, p. 494). I'm not making a large amount of money, but all my needs are met, and it's not like I'm scuffling—I'm enjoying life now. I don't have a lot of the material things I had when I was drugging. I lost all of that. But I'm happier now than I was then. "When you've been in the darkness for so long, and then somebody cuts on that light, you know how beautiful that light is. . . . I've got a poster on my wall, in my kitchen, and it says, 'Health—the effect of understanding God.' A lot of times I substitute for that word health so many other things that have happened to me—things like joy and peace.
"If I were to put a title on what's happened to me, that title would have to have 'understanding God' in it. That's when the light was turned up, like those lights where you can adjust the intensity. It's not a harsh light, but it's getting to be pretty bright.
"I know the difference between being in a dark, damp, cold basement, with nothing but drugs and coldness, and then being in a well-lit church with people around me that love me and care for me, and at the same time receiving an understanding of God. And that's a big difference."
Is there a seeker inside everyone, including the people he knew on the street? "Sure. I believe that everybody wants something good. And I believe that everybody wants happiness, but there's a misunderstanding as to what goodness is, what happiness is. A lot of people feel that goodness and happiness are in material things, or in physical indulgences, and you never get satisfied in those things. That's why you have to keep doing them over and over and over again, and you never truly get satisfied.
"Going back over 15 years of drug use, maybe 20, and all the time that I spent in prison, I'll say to anybody: To gain an understanding of God is the most important thing that can happen in anyone's life. That just takes away all the blindness. It lets you know that you have a purpose."
No one left out
"I don't believe that anybody will be left out. All the people that seem to be suffering, theirs is the kingdom, too. It's just a matter of being receptive to the truth when it comes. No one will be lost . . . because Truth and Love are all—God is All—and none can be lost to Him. He's all powerful. I'm a witness to God's love and His help. And it's not just for me. It's for anybody that wants it. All you have to do is have a desire for it—I'm talking about a real desire—and it will happen."
For a precedent Simmons cites
Luke's Gospel, chapter 8. "It's just like the lady that had an issue of blood. She had a desire for help. All of her money was gone, and the physicians had done what they could do, and it was no help. She turned to the truth, believing that if she could touch the hem of Jesus' garment, she would be healed. It happened to me that same way. I felt that if I could just find the truth of who God is . . . that God could help me, would help me. I just needed to understand Him.
"My prayer for the homeless is that they will come to the realization of who God is and what He can do for them. I mean, you can feed people . . . and you can give them shelter, but until they're receptive to the truth of who they are as God's creation, they really haven't received the help they need. I see a lot of guys who are in shelters; for them it's a way of life, and they grow to be comfortable with that . . . a roof over their head and food to eat. But there's something more valuable out here to grasp.
"When they would let us out of the mission, I would go down to the lake and pray, just by myself down there, and I would come back. But all the time that I was walking back and forth from the shelter to the lake . . . I had a desire, I guess, for righteousness. And I still do.
"Since I found Christian Science, I haven't had a desire for anything else—just to know how to be more righteous and how to express divine Love, the way that Jesus expressed it; how to come closer to the way that he expressed truth and love to people.
"I haven't had a desire for drugs or alcohol or anything that would take me off that path. And that's the blessing right there. You know for yourself that you've been freed. I mean, there's nothing like knowing that you're free.
"I've got a smile on my face, and I know who put it there."
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