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AROUND THE SOUTH BAY

Praises Sung to the Lord--and to a Friend of the Down and Out

October 09, 1986|DEAN MURPHY

What a wonderful change in my life has been wrought,

Since Jesus came into my heart.

I have light in my soul for which long I had sought,

Since Jesus came into my heart.

Since Jesus came into my heart, since Jesus came into my heart;

Floods of joy o'er my soul like the sea billows roll,

Since Jesus came into my heart.

It was supposed to be a surprise, but as Gene McCann sang hymn No. 488 with the 70 or 80 folks who had crowded into the shiny, wood-paneled chapel, the grin on his face let on that he knew.

"I haven't been here for 40 years for nothing," McCann later explained. "They had five gallons of mayonnaise, and they didn't want me to answer the phone when Ramona's (bakery) called. . . . I said, 'Why are you buying six hams for an open house? We can have cookies and some sandwiches.' "

Last Sunday wasn't an ordinary Bible-reading, gospel-singing open house at the Beacon Light Mission, a Christian rescue mission located a short walk from downtown Wilmington in a neat stucco building easily spotted by its "Jesus Saves" sign.

No, this was a special open house, one to honor McCann, who has worked at the mission since 1946, the past two decades as its director. The short, balding, one-time amateur boxer who started at the mission as a bouncer and a cook showed no signs of tiring--or retiring. In fact, he was warned several times during the open house not to interpret the tribute as a farewell.

"People from as far away as Kansas wanted to be part of this celebration," said Wade Partin, treasurer of the mission's board of directors. "Without you, I don't know what we would do. And don't you think of retiring!"

The gala, planned for months, was supposed to be a secret. The scheme was to spring the surprise on McCann in the middle of the open house program, which serves as an annual get-together for the mission's moral and financial supporters.

The men who normally fill the chapel en route to a full stomach, a hot shower and a soft mattress had been asked to stay outside during the open house. In their place were men in thick glasses, nifty coats and neckties, and smiling women with neatly pressed dresses and coiffured hair.

The back dining room, where thousands of warm meals have been dished up for destitute men and women since the mission moved to Wilmington from San Pedro 14 years ago, had been converted into a fancy buffet, with ham and punch and a decorated cake. Even the vacant lot next door, which for years was submerged in trash and debris, had been tidied up.

The revival-style, two-hour service in the cozy chapel was complete with wide-eyed singers in robes who shouted "Praise the Lord!" and called each other sister and brother.

Aside from an occasional respite for a prayer or accolade, the crowd was consumed in music. Voices singing praise to the Lord filtered through the one-story mission, into the kitchen, the dormitory, the staff annex and the recreational room up front. Even the men and women curled up outside the front door couldn't help but hear the music.

All eyes were on McCann, who rocked back and forth as he faced the steamy chapel, his jacket discarded and his brown vest unbuttoned and swinging with the music like a metronome.

Shortly after the final verse of "Since Jesus Came Into My Heart," Harold Holstein, president of the mission's board, rose to the podium and broke the news.

"Gene is a hard one to keep things away from," he said. "It won't be a surprise."

There were a few sighs of disappointment, but nobody seemed terribly upset. After all, there was no time. There were more hymns to be sung, Bible verses to be read, prayers to be said--and, of course, tributes to be paid.

They gave him envelopes stuffed with money, a check for $650, and a plaque commemorating his service. One friend handed him 40 $1 bills--one for each year at the mission.

"And you thought you were going to get golf balls!" blurted McCann's wife, Wanda, who has shared 39 of McCann's 40 years at the mission.

McCann smiled. "Amen!" he shouted, his fist punching the air. He started telling stories about people at the mission. The young man from Germany who got robbed at the airport and had nowhere to turn. The time he was short on the month's bills, when, miraculously, a film company came along, shot the front of the mission, and handed him a check for $300.

"I only needed $297," he said.

McCann, 63, who lives in Carson, had never missed a day of work until 1982, when he suffered a heart attack. Last year, he was out for four months--and missed the open house--when he had triple-bypass surgery. But he says he feels great and wants to keep working at the mission. McCann estimates he has fed and delivered the Gospel to more than 760,000 men and women since he took over as director in 1964.

"Everyone is his friend. It doesn't matter who you are--even if you are in the gutter," said Ray Isbell, the mission's 84-year-old bookkeeper who met McCann in 1950, just as Isbell, an alcoholic at the time, showed up at the mission in search of help. "I have heard him listen to con stories, and he knew they were con stories, but when the guy left, he left with a smile on his face."

McCann said he has had several job offers during his tenure at the mission, some that would have allowed him to "earn in one week what I earn in a month." But none of them really tempted him, he said.

"This is Christianity in action," he said. "The Lord is good to me, and he has let me serve him. This is where I belong."

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