During the year of President Kennedy’s assassination, fearful Americans anxiously awaited nuclear destruction from the sky, drugs began their invasion of the middle-class and a place called Vietnam loomed dangerously on the horizon. It was the year “Camelot” died tragically in its infancy.
In that turbulent setting, it is hardly surprising that local passers-by didn’t concern themselves with the disturbance under a bridge in an “undesirable” part of town. But a husky African American soldier in the U.S. Marine Corps, acting on impulse, did stop his car to investigate. This spur-of-the-moment decision by Tech Sergeant Lewis Whitehead was to give birth to Orange County’s largest and most effective Christian-based private human service organization.
What he faced under that bridge in 1963 changed his life forever. The altercation was minor (his dominating presence quelled the dispute quickly), but the sight of filthy men, women and children living under the bridge changed his vision of this community. They suffered under conditions that Sergeant Whitehead thought only existed in the poorest of nations and made a mockery of Hollywood’s representation of the homeless as happy-go-lucky “hobos”.
Images of those wretched people haunted his thoughts as he returned to his duty directing the mess hall at the Marine Corps Air Station, Tustin. That day, as he watched good food being thrown away, a combination of sorrow and determination overcame him.
He packed up some of this “waste” food and returned to the bridge to feed the hungry. The next day he returned again, and the next. Sergeant Whitehead held vigil with these dirty, undesirable people, gathering food and clothing for the children and encouraging the adults to resist drowning their despondency in alcohol. As he grew to know them, he found that these people were not wantonly homeless. He found that they were victims of deep emotional and spiritual wounds; that their capacity to cope with social responsibility had been slowly whittled away by unresolved childhood crises, and often relentless alcohol abuse which helped deaden their pain.
Once Sergeant Whitehead’s eyes were opened to the plight of the homeless, he began to see others in the same circumstance.
They were everywhere in “idyllic and affluent” Orange County, but the community seemed ignorant of them — as he so recently was. He began to stand up in church, speaking softly at first, then loudly, chastising his fellow neighbors for failing to comfort these hurting people. As a handful of churchgoers responded to his impassioned pleas, the Marine used his formidable leadership skills to unite the volunteers and build the framework for the county’s first Rescue Mission, which opened in a run-down office above a downtown Santa Ana shoe store.
From those humble beginnings, a rising tide of community support enlarged the Orange County Rescue Mission through several temporary buildings and residential homes. Soon, the Orange County Rescue Mission became the county’s largest privately funded human service agency for the poor and homeless. This was achieved without one penny of the taxpayers’ money.
Throughout the ensuing decades since that epochal day in 1963, as people saw the needs which the Rescue Mission was able to meet through their help, that support has grown. Providentially (and ironically), OCRM’s flagship transitional living facility, the Village of Hope, was built on the former Tustin Marine Base, a mere “stone’s throw” from the mess hall from which Sergeant Whitehead fed his first homeless families.
The Orange County Rescue Mission continues to implement innovative programs designed to offer the greatest long-term benefit to those who take advantage of them. Thank you for being a part of our growing vision. We hope you will continue to see the value in what we are doing and join us in this great work!