River of Life

The truth is, you never know the story of the man on the corner.

You’d never guess that just four years ago Jim Callahan lived out of his car. The soft-spoken gentleman across the desk from me is dressed in an aloha shirt, with a watch and glasses. Currently, he is the manager of administration and finance at downtown’s River of Life Mission, but he first encountered the faith-based organization as a guest.

Although boarding facilities are not yet available, River of Life provides downtown’s homeless and low-income community with meals, clothing, showers, skills training, daily Bible studies and church services. Tonight, a line forms outside the Pauahi Street doors, each guest is ushered in, sat down at a clean, white, round table and served a balanced meal.

Hunger drew Callahan in on his first visit. "I never dreamed I’d be without a place to sleep," says Callahan, a former risk-management consultant in Honolulu. Then he suffered a massive heart attack and his wife left him the day he returned from the hospital. After a merger, his company eliminated his position. "I lost my health, family and employment simultaneously." After weeks of passing by the mission, intimidated by the crowd outside, Callahan entered the translucent, etched-glass doors, received a meal and eventually a job.

When he first arrived at the mission, it was considerably smaller. Today, volunteers place prepared plates of food in front of each guest in a restaurantlike atmosphere. Tonight’s meal is fried fish, a scoop of rice, vegetables and a slice of cheesecake. Murals cover the walls with trees and flowers. Mostly men fill the seats; some inhale the food, barely chewing each bite. Others wrap scraps in napkins for later, or perhaps for a friend outside. A pregnant woman sits next to her boyfriend and tells me she hopes for a girl. He pushes the vegetables from his plate to hers and rubs her belly, smiling.

River of Life’s staff includes an ex-hair dresser, a pool serviceman, a freelance photographer, a former homeless woman and a former drug and alcohol addict, all of whom share the goal of changing lives. Scuffles and arguments at the mission are rare, no matter how desperate some of clients’ circumstances may be.

"People on the street really respect this place," says Phil Spalding, a board member and weekly volunteer. "If there’s ever any problem, the guests will do the policing, because they all want the same thing; they are very protective of this place."

When the meal is over, however, the homeless are sent back out to the streets. "It’s very hard," says Pastor Bob Merchant, executive director of the mission, "to see people slip back."

The mission is planning to open residential units, its first for women newly released from prison. The goal is to provide a place to sleep, away from the temptations on the street, to break the cycle many of the homeless face.

"It’s hard to measure success," says Merchant. "There are more people on the street than we’re getting off." He holds fast to the mission’s motto, "one at a time."


River of Life’s third annual Walk for Hunger will be held at Ala Moana Beach Park on Oct. 29, 2005. Contact the mission for registration and donations. Volunteer applications for individuals as well as church, military and school groups are available at the mission or online at riveroflifemission.org.

River of Life Mission
101 N. Pauahi St.
Honolulu, HI 96817