“I’m not telling you it wasn’t a difficult road. It was a very difficult road because I burnt a lot of bridges. I had stolen from people. My gambling addiction was out of control. I had bled my parents dry of money. The whole thing was a train wreck.”
Tom Rogers is a tall, sturdy man. Dressed in black shoes, a blue striped dress shirt, and black slacks, Tom Rogers greets me in a thunderous voice and puts a strong handshake into my palm. Like the unwavering confidence of a salesman, Tom Rogers looks as though he could never break.
But the truth is that Tom Rogers lives in a world where the past is not just broken, it is shattered, and yet the Missouri man somehow manages to keep his present – and the present of others – full of life.
That is, after all, his profession.
During the interview, Tom Rogers crosses his legs and rests his hands on his knees. He appears calm and collected. He doesn’t talk with his hands. His face is serious and controlled. Well kept, his voice is relaxed even though there’s something of a fiery growl that rears its head almost as if the man possesses a demon that wants to get out.
The Watered Gardens Gospel Mission sits behind Joplin’s main street. It is housed in what looks like a former brick industrial building. Outside, in the parking lot, there are members of the mission lazing about. Some look at me, some don’t. Some are smoking Pall Mall cigarettes and laughing like cuckoos.
Then one calls out to me, “Hey! It’s Elvis Presley!” It’s a sure gesture to my slick style hair cut. Unfortunately, he is wrong. Elvis is dead. The faces in the parking lot appear bent, twisted, and deflated. These could be the saddest faces in America.
There’s little anger in them. No palpable aggression. Instead, I see hopelessness. A magnificent loss.
The sadness that wells up around the mission is a sadness that Tom Rogers knows cold. In fact, defeating hopelessness is his mission. And at his best, Tom Rogers transforms the deflated faces I see in the parking lot into people who feel and want to be alive – people with purpose.
Tom Rogers describes himself as a life coach. “Some describe what I do as Evangelism,” he says.
But Tom Rogers says that he is not so keen on the sort of religion practiced by Joplin’s Evangelical mega-churches. Instead, he has formulated his own sort of spiritual healing. After defeating his own personal history of brokenness borne out of drug and alcohol abuse (including a near-death experience), Tom Rogers dedicates his time at the mission to repairing the broken lives of others.
“I was born here in Joplin… at the hospital that was destroyed in the tornado. I grew up with an alcoholic father and a co-dependent mother. And only through a searching and fearless, moral inventory that I did over the last couple years did I really discover where I had to make a decision that I would have to be a person that had to shelter himself and to create a new personality and to find the safest route through life without really expressing who I really was.
When you grow up in a non-affectionate home where there’s not a hug, a kiss, you try to help yourself with that a little bit. You give yourself some atta-boys. You seek approval from people in destructive ways. You seek approval. Even to this day I catch myself seeking approval from people and seeking attention. I grew up a confused child.”
Tom Rogers says he knows the worst in people and the best in people. It’s difficult not to believe him.
When a tornado ripped through Joplin in May of 2011, it decimated one third of the city and left one hundred people dead. Tom Rogers lost his house, his car and all of his personal belongings. Fortunately, he kept his life. And what he experienced with that life was the aftermath of a horrific natural disaster, and though it might have seemed peculiar on the surface, Tom Rogers knew exactly what was poisoning Joplin.
It was the same thing that had poisoned him.
“We have a lot of people here who are transient,” explains Tom Rogers. “So a lot of folks came to town because they felt led to come and help clean up. It was a new start for them. Since Joplin was devastated they’d be able to come and blend in – knowing that so many people would displaced. I think there was a natural gravitation to come here and be involved in helping clean up – to make themselves part of the community.
That’s one thing that attracted a lot of people – these guys knew there would be a lot of work, a lot of clean up, a lot of work that wouldn’t require someone to look at their past. They had an opportunity to have a fresh start.
One thing that always comes with catastrophe and Joplin’s type of tragedy is unity. You never create any greater unity than with tragedy and catastrophe.
So you see a new spirit in town. I see the best of people, but I also see the worst in people. And I see people who have probably been in the position that I was in my past: how can I take advantage of this situation, how can I profit from this situation?” he explains.
Inside the mission, dinner is about to finish. There is a cluttered kitchen where three chefs busily push food onto a small counter. Some mission guests poke around at their plates. The food is stacked on green plastic hospital plates. Most people eat alone. Hardly anyone speaks. The faces I see are as plain and bland as the food. Lining the kitchen wall there are glass panels where short success stories about mission members are neatly taped up in a line.
One story is about man who fought a methamphetamine addiction, how he needed to change and how he did, and how now he drives a rig all over America for a national trucking company. It is told using the word “I.” I search for a name. There is none.
Now, after all the addiction and the pain, after the desperation and the sadness, after the brokenness, this truck driver is healed. Some, it seems, get to leave the mission and the sadness of Joplin behind. Some get to rejuvenate their American road.
Fortunately the repaired truck driver has Tom Roger’s gospel to show him the way.