On the cracked, hot pavement of the Diamond Inn motel on Ramona Boulevard, Manny Rios huddled next to an elderly man and whispered prayers into the dense Jacksonville air.
Sweat already formed on his arm as Rios rested it on the man’s shoulders. There, between his elbow and his wrist, a cursive tattoo — “Saved” — shone fresh and dark in the afternoon sun.
Not too long ago, the cartography of Rios’ skin resembled another life entirely: one of an addict, a drug dealer and a gang member.
Those marks remain, permanent but fading.
With the bold white cross of a nearby megachurch piercing the skyline, Rios finished his prayer and stepped away from his newfound friend. A line of people now formed beside him, all waiting for a free barbecue dinner courtesy of Dope Church, a ministry of The Well Church of Jacksonville.
Approximately 75 people left their hotel rooms to join the gathering.
“This is just hamburgers and hot dogs. We are trying to introduce them to the real food: Jesus Christ,” Rios said. “They don’t need someone who is just going to preach at them. They need someone who is going to get down into the hole with them.”
That is exactly what Pastor Tone Benedict did for Rios — and for Rios’ wife, and for his fellow congregation members, and for all the people down and out at the Diamond Inn motel.
Hanging with the Sinners- Maybe Benedict attended church once when growing up in Chicago. He isn’t sure. Any recollection that might exist has fallen into disuse, consumed by time and his own uncertain memory.