No Smoking In The Mission


The tobacco industry shapes the lives of most southerners. Tobacco fields are prevalent everywhere, and many farmers make their living producing this crop. Fear of losing their means of living causes them to ignore the health-hazard warnings put out by the American Medical Association. As more and more health-conscious people move south, greater pressure mounts to have smoke-free environments.

As a result a ‘No Smoking’ policy was to be established at the mission.

“James, I’m depending on you to help enforce this ‘no smoking’ policy here at the mission. Will you do it?” I asked.

“Wh-wh-why shu-shu-should I?” he stuttered. “Th-th-that means I ca-ca-can’t smoke in here”.

“That’s right, James. You have to set the example for everyone who comes in here. Remember, you are our cook. You’re here every day. And if you smoke in here, then everyone else will think it’s okay. Besides, it’s not good for your health.” I chided.

“Yeah, bu-bu-but I ain’t go-go-gonna quit,” he mumbled as he walked toward the boiling pot of beans. “I be-be-been smo-smo-smoking all my life.”

You had to get to know James. On the surface he was mean and ornery; just as soon stab you as look at you. But underneath was a tender heart; one that cared deeply about hurting and hungry people. He came from a poor share-cropping family. His grandparents had been slaves on a southern plantation in South Carolina back in the 1800’s around the time of the Civil War. He knew what it was to be hungry and poor. He had no schooling because black people back then weren’t allowed to go to school. There was very little food for him and his eleven brothers and sisters. As soon as he could, he left home to make a life of his own. He was about twelve years old. Trouble was, life didn’t get any easier. He drank, he cussed, fought a lot, killed a man, went to prison, and ended up an alcoholic, homeless with no one to turn to.

That’s when Rev, the preacher at the mission, found him; dead drunk on the street in the middle of winter. His toes were frozen, so they had to amputate some of them. When he got out of the hospital, the mission became his home. Now he had something to live for and someone who cared for him. And not only that, he could now help someone else who was in need. The only thing he knew how to do was cook — pinto beans, black-eyed peas, greens and feet, chicken with rice and barbecued chicken.

The kitchen of the mission was his domain. He didn’t allow people in his territory. And he’d chase them out if they didn’t belong there. When drunks came in, he’d go after them and tell them they couldn’t be there until they sobered up. But then every once in a while, he’d get the urge, too. He’d go on a binge and wouldn’t show up for two or three days. When he finally came in, his head would hang in shame. We’d talk, tears would come down his face, he would apologize, then he’s go back to cooking.

“James, what’s cooking today?” Sammy loudly asked as he stumbled in the door.

Right away, James could tell he was drunk. “Yu-yu-you ge-ge-get out of here, Sa-Sa-Sammy. You drunk again,” he stuttered in his usual cantankerous way.

“Awe, James, you ain’t nothing.” Sammy blurted as he staggered and fell on the sofa. He took out a cigarette, lit it up and started to smoke. He didn’t know about the ‘no smoking’ policy.

“Hey, you.” James called to Sammy. “Yu-yu-you ca-ca-can’t smo-smo-smoke in here. N-n-now get out be-be-before I co-co-come after you with this kn-kn-knife.”

Sammy ignored him, puffing away on his cigarette.

“Hey you, Sammy. Di-di-didn’t you he-he-hear man? You be-be-better get out of he-he-here.” James picked up a knife. He ran toward Sammy, ready to stab him. Sammy saw him coming, jumped off the sofa and ran to the door.

Just as I opened the door to come into the mission, out ran Sammy yelling, “That man’s crazy!” I no sooner turned around to walk in when James came running with the kife, and before I knew it, he has stopped just short of thrusting it into my stomach.

“James, what are you doing?” I yelled. “Man, you almost killed me. What are you doing with that knife?”

“I-I-I’m go-go-gonna ki-ki-kill him. He-he-he ai-ai-ain’t supposed to smo-smo-smoke in here.”

“Whoa, James. Come on, let’s go in and talk about this.” I calmly said, assessing the situation. We sat and talked. Tears streamed down his face as he realized that he almost thrust the knife in me, and not his intended victim.

“I-I-I was only do-do-doing wha-wha-what you told me to do,” he said. “I ain’t go-go-gonna let no-no-nobody smo-smo-smoke in here.”

“James, I know you mean well and you were trying to do what I wanted, but listen. We can’t kill people here. This is a mission. How would it look in the papers: ‘Head Cook At Mission Kills Man Because He Wouldn’t Stop Smoking’? We’re here to love the poor and homeless. Do you understand?”

He looked at me like a little child. “I di-di-didn’t me-me-mean to hu-hu-hurt anyone. You, the Rev and Becky and this mi-mi-mission is all I got. I wo-wo-won’t cha-cha-chase anybody with a kni-kni-knife again,” he said. “I ca-ca-came to clo-clo-close to hurting you.”

“I know James, you’re sorry, and I accept your apology. Next time someone comes in and starts to light up a cigarette, just tell them we have a new, ‘no smoking’ policy inside the building. Ask them to go outside to smoke, then they can come back in. Okay?”

He nodded in agreement, got up from his chair and sauntered off toward the stove. I looked over at his pot of boiling beans. Next to the pot, on the edge of the counter, lay a smoldering cigarette.