Ron Hall wanted nothing to do with the homeless, only volunteering at the Union Gospel Mission in Fort Worth to make his wife Deborah happy. But before he could make a difference, he found the people making a difference in him, and it was Denver Moore—the roughest, most intimidating one of them all—who impacted him the most.
Ron had left the world of investment banking to devote himself full-time to art dealing, after his profits from selling paintings as a sideline began to dwarf his banking salary. Though he and Deborah surrendered their lives to Christ in 1973 after attending a home Bible study, they eventually grew apart because their interests diverged so greatly. He was far more interested in pursuing materialism, while Deborah wanted to pursue God.
After 19 years of marriage, Ron had a quick affair with a much younger woman in 1988 and faced considerable heat after confessing to Deborah. In the end, she called the woman and stunned Ron with her grace, extending forgiveness, adding, “If I do my job right, you will not be hearing from my husband again.”
After hearing that, Ron jumped at Deborah’s overture to seek counseling and restore their marriage. This time he began an affair with his wife, reducing his travel to be with her and their two children and to get more spiritual, while she committed time to his interests. They also bought a 350-acre ranch they named Rocky Top which became a refuge from the busy city for their family. Here they cemented their relationship.
After they moved to Fort Worth in 1998, Deborah saw a newspaper story about local homelessness that mentioned the Union Gospel Mission, felt a call to volunteer, and asked Ron to accompany her. This was hardly the cry of Ron’s heart, however, after some guys he regarded as “derelicts” had done a smash-and-grab at a gallery he’d opened, taking a bag of cash and artisan jewelry, causing him to chase them down the street. But desiring to keep his marriage strong, Ron agreed to go, secretly hoping some exposure to the homeless would make Deborah reconsider.
Before entering the mission for the first time, Deborah told Ron she pictured the place far differently in the future, much like Rocky Top—scores of flowers, no litter, no vagrants—a place where God’s love would abound. Then, that night, she had a dream she shared the next morning about a man whose face she saw. “It was like that verse in Ecclesiastes,” she told Ron, “a wise man who changes the city. I saw him.”
As Ron and Deborah spent a couple of weeks helping serve meals, Ron found that the only thing Deborah feared was missing the call of God. She treated everyone with respect, urging Ron to join her in memorizing everyone’s names and praying for each one. Ron found himself taking more of an interest when one day, a towering black man burst in, angrily threw a chair across the room, and threatened to kill whoever stole his shoes. As he cursed and swung wildly in the air, people scattered, but Deborah whispered excitedly in Ron’s ear that this was the man she saw in her dream, the one who would change the city. She then encouraged Ron to befriend the man. He was quick to shrug it off.
“He scared the living daylights out of me,” Ron says. “He was so intimidating and scary, I thought he might actually kill me and that would be my punishment for having the affair.”
[pullquote align=right]”He scared the living daylights out of me,” Ron says. “He was so intimidating and scary, I thought he might actually kill me and that would be my punishment for having the affair.”
Still wanting to please his wife, however, Ron began carefully pursuing the man. Never smiling and seldom speaking, Denver was a dedicated loner from whom everyone kept a respectful distance. Ron’s attempts to greet him were either completely ignored or brought only a leave-me-alone look.
Eventually, Ron’s heart began to thaw toward the mission, and he even started dropping in on his own and chatting with neighborhood people. He joined Deborah in widening their mission outreach, holding such things as movie night, birthday night, and more. He was shocked one day when Denver showed up for a ride to a concert. Afterward, he uttered his first words to Ron—an apology for avoiding him—and they agreed to have coffee the next morning.
Ron soon learned that Denver was an illiterate sharecropper, raised on a Louisiana plantation, who had never attended school. With little money, he hopped a freight train one day and spent 20-plus years homeless, interspersed with scrapes with the law, including a 10-year sentence for armed robbery. He had unsuccessfully tried to hold up a bus driver, then turned himself in.
Later on, Ron would learn of the time Denver, as a teenager, stopped to change a tire for a white lady when two white guys on horses accused him of bothering the woman, who said nothing in his defense. One of them tied a rope around his neck and set the horse galloping. If someone with a shotgun hadn’t intervened, he knows he would have died within minutes.
At the end of the meal, Denver asked Ron what he wanted from him. Ron replied simply, “I just want to be your friend.” Denver’s eyebrows went up, and after a long silence, he said he needed to think about it.
A week later, when reuniting for more coffee, Denver raised the subject but first had to clear up something that bothered him about white people. He said when they go fishing, they “catch and release,” while blacks eat what they catch because they’re proud of their catch and it represents sustenance. Why go through the trouble only to toss it back?
Denver then got to the point: “If you is fishin’ for a friend you just gon’ catch and release, then I ain’t got no desire to be your friend.” After a pause, with his eyes and voice softening, he added, “But if you is lookin’ for a real friend, then I’ll be one. Forever.” Completely humbled, Ron could only reply, “Denver, if you’ll be my friend, I promise not to catch and release.”
From then on, they hung out a lot, venturing into one another’s worlds. Ron took a paternalistic view, thinking that exposing Denver to his world would perhaps cause Denver to change his ways; it was Denver, however, who wound up changing him.
“He spoke with a simple wisdom I had never heard before that intrigued me,” Ron says. “One time he looked at my key ring and asked if I owned something for every key. He said, ‘I don’t own nothin’ and nothin’ owns me.’ He asked, ‘Do you own all those things, or do they own you?’”
Denver also had a spiritual awareness, according to Ron, though he remained unsure of his salvation until he attended a retreat with Deborah and others. Before then, he had the Bible read to him growing up and heard a preacher read from it extensively while in prison; plus, he didn’t get any meals at the mission without first hearing a gospel message.
“In his alone time, he just talked and listened to God,” Ron says. “When it comes to his wisdom, he learned everything from revelation in talking to God.”
The Thief Comes in the Night
One day, Denver solemnly warned Ron to watch his back because his wife was becoming precious to God, thus drawing Satan’s attention. “Somethin’ bad gettin’ ready to happen to Miss Debbie,” he said. “The thief comes in the night.”
Not too much later, Deborah went for her annual physical, and the doctor felt something suspicious in her abdomen. Tests eventually revealed colon cancer. Through the surgeries and chemo and hunts for alternative therapies, Denver prayed earnestly, sometimes all night.
While on her deathbed, when she was still able to communicate, Deborah had a request for Ron regarding Denver.
“I had been thinking about catching and releasing,” he says, “but she asked me to continue the friendship, and it’s the best thing I ever did. I didn’t really teach him much; he taught me more about life. The only thing he learned from me was the difference between a taco and an enchilada.”
With time, Deborah became unable to eat but hung on longer than anyone expected, living solely on ice chips for three weeks. One day, Ron saw Deborah react with newfound strength to the angels she saw in the room, and then she greeted Jesus, apparently answering His invitation, “No, I think I’ll stay here!”
When Denver arrived the next day, he revealed a vision he had of angels in her room who had come to take her home, and it was at the exact same time. Denver added, “The saints here on earth still have a chain around her and won’t let her go. So, the Lord told me to come and break the chain.”
In the only private time he had with Deborah, Denver told her she had fulfilled her work and added, “God has put it on my heart to tell you that if you lay down the torch, I’ll pick it up and keep your ministry to the homeless goin’.” Unable to respond, her eyes only shined with tears. He then said, “So you can go on home now, Miss Debbie. Go home in peace.” As he held up her head, her tears spilled over, and he concluded, “Farewell. I’ll see you on the other side.”
Two days later, on November 3, 2000, she was gone. Three days later, Denver helped bury her at the highest point on Rocky Top, just as she wanted.
At the memorial service, Denver shared what she had meant to him, leaving the stage to a standing ovation. Immediately, two couples donated a combined $500,000 to build a new Union Gospel Mission and help raise more funds.
In time, Ron asked Denver to move in with him, which lasted 8 1/2 years until Denver’s death on March 31 at age 75. “We just lived life together,” Ron says. “We traveled together, did everything together.”
They also collaborated on a book chronicling their experience called Same Kind of Different as Me, which spent more than 3 1/2 years on the New York Times bestseller list and gave them an active speaking schedule, with more than 100 appearances annually. The two then came out with a second book, What Difference Do It Make?—with the message that anyone can make a difference.
Make the World Better
Still in the art business, Ron continues speaking about four times a month on behalf of the homeless to remove the fear of getting involved. Now 67, Ron remarried in May 2011 to a long-time friend from Charleston, South Carolina.
Meanwhile, the $500,000 in donations became seed money used for challenge grants which brought in $12 million. Also, the royalties from the first million copies of the first book went to the mission, allowing it to rebuild with no debt.
Today, it is far more than a shelter, housing 500, and feeding about 400,000 meals annually—a complete rehabilitation center offering a medical clinic, job placement, child care, and much more. “It’s everything now,” Ron says. “It’s a safe haven for many people.” Meanwhile, the facility wound up exactly as Deborah had envisioned, according to Ron, complete with the same color flowers and beautiful landscaping. The next project is to raise money to construct a building for women.
The mission used to beg people to volunteer, Ron says. Now, it is “overrun with volunteers” because of the awareness of the homeless that the first book brought. “It has made an enormous impact on the city,” he says, “and almost every day I hear from people what they have done for the homeless after reading our book.”
When on speaking engagements, Ron speaks of sharing the blessings and challenges audiences to make the world a better place.
“Sometimes fear of the unknown keeps you from finding out what God has for you,” he says. “Debbie was not afraid, and I found exactly what she was talking about. You never know whose eyes God is watching you through. I ask, ‘What will be your legacy? What will your children say?’”
Though Ron’s motivation for involvement was strictly to please his wife and bolster their marriage, he recognizes God worked that together for great good and changed him in the process.
“My life is defined by my friendship with Denver,” he says, “and that I took the most dangerous man from the streets and he lived with me for nine years, and we forged a friendship closer than any family member I’ve ever known. I’m not the same without him now. I think about him every day. He became my life for so many years, and then one day he was gone. It left a huge void.”
Of all the lessons Ron learned from Denver, the biggest is encapsulated in the story he has often told of Jose. Ron was hesitant to help Jose because he figured he was a drunk, always observing him moving unsteadily. He later discovered that Jose never touched alcohol; he was suffering the effects of a stroke.
“Denver told me God needs servants, not judges,” Ron says. “He busted me many times. I learned to never judge people without knowing their heart and their circumstances.”
Chuck Goldberg has a degree in journalism and a Master of Divinity in Christian education. A former newspaper reporter and magazine managing editor, he is now an ordained minister and freelance writer-editor. He and his wife Dolly have three children and live in Layton, Utah.