By Lydia Gans
[dropcap]D[/dropcap]ave Ferguson, the executive director of Open Door Mission in Oakland for 41 years, truly displayed a lifelong dedication — in every sense of those words — to his calling to be of service to the poorest of the poor.
Ferguson continued to work with the homeless and needy people who came to him for help right up until two weeks before his death from cancer at the age of 81 on August 31, 2014.
Ferguson made a very deep impression on the many people whose lives he touched. Shon Slaughter, the Open Door Mission’s new executive director, said he first encountered Ferguson 14 years ago.
Slaughter recalls, “The first day I met him, I was on the edge of my seat — until the day he passed.”
Slaughter became close friends with Ferguson and soon was involved in the work of the Mission. Ultimately, Ferguson spent his last six months intensively training Slaughter to take over.
When I attended the memorial event for homeless people held at St. Mary’s Center on December 10, I was moved by their special tribute to Dave Ferguson. [See the article about St. Mary’s memorial in this issue.]
Shortly after attending that memorial, I met with Shon Slaughter in his office in Oakland to learn more about Ferguson’s lifelong work. Slaughter explained that running the Open Door Mission involves managing a multiplicity of programs and services. The director helps poor people find housing, helps them manage their finances, and locates whatever basic services they may need.
Open Door also provides breakfast and dinner six days a week. Slaughter said that with Ferguson as the director of Open Door, “the meals were always hearty, always fresh, and he did all the shopping.”
The Mission also offers mail and payee services, and Slaughter said that Ferguson took on that large workload all by himself. “At one time, he acted as payee for as many as 50 folks,” said Slaughter. “That could be a fulltime job—plus. He did it all himself.”
Slaughter said that Ferguson’s passionate dedication was the thing that impressed him the most. “He was passionate about his work,” Slaughter said. “He was punctual. His word was his bond. For 41 years, these doors opened at 6:25 p.m. at night and at 7 a.m.”
Ferguson expected people to go out after the meal and take care of business, but he was available for counseling or help with practical issues if they needed him.
“He commanded respect because he gave respect,” said Slaughter. “He ran a tight ship for people who needed structure in their lives…. They loved to come because they knew this would be a safe haven.”
It involved far more than simply satisfying the physical needs of the people who came to Open Door Mission. Once asked to give a workshop on how he dealt with difficult clients, Ferguson hesitated, saying that it was not something that could simply be taught.
“It was always spirit driven,” Slaughter said. “It wasn’t specific. He explained that you have to have a relationship with people. You collect their mail, you feed them, you minister to them, you talk to them, you hug them, pray for them, love them. That’s the relationship. It happens over time, it doesn’t happen in one day.”
For Dave Ferguson, the Open Door Mission was like a family. Often, people maintained a connection long after they stayed there. Rodney Bell first stayed at the Mission when he was homeless in 2004. Ferguson got him a job.
In a recent interview, Bell said, “Dave’s Open Door has been the calm after the storm in my life.”
Bell is a talented piano player and after years of moving around, he reconnected with the Mission. Now, Bell plays music for the people when they come for their meals. The opportunity to enjoy live music together creates a sense of peace and community. You can look at it as “music therapy,” Slaughter suggested.
It is customary in many missions to have someone give a mandatory talk before the meals. One of the first things that Ferguson did when he became director was to reduce the time given the speakers from an hour to 30 minutes and ultimately to 15 minutes. And no one is forced to come in and listen. Rather, they can come in for their meal when the talk is over.
I asked Slaughter how he would describe Ferguson. “I would describe him as a fatherly-looking man,” he said. “Maybe ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ He always wore either short-sleeved or button-down shirts. Very clean-shaven. Not tall, five feet six or seven inches. Gentle-looking, that’s the word.”
Susan Werner, a social worker at St. Mary’s Center who has been working with homeless seniors for 25 years, expressed her deep admiration for Ferguson. In her work with seniors, she knows of their appreciation and gratitude for the help and inspiration that Ferguson has given them.
“I’m grateful,” she said, “for the work that he’s done because it has uplifted people who I care about too.”
She spoke of the importance of community, “how much he and I need community when working with people in need, people who are homeless.”
“It’s heartening to know other people who also are champions of the cause. Dave has been constant, like a rock, offering the welcome, free food — and basic human kindness to everyone.”
Shon Slaughter pledges to carry on the work of the Open Door Mission. “We are a family here and I want that to continue and even flourish more.”
Slaughter now talks about making changes and reaching out to other agencies, knowing that he had Ferguson’s blessing. “It’s just like he made changes, gave me the baton and said, ‘Shon, you make the changes that you know that the Lord has laid in your heart.’”
The message for all those who are hungry and homeless, and who need not just food and shelter, but love and support, is that Dave Ferguson’s spirit continues to live.