The deepest life comes when your arms are around the poor at a moment of need. That is why organizations like The Bowery Mission is the address for the true meaning of New York City: a city of the deeper life; the more compassionate life; a city in which the least of us counts even in the conversations of the rich.
Late in life, James Cash Penney, Jr. recalled a visit to a “rescue mission” in New York City right after World War II. He had spent a life time of hard knocks and hard work. At each stage of his life’s journey a rescue mission played a pivotal role. These missions specialized in helping the broken people in our city who had become homeless or almost homeless.
He was one of our city’s most storied businessmen. At the time of his death the JC Penney stores were pulling in over $18 billion of business. Yet, for Penney, the heart of corporate life beat strongest when it was shaped around the meaning of the rescue mission.
Several times, a mission’s influence saved him from disaster or expanded his horizons. That night in 1948 he dropped by The Bowery Mission and observed a man “plainly affected by the hymn, ‘My Faith Looks Up To Thee.’” Penney’s mom loved the hymn and used to sing it while she did her housework in the kitchen while Penney looked on.
The poor man in the pew felt the hymn acutely. Penney thought that it might be because the man was remembering his own mother humming the tune. Penney asked, “Did your own mother happen to be fond of it?” The man turned to face Penney who wrote about the incident: “With difficulty to get the words out he mumbled, ‘My mother used to sing in church—the choir—I can hear them—‘My Faith Looks Up To Thee’—“
Penney saw that behind the man’s sick eyes that there was a heart still flickering for hope of life. So, he continued to talk with the man who sat hunched over as if he wasn’t listening. Finally, the founder of the JC Penney Corporation offered to do something that he had never done in his whole life, even in his own crises. In 1910 Penney had visited a rescue mission for help after his wife died, but he sat anonymously at the very back. In 1931 at the Battle Creek Sanitarium he had sat in the back of the chapel there too. Now, he offered, “If I go with you, will you go forward?” The executive noted that “I understood so well the ways in which we hold back…”
With an exhausted relief the man went with Penney to the front of the mission.
Penney recalls this moment as deeply significant in his own life: “Thereby for the first time in my experience, God gave me the privilege of leading a fellow-man to His altar.” Penney recalled the Bible verse in Mark 5:36, “Be not afraid, only believe.”
It took a lifetime’s experience with organizations like The Bowery Mission for Penney to expand his vision on what it means to have a deeper life. Early in life, he offered an ethical workplace for the up and coming. After a crisis in 1910, he gave money for other people to help the poor and needy.
After his own economic failure in the Great Depression, Penney started to learn to personally care for the down and out and to care less about his success and reputation. By 1948 he was ready to come in person to be alongside a poor, bedraggled, stinky man off the street. Penney’s way of living progressed from the ethical life to the charitable life, then to the loving life.
As a kid, Penney had contact with rescue missions through a newspaper associated with The Bowery Mission, the Christian Herald, which his parents read to him. He kept a copy of an 1897 issue of the paper in his files. He told people he recalled with admiration one of its first columnists.
The young Penney’s parents were poor and rigorously religious. His father told his 8-year old son to raise money to pay for his own clothing because the family couldn’t afford to and probably to teach his son self-reliance and discipline. The effect was that their son was very industrious with strict ethics but not inclined to toward an inner spirituality.
Good ethics are a pretty good start in life, but without a deeper personal spirituality the rules can seem pretty cold and personally unsatisfying, particularly in a crisis that violates the rules.
In fact Penney recalls, “I kept my faith in a little box apart from the rest of my life.” His contemporaries could see the results. They uniformly praised his ethics but found him personally formal and a little distant. However, Penney’s heart was kept warm by his wife Berta, a warmth which probably spilled over into his other relationships.
Berta was deeply devout as well as involved with Penney’s vocational hopes. She believed in him and comforted him in the face of his fears of failure. Then, she suddenly fell deathly sick while her husband was on a long trip. Falling into a coma, she never knew that her husband had made it back. A JC Penney official later wrote, “They had to pry his hand from hers long after it had turned cold.”
The local paper recorded, “Mrs. J.C. Penney dies. Sick with pneumonia and suffering from asthma for a long time. Died at home 371 Seventh Avenue, Salt Lake. Funeral December 26, 1910 at home. Age 43.”
A Christmas burial, then hopelessness.
“In that hour my world crashed about me,” Penney wrote. “ I felt mocked by life, even God himself.”
The store magnate didn’t know where to turn. Outwardly ethical, inside he had no deeper spiritual source to brace his heart through a crisis. His life was an ethical one but not a prayerful life. “I didn’t pray during this shattering experience, for the reason I could not. The plain fact is, I had not learned how to pray.”
One day after the funeral Penney was sitting in his office and startled everyone with a sudden scream, “Why!”, then sobbing uncontrollably. A worker took him home, and he recovered enough to go about business, which was booming. But inside he felt empty, adrift. He used the busyness of business to give a semblance of purpose to his life. He constantly traveled. The New York writer Ring Lardner once wrote that a man adrift wanders around looking for trouble to kill the sense of meaninglessness.
After arrival for business in New York on a cold, windy winter day in 1910, Penney finished work and then wandered all through the night. Stress tortures the human mind in a thousand ways. For Penney it was sleeplessness. He came upon a coal dock on the East River. He wondered if it would be better if he just slip into the waters. Many a life in old New York City was lost this way.
Instead, he took off for the Bowery averting disaster through restless movement. But he also had an almost uncontrollable desire to drink himself to oblivion. He remembered, “I walked long hours alone, blindly battling the ceaseless assault on my will and nerves…through the dark, deserted corridors of the impersonal city, along the tangled streets of the Lower East Side.”
Penney hoped that exhaustion would overtake him before anything bad happened. Forty years later, he well understood the exhausted state of the man in the pew.
Bowery Street was dotted from its head in Chinatown to its end at Fourth Street with rescue missions, bars, and flophouses. Life in boomtown New York City could be harsh and unforgiving. Some people were cast adrift as the detritus of city. The poor conditions of so many people pricked the conscious of the city and the nation. The Bowery Mission had just opened its new chapel with United States President William Howard Taft at its dedication in December 1909. Other charities also opened or expanded.
Penney wandered in the area under the shadows of the old Third Avenue El train tracks. He heard a faint sound in the night, something musical that seemed like a ray of warmth. He was
attracted to it.
The chilly wind pushed Penney along; he was almost out of energy. Curiosity also pulled him toward a rescue mission. Penney recounted, “I stepped inside the mission, slipping into a seat at the back of the room.”
A fellow merchandiser was speaking up front. Penney noticed “he was dressed sprucely in the height of fashion.” Yet, the man talked of his disastrous spiral to “a bitter caricature of a man.” Penney couldn’t reconcile the man he saw with the historical picture presented. Then, he realized that he was that man now, spiraling downward . It was only a matter of time that Penney would take to drink and sink “as low as it is possible for a man to go.”
The speaker then expressed his own surprise that “the good people of this rescue mission” put joy back into his heart.
Penney heard the man’s words as a preplanned telegram from God above. “In my distraught state I did not altogether grasp it clearly. But I felt that my steps had been led in some way halfway across the city…to Tom Noonan’s Rescue Mission.”
The man in the back pew felt his heart fill with courage. Anonymously, as he left, he gave one of the leaders a check for the mission, the first of many that he would leave for rescue missions.
Penney felt emboldened. He threw himself back into building what would become JC Penney stores “with a certain reviving sense of pioneering adventure.” He moved the chain store’s headquarters to New York City.
The entrepreneur thought that his problem was that he had been all business and not involved in charitable endeavors. So, he asked a young minister named Rev. Daniel A. Poling to join him in doing good as head of the JC Penney Foundation on January 1, 1926. Poling was also the Editor-in-Chief of the Christian Herald, the newspaper associated with The Bowery Mission, and the pastor of Marble Collegiate Church.
After the death of their great charismatic leader Louis Klopsch in 1910, The Bowery Mission and its associated organizations had declined and lost their touch with the general public. As result, by 1927 it was in dire financial straights. The head of the Christian Herald Association asked Penney if he would take it over. Penney did and started picking up their deficits which were considerable. On its Fiftieth Anniversary, the Christian Herald headlined on January 7, 1928, “President JC Penney!”
However, as the financial situation of The Bowery Mission and its associated organizations was beginning to be stabilized, the 1929 Great Depression hit. JC Penney stock went from $140 to $13 per share. Consequently, several banks called in their loans to Penney. His own bank failed. Personally, he was headed to financial ruin, but he wanted to save the mission. He spent every last cent he had to do so. He took a loan out on his life insurance, he closed down his home except for a few rooms, his wife canned tomatoes and fruits. He poured everything into the mission. Finally, he made the mission and its associated organizations debt free. He could do no more. He gave the Christian Herald Association, The Bowery Mission and other organizations to Daniel Poling with the instruction to take care of them. In 1966 he wrote a friend, “I lost all I had…[But] I undertook to revive and finance the Christian Herald…which I could not well afford. I am glad that I did, for I feel Dan Poling and his splendid organization have done a great job.” He gave about $4,000,000 to The Bowery Mission and its parent agency the Christian Herald Association (the equivalent of $52,000,000 in 2011).
Penney then spiraled downward into an emotional abyss. By late 1931 a friend insisted that he check himself into Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. A few weeks afterwards, he hand-wrote a speech that he gave to business leaders in Louisville, Kentucky. This speech is the only known existing contemporaneous testimony to Penney’s breakdown and spiritual recovery. He paralleled his own depression to the Great Depression afflicting the nation. He told the audience that false values and false expectations felled him personally and the nation.
“There isn’t a man here, but would admit that in 1929 things were coming too easy—we were waxing fat and rich,” he told the audience. He averred, “I am not blaming any one—I am just as guilty as anyone else. New cars every year: the man who had more, wanted one; the man who had one, wanted two; and so on.”
Penney said he had lost sense of his own personal limits and capabilities. “I tackled things I had no business [doing]; I felt there was no limit to what might be accomplished.” He felt invulnerable. Later, he wrote, “I had permitted the idea of the power of money to possess me.”
After the utter economic failures of himself and the nation, Penney felt oppressed in its epicenter, New York City. “In the atmosphere I was unhappy; the farther away I got from it, the happier I was.” He took to ceaseless travel to see what was happening in the rest of the nation during the Great Depression. It was both an exploration and an escape. Then, he emotionally crashed in Battle Creek where he annually went for check-ups. He was immediately put to bed and given sedatives so that he could sleep.
One night at 9 pm, he took a sedative. He told the audience in Louisville, “I had been obsessed with the idea that I had lost all my friends.” Penny blamed others for his failures. He felt abandoned. He later wrote that he was starting to imagine things and was fearful. “Nerves played strange tricks on me sometimes when I pulled weeds and cleared off stones [on his land]…I would imagine that any minute someone would be coming to serve me with new papers in some proceeding.”
At 10 pm he got up. He wrote letters of farewell to his family. He then returned to bed fully expecting never to wake up again.
In the morning Penney was surprised to discover that he was awake. A feeling came over him that something momentous was going to happen. He stumbled out into the hallway and shuffled off to the dining room for breakfast. It was too early and no one was there. Penney later wrote, “I felt as though an immense loneliness closed me in. I stood there, uncertain in an emptiness that seemed to me to have no horizon.”
Softly, “the thread” of a favorite hymn of his mother and The Bowery Mission wafted into the dining room. “Be not dismayed whate’er betide. God will take care of you.”
Penney entered a chapel off the dining room, and, as the doctors and nurses sang, “Lean weary one,” he sank down in the back. He told the Louisville audience that moment was “the definite turning point in my life.” Later, he reflected, “something happened to me…I had the feeling of being lifted out of an immensity of dark space into a spaciousness of warm and brilliant sunlight.”
The patient instantly knew why he was there at the sanitarium. It was to gain a type of life that went deeper than he had ever experienced. He cried out, “Lord, I can do nothing. Will you take care of me?”
He realized that it wasn’t everybody else’s fault for his problems. “The thought flashed through my wearied mind that, if I had held myself responsible for such success I had achieved, so too was I, and I alone, responsible for all the troubles that had descended upon me. But the great thing was that now I knew; God with His boundless and matchlessly patient love was there to help me.”
Penney started to recover rapidly and was able to go home for Christmas. His ethical pride had been crushed by accusations over his failures; even his compassionate interests had been stripped from him. Neither of those—ethics or compassionate behavior—was able to fill the void. But now he discovered a third stage of being: the power of personal love. He had a personal opening of his heart to familiarity with God, familiarity to others and familiarity with himself. Penney told the Louisville audience that he was learning to live in faith and not in fear. He urged each one to have “faith in himself, faith in his fellows and faith in God. For man’s end is not in defeat, but victory.”
It took time for Penney to change a lifetime of putting up walls and filling in moats to keep others out. Only a very few people ever called him “Jim.” His wife in his later years even called him, affectionately, “Mr. Penney.” But on that bench before The Bowery Mission altar in 1948, Penney finally came to rest on a deep source of life and strength that did not fear honesty with oneself or what others think. He was not afraid to make himself vulnerable by sharing his inner struggles with the hopeless poor man in the rescue mission.
That day, he really led two men to the altar: himself to a new personal loving relationship with the poor; and a poor man on his way to better things.
Originally published December 30, 2011, 7:00 am.
A special note: thanks to the tremendous help of The Bowery Mission; and the extraordinary help and knowledge of Archivist Joan Gosnell, Director Russell L. Martin III, and staff at DeGolyer Library, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. They made A Journey's visit to the library a delight.
If you want to follow-up the archival references that we quote, just drop us a line at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks!
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