On a sunny Friday in December, about 350 people, some homeless, all destitute, move in orderly procession in the parking lot of the Inner City Christian Center, as volunteers hand them lunches of hot dogs or sandwiches and punch. Then, 15 at a time, the people choose what they need for themselves and their families from tables laden with clothing, toiletries, toys and blankets. When they leave, they take bags of food with them.
This is the annual holiday celebration here, but no one is asking for turkey.
Supervising the proceedings is Mable John, 66, a tiny denim-clad dynamo who this morning is part mother hen, part traffic cop and part field general. She calls out orders, makes sure young children are taken care of and gratefully accepts donations of cash, clothing and even a bed, which keep coming from people who stop by as the day wears on.
"I couldn't have done this alone," she says during a rare moment of rest, acknowledging the donors and the volunteers. "You have one person with a big mouth doing all the talking, but you have a host of people doing the work."
The center's parking lot, barely a mile from the Florence and Normandie intersection where the 1992 riots began, is a long way from the sites of John's previous career. She was a noted rhythm and blues artist who became Tamla / Motown Records' first female singer in 1959. She performed the 1966 Stax Records hit "Your Good Thing (Is About to End)," was lead vocalist for Ray Charles' backup trio from 1970 to 1977, and has sung in concert halls and nightclubs from New York to Rio de Janeiro.
In 1984, though, having taught the Bible for about nine years, she felt a call to enter a school of ministry. She shared a pastorship for four years beginning in 1988, then established her Joy in Jesus Ministries in 1992, the same year she received her doctor of divinity degree.
Today, John still preaches, but she spends most of her time spearheading her Joy Community Outreach to End Homelessness, an organization of 60 members and 100 volunteers. Besides sponsoring the third annual holiday celebration this month, the program daily provides food to people in need throughout Southern California, from South-Central Los Angeles to North Hollywood to Apple Valley.
The enterprise also offers computer classes, reading practice, Bible study and prayer seminars, psychological counseling and training in job-search skills. Most programs are held at John's Mid-Wilshire home. She is hoping to find a donated building to house the activities and store collected food. She also facilitates job training, matching a homeless person interested in cars, for instance, with an outreach member who owns a body shop.
"A lot of these people are hard street people," she says. "They've given up on life. They don't know how to deal with people. They've given up on courtesy. Living on the streets, where everything they get they either have to steal or beg for, breaks them down. It takes their pride and self-esteem away. You'd be surprised what it does to a person, never to be able to lie down in a bed.
"We train our volunteers to deal with people who are hostile," she says. "We get the people to the point where they will say the blessing on the food, live together as a family, and be prepared to go back to their blood family. People will tell us, 'I have a sister or brother two blocks from here that I haven't seen, because I did something they didn't forgive me for,' like being in prison."
John, whose husband of 38 years died in June, is the mother of four and has a grandson and great-granddaughter. She still performs occasionally and owns two music publishing companies.
"Dealing with so many people as a singer helped me to know and understand people," she says. "The music helped me understand their joys and fears. In performance, I've always tried to get close to people. I perform to them, not over them."
That sentiment prevails in her current work. "Dr. John is a fantastic woman with a concern for meeting the needs of the people in the community," says William B. Martin II, pastor of the Inner City Christian Center. "She's always looking for ways to provide assistance and support, beyond measure. Her heart for those in need has always produced tangible results for people of all colors and cultures. Her spirit of generosity is certainly from above."
Robert Harper is proof positive of those results. Homeless three years ago when he began attending John's services, he is now employed as a security guard and volunteers twice weekly to pick up and distribute food and clothing for Joy Community Outreach.
"Mable's been very helpful to me, spiritually and in everything," he says. "She's been like family. She helped me get myself together--I was kind of going the opposite way. She put it out to me to build my courage and my self-esteem.
"She's helped a lot of people who felt they weren't about anything, and now they're working," he adds. "Now, a lot of them come back, and they look like a million dollars before taxes."
* This occasional column tells the stories of the unsung heroes of Southern California, people of all ages and vocations and avocations, whose dedication as volunteers or on the job makes life better for the people they encounter. Reader suggestions are welcome and may be sent to Local Hero Editor, Life & Style, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.