He couldn’t write his name, and then he wrote a book.
September 30, 2013
He was one of us. Yet he was so different. Then again, we’re all different. We all have our own personal hopes, dreams, flaws, failures, and demons that possess us when walk behind the dark, frayed veil of our own insecurities.
We write books. Denver Moore could not write his own name.
We read books. Denver Moore could not read his own name.
We have homes that are fairly warm or cool, depending on the season. Denver Moore lived on the streets and hid in the sewers. He was homeless. He was a drifter.
Not many of us has ever written a bestseller. Denver Moore has.
His was an odd journey that began on a dusty dead end road at the front gate of a Louisiana Planation where his aunt and uncle worked as sharecroppers. He worked right along side of them. They raised him. They fed him. He spent his long days in the field with a hoe in his hand. It was, Denver said, nothing more than stoop labor. He never asked about school. He didn’t know anything about school. School was where the white folks went in the 1950s, and Denver Moore wasn’t white, so his shadow never fell on either side of a schoolhouse door. It wasn’t something he missed.
Why read? He thought. There was nothing to read.
Why write? He thought. He didn’t know anyone who could read it.
During those growing up days, Denver Moore hopped a few freight trains, rode a few rails, slept in a few hobo jungles, walked aimlessly on streets because he had nothing better to do, thought that Vienna sausages from a can was about as good as a meal could get, and made the terrible mistake of taking a gun into a liquor store one night, looking for a little loose change or maybe a wad of dollar bills.
The law took offense. And, he said, a judge awarded him a ten-year contract for hard labor at the Louisiana State School for Fools, better known as Angola Prison. It was the first time in a long time that Denver Moore hadn’t been homeless.
The road with the dead end finally wound its way to Fort Worth, and for the next twenty-two years, he became one of the sore sights that festered on the streets after the sun went down. He slept in doorways and back alleys. More than once, during harsh nights of winter, the bellman at the Worthington found him curled up on a grate outside the hotel and gently kicked the aging black man to make sure that the cold and ice and hard winds had not frozen him to death.
On the other side of Fort Worth, Ron Hall was a wealthy and successful art dollar. He and his wife Deborah lived in a multi-million dollar home, mingled with the highest of high society, and were invited to all of the proper balls, especially when some charity sold you a ticket and asked for you to bring your checkbook along.
The Halls did their duty. They gave their money.
But Deborah’s passion was serving meals to the hungry, hopeless, homeless, and jobless at the Union Gospel Mission. She and Ron piled up food on a lot of plates and listened to Brother Bill, too blind to even read his own Bible, deliver his usual sermon, always asking, “Are you prepared for the land beyond? You may tie your shoestrings this morning, but the undertaker may untie them before day’s end.”
Men were quick to say amen but slow to give what was left of their hearts to God. Deborah’s heart ached for them. So many had sullen faces and empty eyes. So many had given up on life. She refused to give up on them.
One morning, she told her husband, “I had a dream last night. God told me that there was this homeless man who was wise, and by his wisdom our cities and lives would be changed.”
“Who is he?”
“I don’t know.” She paused and shrugged. “But we have to find him.”
It was lunchtime at the Union Gospel Mission when a wild melee broke out before anyone knew anybody was mad. The hall was filled with screams, and blood spilled on the floor. Men cursed out of fear and anger. And everyone who was able to fight did.
Suddenly Deborah was on her feet yelling, “That’s him. That’s the man I had the dream about.”
Only one man was standing. His pants were ragged. He was wearing neither a shirt nor shoes. His fists were clenched, and he was yelling, “I’m gonna kill whoever it was that stole my shoes.”
His name was Denver Moore.
Hall recognized the face. The big man had occasionally slept outside his art gallery. Hall had even called the police to haul him away.
For days, then weeks, Hall tried to make friends with the man who wanted to kill somebody. Moore would never even make contact him.”
Hall was ready to quit.
“You can’t give up on him,” Deborah said.
Hall asked Denver Moore one afternoon if he would like to have a cup of coffee. “I’d like to be your friend,” Hall said.
Moore stared back with sullen eyes. He was suspicious. He didn’t trust anybody, especially not some high-dollar do-gooder who might be out trying to help the poor just so he could feel better about himself. “I ain’t interested in being your friend if it’s a catch and release program,” he said.
Hall smiled. He liked the term. Moore might be poor. But there might indeed be a lot of wisdom bubbling down inside the last soft spot of a heart grown hard. The two men became inseparable. Theirs was a bond of friendship and respect. Hall forgot that Moore was poor, and Denver overlooked the fact that Hall was rich.
After awhile, Hall began to understand that he and Denver weren’t all that different after all. He had been born poor, too, and grew up in the bed of his granddad’s pickup truck. But he had gone to school. Denver Moore hadn’t. He had a chance. Denver Moore didn’t. Ron Hall had a second grade teacher who taught him to write and draw square houses. She triggered a fascination for art, and art would be his way out of poverty. With an education, his road had no dead ends. Other than that, he and Denver Moore could have well been brothers with different colors of skin.
The book was Denver’s idea. He broke out laughing one night and told Hall, “Ain’t nobody gonna believe our story. We gotta do a book.”
Hall thought it over. He didn’t laugh. He liked the idea.
They worked on the manuscript together for three years and produced Same Kind of Different as Me. Hall could write. Denver Moore could talk. And both had a lot to say. The book traced the journeys of two men who became the unlikeliest of friends, and it quickly hit the bestseller list. Hall and Moore toured the country, visiting more than two hundred missions and speaking at more than four hundred events, most of them fund raisers. Royalties from book sales were used to support the Fort Worth mission.
Laura Bush in 2008 invited them to a White House luncheon with the President. Denver Moore stood, looked at everyone sitting around the table, and said quietly, “I want to thank you for inviting me to y’all’s house. You got a real nice house. I bet you all is proud of it. I’d like to thank you by name, but I can’t remember none of your names. All white folks like alike to me.”
He grinned and sat down. As he climbed into the limousine to leave that afternoon, he turned to Hall and said, “Mr. Ron, I done gone from living in the bushes to eating with the Bushes.” He shook his head. “God bless America,” he said. “This is a great country.”
Denver Moore was one of us. He has a book with his name on it. And we ‘ve lost him. He went at last to the land beyond. He tied his shoes one morning, and an undertaker untied them before day’s end. He won’t be homeless anymore.
Ron Hall could only fight back a tear and say of Denver Moore, “He changed a lot of lives. People who read our book are never able to look at homeless people the same way again. He was a rock star.”
Denver Moore: I’m glad you came our way. May you rest in peace.