MOBILE, Alabama — The most exclusive concert of the Memorial Day weekend opened with a few words from Bill Bru, executive director of Mobile’s Waterfront Rescue Mission.
“We’ve been telling you for a week that we were going to have a special guest, and we will now announce who that is,” Bru told the audience packed into the downtown mission’s chapel late Saturday morning. “It’s Vince Gill.”
A murmur rippled through the crowd, followed by applause. Most of those present were among the homeless clientele served by the mission; others were mission supporters and their families. All seemed to appreciate the chance to hear from a country star with nearly 20 Grammys to his credit.
Before Gill took the stage, Sam Bradley, one of five chaplains at the mission, offered a few words of encouragement and hope.
Society, he said, might make folks who are down and out feel worthless. But there is a higher power that knows the value of their hearts.
When Gill took the podium, his manner was relaxed and self-deprecating, his attire was casual, and his message was one that dovetailed neatly with Bradley’s.
Gill explained that his interest in homelessness was sparked by the life of his late older brother, Bob, who was severely injured in a car crash as a young man, lay in a coma for three months and “didn’t make it all the way back.”
Bob never fit back into society, Gill said: “He would stay in the missions, he’d disappear, he’d work for the Salvation Army, he’d pick fruit.”
Gill said that as he watched his brother travel a hard road, he learned an essential truth: What matters is the way that a man lives his life, not that he gets the life he wanted.
What stood out, he said, is that Bob never complained.
“Character knows nothing about a dollar,” Gill said. “There was a joy in his life … He was a great man of faith.”
Gill went on to play several songs, including two inspired in part by his brother’s life: “Bread and Water” and “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”
It wasn’t a lengthy performance, but it was clear that, for Gill, the event was more about making personal contact than about entertaining. And he was mindful that Saturday lunch was due to be served in a little while.
“I’ll keep this short because I know a lot of us are hungry,” Gill said.
“I am here today because someone asked me to come. It’s that simple,” he said.
That someone was Ginna Inge, Bru’s daughter, who’d heard Gill tell his brother’s story at a Nashville benefit concert several years ago. She recently sent him an invitation to visit the Mobile mission, knowing he’d be in the area Saturday for a concert at Wind Creek casino in Atmore.
“The letter was compelling,” Gill said. One part that struck him was a passage where Inge wrote that one of her sons had expressed disbelief that Gill would respond.
So at Saturday’s show, it was 11-year-old skeptic Conrad Inge who served as Gill’s roadie, carrying his guitar and waiting at the side of the stage.
“I came to show this young man that nothing can happen unless you try,” Gill said, to applause. Later, he said that if anyone tried to rush the stage, the younger Inge would serve as his bodyguard.
“He might look little, but he’s mean,” Gill said, smiling. (Ginna Inge, for her part, deferred credit for the event to the mission’s staff, saying their hard work was more noteworthy than her letter.)
After performing, Gill posed for photographs and signed numerous autographs.
One of those waiting to speak with him was mission client Karen Bowers, who said that “Bread and Water” had touched her because it spoke to the recent death of her boyfriend, who also struggled on the margins of society.
“Thank you,” she told Gill. “I needed to hear that song.”
Looking on, Bru said that while the visit wasn’t a fundraiser, he hoped it would elevate local awareness of the mission and its work.
The Waterfront Rescue Mission is in the middle of a campaign to create a new home for itself a few blocks west of its location at 210 State St. The planned new facility will have twice as much room and will allow for the mission and other agencies to consolidate their efforts to help the homeless, he said.
John Peebles, co-chair of the campaign, said he expected the mission’s expanded work to benefit the community as a whole, such as by improving health care for the homeless.
As one of the last to go through the serving line for lunch, Gill ended up sitting at the edge of the tent in the mission courtyard, outside its shade, in the full heat of the sun. He didn’t seem to think twice about it.
Before taking that place, he was asked if he had any message for a broader audience. He remarked that in his view there’s a difference between a hand up and a handout.
“These people are to be lifted up,” he said. “All people deserve to be lifted up when they need a hand up.
“This is The Human Spirit 101.”