On this cold, windy day, Pacific Garden Mission is home to more than the homeless.
Tourists and radio buffs join them to pack an auditorium along a part of South State Street known as “Tramp’s Trail” to hear program No. 2357 of “Unshackled,” billed as the longest continuous-running radio drama still on the air.
The program was first broadcast Sept. 23, 1950, with the story of the life and conversion of evangelist Billy Sunday. Forty-five years later, it still re-enacts true-life stories of people who through Christianity have overcome hardships ranging from alcoholism to promiscuity.
Standing before a microphone and a huge sign declaring, “He (Christ) made peace through the blood of his cross. Col. 1:20,” the radio announcer reads from his script.
“The scene is the same all over the world, whether in small town or big city, young people and some not so young drawn to the local hangout,” announcer Bob O’Donnell says. “They drink and joke and go home empty-hearted, each one looking for something, someone, some answer to their loneliness. This is what Sheila Harris found and how she was ‘Unshackled!”’
The 30-minute program is recorded before a live audience every Saturday at Pacific Garden Mission, a homeless shelter. More than 1,000 stations (including Spokane’s KMBI-FM) broadcast it to listeners on six continents.
A committee verifies facts of stories offered by listeners by contacting references such as pastors and relatives.
The production is a scene from the past.
A sound-effects man re-creates the sounds of a bar with clinking glasses, of children catching tadpoles by splashing water in a bucket. An organist provides scene transitions, sometimes with a soft melody, sometimes a crescendo of ominous chords.
The program originally focused on alcoholism and drugs, but problems like child and spousal abuse and meaningless lives are now common.
“We’re not restricted to Skid Row stories,” says O’Donnell, wearing a gold unshackled handcuff pin on his lapel.
This program, to be broadcast in February, focuses on a woman whose life was marred by booze, beatings and the wrong man - until she met the right man who led her to Christ.
The story tells how this woman, portrayed by Judith Easton, searched for love “in all the wrong places.”
“She found what she was seeking,” the announcer says, “when her mind and heart and life were unshackled.”
Easton is among about 150 actors who perform for “Unshackled.” Some, but not all, are religious.
Earlier this year, she portrayed herself, a woman who had fought addictions to alcohol, drugs and sex.
“God was not a big part of my upbringing,” she says. “I had a perception that only stupid and weak people believed in Jesus Christ.”
She was starting to get her life under control when she went to work for “Unshackled.” But it was only a job, and she resisted the mission’s Gospel message.
Then a medical problem left her face half-paralyzed, and increasingly that message and the “Unshackled” stories touched her. In 1993 she was baptized at a Mennonite church.
Michael Kinard, a small, unshaven man who like hundreds of other homeless people is spending this frigid night at the mission, joins the program’s audience.
“The actors … let me know that there is hope and God is real,” says Kinard, who attends the mission’s Bible classes.
David Sonear, the mission superintendent, agrees.
“Giving soup every day or a sandwich every day is nice, but you don’t give the people any direction off this homeless merry-go-round,” he says.
Spiritual help, he believes, provides that direction.
“We try to reach people when they are in the depths of their despair,” Sonear says.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: PROGRAM TIME “Unshackled” airs Saturday nights at 9 on Spokane’s KMBI-FM, 107.9.