Cass proved homeless is not the same as hopeless

He had nowhere to go.

No food. No money. And now, no place to sleep. He had been squatting in an abandoned apartment, but someone broke in and stole the copper pipes from under the sink.

Soon water was gushing, and a groggy AnthonyCastelow woke up floating toward the door.

“What the …” he remembered thinking.

Now he stood, dripping, before the pastor he worked for, a strong, heavyset man named Henry Covington, and he said he couldn’t unload food trucks today, because these were the only clothes he owned and they were soaked.

“Go in the church and take any clothes you need,” the pastor told him.

Castelow did. It was the first time in years that he had worn clean underwear.

“Now where will you live?” the pastor asked.

“Ain’t got no place to live,” Castelow said.

The pastor looked him over. He saw what others saw: a crack-addicted, homeless man with a criminal history.

But he saw something else.

“Why don’t you live with me?” the pastor suggested.

And in one day, a life was changed.

And in one night — this past week — that life was sadly lost.

Twenty-one years after being flooded out of homelessness, 21 years after turning around a life that most thought could never be turned around, 55-year-old Anthony Castelow — whom everyone called “Cass” — suffered a massive heart failure last Sunday night at his home in Redford. By the time his wife, Marlene, returned from an errand, he was slumped over on the bed with one shoe off and his eyes open, not breathing. Emergency room doctors induced a medically aided heartbeat, but they could not save him.

By morning, Cass was dead.

From sports to prison

It’s hard to even write that. “Cass was dead.” How can that be? He was always so alive, so vibrant, so incredibly resilient. He’d been stabbed in a bar and left to die. He didn’t. He’d been clubbed on the head and left to die. He didn’t. He’d lost a leg, lost his teeth, had so many rushes to the hospital, the car almost drove itself — but he always came out. Even his cardiologist, Dr. Kim Eagle, said he’d never seen anything like him. Sunday night, as Cass’ life hung in the balance, Eagle said, “If anyone can pull off a miracle, it will be him.”

And through the long night, that’s what everyone prayed for.

Because here was a man who proved you never give up on anyone. By a cynic’s assessment, he was a lost cause: a former high school sports star who did a year in college and served in the military, then came home to Detroit, joined the reserves, and immediately started selling drugs, because, as he once said, “You let a kid like me come back, live at home and get a check? And I can buy dope with it? And sell it and make double or triple the money? And I can make five or six thousand dollars in a couple of hours right outside the door? Come on. Drugs was poured into (our) neighborhoods. And it tore them up. And it tore me up.”

This was a common story in the 1980s, especially around the Jeffries Projects, where Cass hung out. Before long came other stories common to a drug dealer’s life. Arrests. Prison. Addiction.

The worst part, Cass would freely tell you, was what it did to his soul.

“I was a user of people,” he once said. “I would use you in a minute.”

A miracle and Myracle

But as life would have it, Cass was being used, too. When the Rev. Henry Covington, who ran the I Am My Brother’s Keeper Ministries/Pilgrim Church on Brainard Street, invited Cass to live with him in his tiny home, he knew he was casting a net. He knew Cass had been stealing from the food trucks to support his drug habit. But he let the man sleep on his main floor while Henry and his wife and children all slept upstairs. He made certain the man was fed and cared for.

And sure enough, after being exposed to such kindness, Cass turned his life around.

The crack habit was broken. The drinking and stealing stopped. He devoted himself to God, got involved with Covington’s congregation and became, in time, a deacon and an elder.

Through the church, he met Marlene, whom he married, and they had a child who was born premature, as small as the palm of your hand. Doctors said she wouldn’t live. But they didn’t know what kind of tough blood coursed through those little veins.

After 37 days in the hospital, she was brought home. Cass and Marlene named her, appropriately, Myracle.

She is 14 now.

And suddenly without a father.

How can a story like that end so sadly?

A chance to act

Perhaps because, as Cass would tell you, it’s not a sad story. Even if it feels like a too-short one.

“I’m living on borrowed time,” Cass would often say, looking toward his missing leg (lost to diabetes). “I shoulda been dead so many times over. But the Lord had a plan for me.”

That plan included Cass taking his dodgy life experiences and using them to relate to others. And he did. Children. Teens. Veterans. Families. Year after year, he sat in his wheelchair with a clipboard, calling off names of homeless people who were given sleeping mats and blankets and dinner and prayer, as part of the homeless shelter run inside the I Am My Brother’s Keeper church.

Cass encouraged them. He prayed with them. He told them not to give up, that if he could turn things around, they could.

Every summer, he led a bus caravan to Cedar Point in Ohio, where dozens of kids were given a day of fun, food and amusement rides, Cass watching them from his crutches. Every winter he helped lead Thanksgiving and Christmas drives, where homeless adults were given turkeys and coats and a hug and a smile.

Oh, about that smile. Cass had, maybe, four or five of his own teeth. Yet nobody inspired a better feeling than when he laughed and went “heh-heh” and flashed all those gums.

He played himself in a movie once, the TV adaptation of “Have A Little Faith,” a book I’d written about the church and Covington. The producers didn’t think it would work (Cass obviously had no experience acting) but I said, “Just meet him,” and so the casting directors set up an audition. At first, he tried reading a script, but it felt stiff and he couldn’t remember the words. So we threw away the script and said, “Just look this way and tell us how Henry changed your life.”

He exhaled and started talking.

Five minutes later, the casting agents were crying.

He had the part.

Spreading good news

Because, in the end, nobody could express this man’s journey better he could. That became his mission and his purpose. To use the storm that he had lived through and turn it into gentle, nourishing rain.

I was so lucky to call him a friend. So lucky to be with him many nights alone inside that downtown chapel, laughing and swapping stories. So lucky to be with him when he had a breakfast with Pistons Hall of Famer Joe Dumars, one of his heroes, and to later hear him exclaim, “He let me call him ‘Joe!’ ” So lucky to witness him weeping on the pulpit during the funeral for his dear friend Covington, who died of his own heart failure in 2010, yet to see him preach on that same pulpit months later, trying to fill some of Covington’s oversize shoes.

So lucky to be with him in an examination room when the doctor asked what medications he was on, and to see Cass unload a plastic bag of small vials that he’d brought with him, heart medicine, diabetes medicine, cholesterol medicine, this pill, that pill — more than 10 prescriptions — and to realize what a miracle it was that he was still, at 55, even walking around.

On his final day, he preached at the church, a sermon about “new beginnings.” And that night, he died. All those years of hard living finally did him in, but it was the 21 years of clean living that was his revenge. And it is the ultimate irony that his heart failed him, because I can tell you, it never failed anyone else.

He leaves behind a family that will need help. He leaves behind a church that is in dire straits. But he leaves behind the one tool that can address all of that — hope. Because Anthony Castelow was a beacon of hope. And anyone who met him should never look at a poor, homeless or addicted person the same way.

He once was lost. Which was when he was found. And after so many tireless miles on this earth, the man who had no place to go has finally, peacefully, gone to the best place. He’s gone home.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com.

 

 

How to help

To assist the family of the late Anthony Castelow, donations can be made online at www.crowdrise.com/Cass or by check, mailed to IAMBK Ministries, Castelow Family Memorial Fund, c/o S.A.Y. Detroit/DRMM, P.O. Box 312087, Detroit 48231.

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