By TOMIE LUNSFORD
Telegram Staff Writer
The yellow cat wasn't well. His collar rubbed against two patches of raw skin, and his fur hung like drapes from a small set of bones.
But he was nursing his wounds with his tongue, and he was eating. His food bowl, licked clean not too long ago, sat under a tree close to where he lay.
The cat was healing, as are the people who care for him - the residents of Rose Garden.
A half-way home for the mentally ill, addicts and parolees, the Rose Garden consists of 11 houses along Avenue A in Temple that shelter up to 60 people working to regain control of their lives.
The people who meet under the canopy at 817 E. Ave. A every Saturday morning say they owe their budding salvation to a Christian worship group led by Lee Roy Tyler.
All members of the First Assembly of God in Belton, Tyler and his five friends visit the Rose Garden residents at least once a week, except in cases of inclement weather.
'We don't preach denomination, just the gospel of Jesus Christ,' Tyler said. 'We feed them, and we give clothing when we have it.' Ministering to the Rose Garden community is their continuing mission. It started three years ago under the leadership of the late David Miles.
A worship session on March 8 found the informal congregation dressed in sweats and overcoats. Some people sat huddled in groups of three and four. Others sat alone, their eyes focused straight ahead - at the makeshift pulpit where Tyler would soon be standing.
Tyler's praise band started with three guitarists setting the pace for a half-hour of praise in song. Set up in a mobile studio pulled by a mid-sized car, several sets of sound speakers gave extra volume to the performance.
'Then I'll usually get up, give a message and preach the Word,' Tyler said. 'It ends with the (food) serving line in the back.'
The sermon that Tyler delivered that day was based on Matthew 25, a story about a bridegroom and 10 virgins. Through the blunders of five foolish virgins, it taught a lesson about wisdom.
A spirited round of 'amens' came from the crowd with Tyler's concluding words: 'There's no cigarettes, no alcohol in heaven. You better get all you want while you're here. Because there's no drugs and alcohol in heaven to get high on. You'll be getting high on Jesus. In heaven, you won't be worshipping under a canopy, but in a big mansion. Yes, Amen, we're all in the Kingdom of God.'
Keeping it together
Tina Eldridge's voice sounded drugged, but not in a bad way. It was heavy with emotion. Each word threatened the presence of tears.
'These people,' she said pointing to Tyler's group, 'They care about the people here. Their visits bring people together, a brighter picture of God and the future.'
She stopped speaking, so she could welcome a group of men who were headed toward the prayer canopy.
Resuming, she said, 'It's a blessing this takes place every week, that they come every week. I don't think people would hold it together.'
She knows, she said, because she's one of them - a Rose Garden resident.
'Tina's been wonderful to watch,' Tyler said. 'She really took to us, the program and now she does all she can to help.'
Her Rose Garden friends nodded, saying that Ms. Eldridge is always in the food line, helping people get their fill.
One man's song
Larry Tucker is blind, but his fingers know how to make music.
He plays the piano every few weeks for the Rose Garden congregation.
'I used to mess with drugs,' Tucker said. 'Had a bad problem with it.'
These days, he sings.
'You'd have to go far to hear a better a singing voice,' Tyler said.
Tucker's song is the poem - 'Heaven's Grocery Store' - that triggered the healing in his heart.
In the poem, heaven is the store, and the merchandise are hope, understanding, wisdom, patience, charity, faith, strength, grace and the Holy Ghost.
'Everything a human needed was in that grocery store,' the poem reads. But there's no need to pay because 'God paid your bill a long, long time ago.'
'I heard it first at a church,' Tucker said. 'I really liked it because it seemed like it was part of what I need. So I had friends read it to me until I came to know it.'
It took him several years and a lot of repetitions to find his song.
'They keep coming'
'I'm clean from drugs now. Been in prison for 10 years. For 4 ½, I got parole. I got out the 19th of last month got out, passed. I'm living at Rose Garden.'
That's how Arthur Weiss introduces himself.
He's no less direct as he describes the act that sent him to prison.
'I'm a sex offender... and there were (incidents) with meth and cocaine,' Weiss said. 'I know what I did was wrong. That's why I'm out here learning and helping what I can. If somebody needs shoes or a coat, I give them mine. I don't need it as bad as they do.'
Nods came from Tyler and several Rose Garden men. Calling themselves 'brothers in God,' they shared a prayerful hug at the conclusion of the March 8 service.
The ex-convict is glad for Tyler and his friends.
'It means a lot,' he said. 'They keep coming here to give hope to people. Some refuse it, but they keep coming. That's special.'lt means a lot.''