Las Vegas Sun

November 26, 2014

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Faith waning for savior of homeless

It's not a confession one would expect from a man of the cloth. Unless the guy is named John 3:16 Cook, and his clerical collar happens to be in his breast pocket, peeking out the top like a sort of holy tongue depressor. Then, somehow, the candor seems fitting.

"I've been kind of losing faith. The old man has turned his back on me," said Cook, tugging on a cigarette. "I'm crippled, my heart is bad. I can hardly work, I can hardly walk. Thirty years I've been helping people, and this is where I'm at.

"God kinda sucks right now."

Cook tries to laugh, then looks away. Wisps of red slowly seep into the whites of his eyes. His voice drops to a rasp. "I just want to go out and feed people."

That simple mission has defined the latter half of Cook's life. A fiery, often controversial advocate for the homeless whose work has taken him from Florida to Nevada, he has been up and down, loved and loathed, accused and exonerated.

Through all of it -- run-ins with city officials, disputes over his methods, questions about his past -- Cook always found the wherewithal to comfort the less fortunate. Along the way, he got called every name not in the good book, but nobody could label him helpless.

Until now. At age 65, in constant physical agony and nearly broke, John 3:16 Cook needs a miracle to stay off the streets himself.

"I can't believe this happened to me. I'm at wit's end," he said, rocking slightly in a worn wicker chair. "I got people who depend on me."

Those depending on him are the shadow residents of Las Vegas. The people who can squeeze all their belongings into a grocery cart. Who make their home under highway overpasses or next to train tracks. Whose plight is at once painfully obvious and virtually invisible.

Cook has sought to bring them out of the darkness since he arrived in Las Vegas 12 years ago, driving the converted postal truck he still owns. It didn't take long for residents and city officials alike to realize this was not your typical man in black.

In 1986, Cook opened Pride Village, a homeless shelter on Bonanza Road that bore his trademark slogan "Soup, Soap and Hope." The mission provided warm meals, a place to sleep and job referrals. There also was medical help -- of a kind, anyway: Cook pulled teeth, stitched wounds and delivered babies. Despite his considerable sweat and resolve, the city closed the financially-hobbled shelter two years later over building code violations that he insisted were "trumped up."

Undaunted, Cook took to the streets in his truck, emblazoned with his name, slogan and the words "Feedin' The Poor." Every day he offered hundreds of sandwiches, gallons of Kool-Aid, blankets, razors, cigarettes and even the occasional shot of whiskey to those in need. He became a Pied Pier of the homeless, drawing them from unseen enclaves when his mobile mission pulled to the curb.

With Cook's lone-wolf approach to faith, his words invariably received as much attention as his actions. He condemned churches for failing to aid the homeless, and blasted charities for selling the lion's share of their donations overseas. His favorite target became The Salvation Army, which he rechristened "The Starvation Army."

His maverick style spurred heavy criticism from city officials and civic leaders. Former Mayor Ron Lurie variously referred to Cook as a "fraud" and "kook." The SUN ran a poll in 1988 that showed four out of every five readers wanted Cook to leave town. Predictably, he ignored the results, instead entering an array of political races in the early '90s -- assemblyman, mayor, city council, even sheriff -- that he didn't come close to winning.

"I ran for everything," Cook conceded, "but I've never run from anything."

His critics might say he's never stopped running from himself. Known as Sonny Austin during his career as a Hollywood stunt man -- Cook took the fall for Clark Gable in "The Misfits" -- he became a born-again Christian in 1969. That year the Korean War veteran walked into a Baptist church in the nowhere town of Picher, Okla., and heard the biblical verse that changed his life and his name:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Not long after, Cook became an ordained minister and hopped on the Bible Belt evangelist circuit. Two years later, he suffered a depressing epiphany: he was mired in show business all over again.

"Instead of a stage, I had a podium," said Cook, lapsing into his rhythmic preacher's cadence. "Instead of drawing a paycheck, they took up an offering. Instead of an audience, I had a congregation. I sold autographed pictures. But it was all phony."

In search of an authentic calling, Cook started working with the homeless. The story would play out in cities like St. Petersburg, Fla., Lafayette, La., and a half-dozen others much as it did years later in Las Vegas.

After helping get people off the streets, Cook's shelters would come under fire for code violations and money woes. Local newspapers and TV stations would dig up troubling reports on his marriages and children; he's had 16 of the former, eight of the latter. The unproven allegations that he stole $39,000 from his mentally incompetent son would resurface. And inevitably, if not always quietly, Cook would depart for another town.

Compared to that turbulent history, the last five years have been a time of peace for Cook and his wife, Magickal Marissa, a witch, metaphysicist and astrologer. The couple, together since 1988, has continued to tool around Las Vegas in the rickety postal truck, handing out ham sandwiches and a morsel of hope.

But a spate of misfortune has put future deliveries in limbo. In December, the rent doubled on the home the Cooks lived in for almost a decade. Forced to find an apartment, the couple couldn't afford more than a cramped two-bedroom, and had to fork over a sizable deposit that drained their savings. As of today, the nation's deadline for filing taxes, the Cooks hold all of $17 in their bank account.

Worse, the move has hurt donations to their cause. Where once people swung by the Cooks' house to drop off bread, clothes and other supplies, few people know their new address. Two forlorn boxes of hamburger buns sit outside their apartment, the only contributions they have seen of late.

As though fate were piling on, the truck's transmission blew a few weeks ago. So forgive the Cooks if they're a little quieter than usual in praising the Lord these days.

"It's the worst it's ever been in my life," John said. "When you can't go out on Easter, it's bad."

Even if supplies were pouring in, Cook's health would make delivering them difficult. Rheumatoid arthritis and a botched surgery on his left ankle have left his legs gnarled and in braces. Emphysema clogs his lungs, triggering violent hacking spells. Standing up to show a visitor the holes in his tattered navy blue dress shirt, Cook's withered legs nearly give way. Sitting back down, he falls into a coughing fit, his face turning crimson.

"There's a lot of pain," Cook wheezed, placing a trembling hand on Marissa's knee. "I'm lucky I got the prettiest woman you'll ever see to help me."

The ailments also prevent Cook from earning the unconventional living he long scratched out. Used to be, he haunted swap meets, flea markets and yard sales, buying assorted items for a dime or quarter. After selling them elsewhere for twice what he paid, Cook spent the money on supplies for his street flocks.

Today, the couple has to squeak by on the $800 Cook draws in Social Security and military benefits, and the $200 Marissa earns writing an astrology column for a local entertainment magazine. After rent and other bills, they have less than $200 left over to put food on their own table, much less anyone else's.

In other words, after decades of giving, Cook could stand to be on the receiving end for awhile.

"We need help, boy, we really need it this time," he said.

But as quickly as he pleads for divine intervention, Cook catches himself. Remembering the people who are waiting for him, he starts rattling off all the essentials they need, from shoes to hygiene products. As the list grows, it becomes evident that providing a bit of relief for the homeless is the only way John 3:16 Cook will ever get any himself.

"The one time I'm not in pain is when I'm out there, feeding people," Cook said. "There's gotta be a miracle."

John 3:16 Cook and Magickal Marissa live at 5325 Redberry St., Apt. A, Las Vegas, NV, 89108. Phone: 396-5525.

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