The chapel is filled with a steady, cool breeze as the bride carries a white-silk bouquet toward her smiling groom. They stand together under an archway of cream and purple flowers. Rays of light cascade through a cross-shaped window above. Outside the Union Rescue Mission are the streets of Skid Row.
On these streets the groom once slept and sold crack to pay for his own high. There he also met his bride, a wild child in recovery with 200 arrests on her rap sheet.
Stephanie Davenport, 45, and Irvin Atwater, 58, were once runaway teens who took a wrong turn and wound up in the gutter. For the last few years, they have been crawling back out of it.
The rescue mission became their refuge. Hundreds of homeless men, women and children now find shelter here each night — so many, in fact, that the top floor had to be opened for the families coming in droves. The boardrooms were emptied of desks and filled with mobile beds. Even the chapel, during Christmas, became another dormitory.
In this world, life goes on. People enjoy birthdays and holidays. Couples fall in love.
There have been seven weddings at the mission since the first in 2007, and an eighth is planned for July. CEO the Rev. Andy Bales has performed most of them himself.
Bales believes that Christians have a responsibility to negate modern cynicism about marriage by upholding biblical ideals. The mission preaches “healthy relationships,” and only married couples are allowed to live together.
Atwater and Davenport fell deep, but the struggle with their own demons brought them together. As Atwater likes to say, “As long as you're breathing — there is hope.”
Raised in North Carolina by his alcoholic father, Atwater ran away from home in eighth grade. He would later drop out of college to hitchhike across the country. He once served part of a three-year prison term for armed robbery and kidnapping, until his conviction was overturned.
Despite the deviances, Atwater made a relatively good life for himself. By 30, he was married, had two boys and was working as program director at the women's prison in Arizona. “I loved it and I was pretty much married to my job,” Atwater says.
But a shoulder injury left him unable to work for six months. He started taking heavy pain medication. Soon, he was addicted to codeine-based Tylenol 4. From there, cocaine was an easy jump.
“At work, people all around me did it,” Atwater says. “So it became a daily thing.”
When his nose began to bleed, Atwater started smoking the cocaine from a can. The effects were the same, but it seemed even more addicting. The habit grew to around $400 a day.
“I tell people I probably smoked up a couple of houses. By the time that you decide to do something about it, it's like a sore that's festered. It's gotten so big — you can't deal with it anymore. It's out of control.”
His habit remained a secret from his wife and children until he decided to leave. “I couldn't let them see me go down and I knew that I was in a downward spiral. He told himself he would go to Los Angeles and “smoke it out” of his system for a year.
Now, Atwater laughs at the thought. “I came to L.A. and really got stuck,” he says.
L.A. was an addict's haven. Atwater arrived around Christmas and remembers watching a parade march down the street while people smoked crack on the corner of San Pedro and 5th.
“I thought the stuff was legal the way people were smoking,” he recalls. “Nobody was hiding.” His year in Los Angeles became seven. Atwater lived on the streets, collecting recyclables from waste bins and selling his food stamps to buy crack. Soon, he was dealing.
Then, on a hot day in 2007, the Rev. Bales was making his usual trip along San Pedro with ice-cold water. He saw Atwater slumped on the pavement, too weak and high to stand up. Bales brought him a bottle of water and encouraged him to come to the mission for help. Atwater had seen Bales before and hadn't responded. But this was different.
“I was sick and tired of being sick and tired,” Atwater says. “So I promised God that if he changed my life, I would do what he wanted me to do.”
Atwater got clean, graduated from the “Christ-centered” 12-step recovery program and was offered a job as an electrician at the mission. He now spends his weekends doing voluntary electrical work for people who otherwise couldn't afford it. Atwater says he will never forget the kindness that led him to the mission, to recovery and to his bride.
Davenport had her own rocky path. As a teenager, she left home for the beach one night and didn't return for 17 years. She partied, got into alcohol and drugs, and used aliases to avoid being found. Her single-parent mother had no idea whether she was dead or alive.
Her first arrest was for prostitution. Davenport needed money for the bus, and met a group of girls on a street corner in South Central; they showed her how to hail. It was her first try, Davenport explains, and she hopped straight into a car with an undercover cop.
The violation meant a short stint in county jail and probation. But even behind bars, Davenport was unfazed.
“I'm like Gumby. I can really adjust.”
The years went by in a cycle of playtime and prison time, most for violating her probation. “I'd stay out for four or five months, then go back and do another five to six months.”
Now, Davenport refers to being arrested as a “rescue.” It meant a break from the streets and a chance to sleep. “I was exhausted from staying up so many days and so many nights.”
Finally, in 2001, Davenport's routine changed. She was released from prison and sent straight to the addiction-treatment facility Cri-Help in Hollywood. Therapists there put Davenport back in contact with her mother.
A large swath of Davenport's life had passed, and her mother had suffered two heart attacks and depression in the meantime. But the reprimands Davenport feared and ignored as a teenager never came.
“We joined each other in the lobby at Cri-Help and we kissed for an hour,” says Davenport. “We didn't say anything, we just kissed. That was a good day. It really was.”
Cri-Help led to another program, Chrysalis, which set Davenport up with her first job: working at the Union Rescue Mission as a laundry girl. It was there, in 2008, that she met Atwater. She was having problems with the driers. The water was cold, and Atwater was called to fix it.
On bended knee, he checked the pilot light and pushed the button. Sure enough, there was heat. “But before he got there,” Davenport says, shyly, “there was no heat.”
Atwater was living at the mission and Davenport was living next door at the Simone Hotel. They soon found a house in Compton with an orange tree in the backyard and moved out of Skid Row together.
Bales says he would have preferred they waited until they were married. But it was more important that they were well-prepared for a long and healthy relationship, he adds.
On their wedding day, the congregation rises in loud and joyful applause as Mr. and Mrs. Atwater recede down the aisle. This day is also the mother of the bride's 75th birthday.
“Everybody needs to be loved, and to love to be happy,” Bales says. “I've never seen him happier. I've never seen her happier or more beautiful.”