The embankment feels like a ninety-degree incline, but the minister strides purposefully up it as if hiking a switchback trail—"the trick is to take it sideways," he says—toward the abutment of the I-75 overpass. Notched into this sunless elbow-crook of concrete, out of sight and largely out of mind for the commuters speeding above and directly below, are members of his congregation.
Photograph by Jason Maris
The nesting materials of tattered blankets and cardboard, rank bundles of clothing and potato chip bags, a stray flip-flop, and Mr. Boston empties surround those who are sleeping it off, each occupant allotted a "cubby," or just enough ledge between buttresses to stretch horizontally—people stashed on a shelf. The minister and his team of four volunteers extend sacks of food and scoop up the willing recipients in bear hugs, cheerfully oblivious to any lesions, infected track marks, and, in one case, a concave depression where a homeless veteran's nose used to be. Then they link hands, teetering in this precarious spot polluted with exhaust fumes and other odors, to pray.
Because bridges function as a powerful metaphor, Pastor 7, as this roving evangelist is known, named his ministry 7 Bridges to Recovery. Dedicated to rescuing and restoring "the last, the lost, and the least," his bands of volunteers from all over the country, guided by a core group of trained regulars—most of them survivors of the streets and the strip clubs, with naughty old tattoos that have been painfully edited into church-friendly images—venture out several times a week, no matter the weather; under the bridges and into "the bluff" around Cleveland Avenue and Bankhead Highway.
“When I first started doing this, riding around on my Harley, the reaction was, ‘Who is this crazy, bald-headed, white man with a Fu Manchu telling me about Jesus?’” Pastor 7 says, in a voice that sounds like the growl of a loyal and loving watchdog. With his intense gaze, no-bull biker veneer, and beefy arms filigreed with Bible-verse tattoos, he is not your grandparents’ suit-and-tie preacher. In a dark alley, he looks, to put it bluntly, like a stone-cold badass who could mess you up. Indeed, Pastor 7 used to “put people in hospitals regularly, as a right-hand tool of Satan,” he says. Back then, the FBI knew him as “Dangerous Dan.”
Born Danny Wells, he ran away from an abusive home life when he was ten years old and lived in the woods around Jonesboro, where he foraged for food. “I was so beaten down, with a stutter and a learning disability,” he recalls, noting that he progressed only to the second week of second grade before dropping out of school. After hardening and bulking up, he drifted into crime and addiction, staying awake and crazy-eyed for up to ten days at a time on meth, and running drugs and guns for bikers’ clubs and organized crime syndicates.
Pulling a stretch in the United States Penitentiary in Atlanta, he was punished with solitary confinement in 1996. Sixty days into it, he experienced his Damascus Road conversion when God spoke to him, he says, renaming him 7, the numeral that symbolizes completion. Still imprisoned a couple of years later, he found himself jolted, ex nihilo, with literacy. For the first time in his life, he could read. “It comes in flashes, like a PowerPoint presentation,” he says, demonstrating by flipping to random pages in his dog-eared Bible and reading aloud, still marveling at this ability.
After his release, he lived in a halfway house and worked briefly for a furniture maker. By then dubbed Pastor 7 and brimming with agape, he roamed the southside to spread the Word, sometimes welcoming weather-beaten men into his own home. These converts started joining him on his rounds, along with urban missionaries, megachurch suburbanites, and earnest college kids talking of “social justice.” “Even if they’re secular, they all leave crying about Jesus,” the evangelist notes.
Today they hand out 7,000 meals a month. When someone decides to leave the streets, the volunteers will help him or her into a van conspicuously labeled “Go Jesus, Go Jesus, Go!” and, with high hearts, head back to one of 7 Bridges’ two, separate group sanctuaries: a residence hall for men in southeast Atlanta (with renovations under way for two additional men’s facilities) and the ministry’s headquarters in Smyrna. Dubbed “the Garden,” the Cobb County facility is a church with a dormitory, which, though it lodges about sixty-five traumatized women and thirty-nine children, seems remarkably quiet and serene. Kleenex boxes are scattered everywhere. “Emotions run high up in here,” explains Velma, a resident with a shy smile.
Pastor 7, whose left-hand ring finger is tattooed with a vine of thorns, resides at the Garden in a modest apartment plastered with the kind of snapshots and children’s artwork displayed by an exceptionally outgoing “people person.” He accepts no salary, he says, and his sprawling organization runs on volunteerism and donations, including a new, restaurant-scale kitchen.
“It’s a miracle that I, somebody who was destroying lives including my own, was called in this way,” he says, “and it just goes to show that God can and will use anybody.” —Candice Dyer