The Panama City Rescue Mission celebrates its 45th Anniversary in April 2017 with a long history of restoring lives in Bay County. There have been a lot of changes over the years but the one thing that remains constant is the vision to help people in need through a ministry of love and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
In the days before Panama City had a rescue mission, many commercial fishermen would struggle while in port for a week or two after spending their pay check on alcohol and then finding themselves unable to afford a hotel room. Panama City Rescue Mission board member Rev. Henry Hazard remembers trying to help them after he arrived in Panama City in 1971 to pastor a First Independent Church. However, he had a small congregation and very little money. Hazard was not the only person to see a great need among the fishermen and knew they could do something to help. He and several others, including Frank Kirk, Richard Post and Rev. L. E. Taylor, pooled what little resources they had and with the support of some compassionate members of the community, in April of 1972, they opened a rescue mission in an old vacant hotel on Beach Drive where fishermen could eat, shower and sleep until they went back out with a crew to fish.
“There would be a variety of people,” Hazard said. “Many were transients. Many of them were fishermen, but they were all men, and they had alcohol problems. It was not drug problems then, it was alcohol.”
Hazard preached at the Mission on the third Friday evening of every month. Kirk served as director while they were getting the rescue mission up and running, and then began looking for someone to take over the job. Joe O’Daniel, a police officer from Montgomery, Ala., with a heart for rescue missions, was hired in 1974 and ran the Panama City Rescue Mission until his death in 2001.
“Joe O’Daniel was an amazing man,” Hazard said. “He said If you’re going to help someone, really help them. Don’t just piece-meal things out.”
For the first few years, Hazard would meet with O’Daniel and Pastor Taylor every Wednesday at noon to fast and pray for the rescue mission. “Many times we didn’t have the money to pay our bills,” Hazard said. “This was a day by day, week by week operation and it was tough going, but by God’s grace and the generosity of the people of Bay County, the rescue mission continued on.”
By the mid- to late-70s, Hazard began to see a few women in need at the rescue mission. “Not many women but a few” he said.
Today, the Panama City Rescue Mission sees as many women as men and since 2004 has housed the women at a separate facility, Bethel Village, which is set up to accommodate women with young children.
“There were a lot of interesting characters who came through there,” he said. “Many of them in legitimate need. The rescue mission gave a great service to this community and as time goes on, it has a greater impact because of the people who are here now. Over the years, the clients of the Panama City Rescue Mission have changed in the sense that there are more women and there are more people addicted to drugs, not just alcohol – although alcohol is still a problem. The efforts that we have now are more thorough for those who want help.”
PCRM now offers a comprehensive 12- to 14-month addiction recovery program that helps clients, not only get clean and sober, but also helps them dig deep into their soul to address the root cause of their addiction and heal that wound.
“Many people just want help through this particular crisis with a meal or with money, and they really don’t want to change their life, but that is not the purpose of the rescue mission,” Hazard said. “It is to get them over a crisis, but it is also to get them on the road to being profitable citizens for themselves, for their families and their children. A lot of people are having problems, and it’s not just the fishermen and the transients. A lot of them are college graduates who have gotten addicted to heroin and found themselves in the gutter. They’ve lost everything and they have no hope. Many of them are suicidal. Many of them are sick or have cancer or terminal illnesses and they need help.”
Hazard’s philosophy is that in a multitude of counselors there is safety. The Panama City Rescue Mission helps people climb out of their hole and help them get on their way in life.
“The Panama City Rescue Mission is focused upon trying to get them out of their addiction and on the road to recovery,” Hazard said. “We try to give them a bigger picture that God has a better plan for their lives than just where they are now. They realize Jesus Christ gives them new hope and not only saves them for eternity but also an abundant life here.”