Sober life is a blessing (w/ video)
Jennifer Lee Preyss
Jan. 17, 2014 at midnight
Updated Jan. 16, 2014 at 7:17 p.m.
This is the Part II of a two-part series on Ernest Rydolph Jr. Last week, the Advocate explored Rydolph's life on the streets prior to sobriety.
The alarm clock sounds at 7 a.m. and Ernest Rydolph Jr. uses the palm of his hand to wipe the sleep from his eyes.
Scattered morning sunlight streams through windows and the balcony door.
It's raining outside; the outside grayness is as sober as he is.
More than two decades of living homeless and sleeping in the conditions of Mother Nature, Rydolph has trained his body to sleep in one position throughout the night.
"I don't move at all when I sleep," he said, mentioning how easy it is to make his bed in the morning.
Nearly six years after he gave up drinking and recommitted his life to Christ, Rydolph is no longer homeless.
He works two jobs, attends church weekly and sleeps in a cozy, one-bedroom apartment on one side of his own queen-sized bed.
"I keep my 'office' on the other side of the bed," said Rydolph, 52, pointing at the Bible, theological books and devotional study papers strewn across the right side of his beige comforter.
Before he sits down for morning Scripture reading and prayer, he puts on a fresh pot of coffee.
And when the drip finishes, he pours the steaming drink in a Cafe de la Casa coffee cup that he bought at his favorite corner gas station - the same store he once frequented when he was drinking to steal beer off the shelves.
"I drink about two or three of these 20-ounce cups of coffee every day," he said. "I also drink water or soda, but I have to have something to drink all the time because when I was drinking, there wasn't a time I didn't have a cold beer in my hand."
He kneels beside his bed each morning - beneath an oversized wooden crucifix that hangs above the headboard - and spends the early hours in prayer.
This has been his routine for the past four years, since two members of his former Bible study group, J.P. and Sharon Green, learned he was living in a carpentry warehouse on Juan Linn Street.
"When I started going back to church and going to that Bible study, I was living between two worlds. I wasn't drinking anymore, but I was still living on the streets," Rydolph said. "When J.P. and Sharon found out I was homeless, they told me that's no way for me to be living. A few weeks later, they moved me in."
Without requiring a deposit, or background check, the Greens gave Rydolph the keys to an upstairs one-bedroom apartment on Goodwin Avenue in downtown Victoria and told him to start paying rent when he started earning steady income.
"God has really blessed me. He's brought people into my life that have helped me get to where I am today. Four days after I moved in here, a friend donated some furniture for the bedroom and the kitchen, and I just slowly started buying more things until I got settled," Rydolph said. "This is home now. This is my safe house."
The daily grind
Above the door that separates the kitchen from the bedroom, Rydolph stares at the "Home Sweet Home" sign he nailed on the wall.
He looks at the sign often to remind himself that he's no longer a slave to homelessness and addiction.
That's why, he said, his mornings are set aside for God. That's his time to study the Bible and pray.
"I pray for a prosperous day. I pray for progress and staying in his Word. I pray for a safe day. And I thank God for all my blessings," he said. "It keeps me going and keeps my mind focused on God."
A few years ago, Rydolph saved enough money to purchase an early-model maroon Jeep Cherokee, which makes going to work each morning an easier task.
The Jeep is the first car he's ever owned outright, and he prefers to keep it in pristine order.
"I like to take care of it," he said, smiling. "I probably give it a good detail once a week."
Keeping his vehicle clean also helps advertise Rydolph's car detailing business, which he works in-between handyman jobs on the weekdays.
"I do a little bit of everything, whatever my clients need me to do," he said, mentioning that many of his employers are regular clients that have hired him for years. "I fix things around the house, I clean homes, and I have a lawn service business, mowing and weeding and other things."
He's also hired to clean and service pools, though business can be slow during the winter, he said.
And when he isn't earning an honest living, he spends time serving others.
"I'm part of a prison ministry in Beeville, and I really enjoy spending time with those guys because many of them are me a few years ago," he said, mentioning his more than 100 arrests in Victoria County for alcohol and addiction-related crimes.
He also visits the elderly at Twin Pines each week, taking church programs and barbecue lunches to a few of his favorite residents.
And every Sunday, he attends LifePointe Fellowship Church at the Welder Center downtown.
"It's been kind of a neat thing watching Ernest grow and develop," said LifePointe's senior pastor and Rydolph's friend, Les Cole. "He's a guy that has a very good, unique personal faith that he lives out every day."
Cole said Rydolph is an inspiration to others, and he's enjoyed getting to know him as a sober man.
"You wouldn't know about his past unless you really sat down and visited with him," Cole said. "It's great to see someone overcome those kinds of obstacles and live life in a spiritually healthy way."
The pastor said Rydolph doesn't flaunt his past, and he simply trusts God to get him through each day.
Rydolph agrees that's how he gets through the days - one at a time.
But he also doesn't walk around believing he will start drinking again.
Other than his five-year Alcoholics Anonymous sobriety coin he keeps in his pocket at all times, he doesn't spend too much time thinking about his old life.
"I'm a brand new person. I wasn't living before. I was walking dead. I was living lower than a snake's belly," he said. "I'm walking alive now. I've asked my lord and savior to forgive me, and I know I've been forgiven."
Sitting next to the bed in a chair, Rydolph recalls how different his life was before the anniversary of his sobriety April 20, 2008.
Rydolph recalled a few weeks before he decided to give up drinking; he nearly died on the train tracks in Victoria.
It was nearing midnight Sunday, and Rydolph said he panicked realizing he didn't have any beer to drink for the next day. He had only a few minutes to get to the store and alcohol sales are forbidden Sunday morning.
He ran to the nearest convenience store and was halted by a train moving over the tracks. He knew if he didn't try to sneak under the train, he wouldn't make it to the store in time.
"I jumped under the train, but my backpack got caught. I was moving alongside the car while it was moving, but I was scared. I didn't think I'd get unstuck," he said.
Leaning over and staring at the ground from his chair, he uttered in near silence, "I almost killed myself - for a beer."
But Rydolph has hundreds of shameful stories to share from the near two decades he spent drunk and homeless.
These days, however, he's making new memories.
He has committed his life to righting wrongs and serving others. There is no other life for him, he said.
Jackie Gladney, one of Rydolph's best friends, said she's amazed by his transformation.
After decades of watching her friend fall apart and come back to life, Gladney is thankful for the power divine intervention.
"He's a man that's about God's business. He's on fire for God," she said. "He's always helping someone now. If he can help them, he will."
Gladney said Rydolph's transformation is one of the reasons she believes in miracles.
"He is already an inspiration to many. He can help a lot of people with his story," she said. "He literally went from rags to riches. Because right now, I consider him a very rich man."
With tears welling in her eyes, Gladney said she finally has peace about her friend.
"Ernest is truly on a mission. He's done his wrong, and he realizes, and I think he's now on a path to get it all straight with the lord," she said.
Back at home
The rain has almost cleared, and Rydolph is finishing his first cup of coffee.
After prayers and studying, he changes his clothes and gets ready for the day: Showering, shaving and spritzing a line of men's cologne across his sweater.
"My life is completely different now. I know I have a second chance at life, and I don't take that for granted," he said.
Before heading out for work, he makes the bed and cleans the dishes and organizes the items on the other side of the comforter, so they're ready when he wakes up the following morning.
And before he leaves for the day, he takes his hat off one last time and kneels by the bed.
"I do it to thank God for getting me through another day. And for having this to come home to," he said.
In April, Rydolph will celebrate six years of sobriety.
He knows the depths addiction can lead a person and the destruction it can cause.
But he is confident that anyone who is struggling with addiction can recover if they're willing to take the first step.
"You have to change if you want to live. I chose to change because I wanted to live," he said. "I don't want to be high ever again. And I'm not high on anything these days - except Jesus Christ."