Chris Ryan Cooper led a whimsical and often dangerous life until deciding to turn things around.
Now manager of the Salvation Army’s Mabee Red Shield Lodge, Cooper had taken a peripatetic path from growing up on a farm and ranch near Gruver, in the northern Panhandle, to two one-year stints at Texas Tech, being “a ski bum” in Colorado, serving in the Navy for six years and building houses in Texas and Utah to spending six years on the streets of San Diego and Fresno, Calif., injecting methamphetamines. “I was wanting to die,” he says.
“Every day I’d wake up and say, ‘Well, today I’m going to die.’ It just never happened. Jesus had work for me to do.”
The pivotal event was meeting a former Major League player in the San Diego County Jail, where they were incarcerated. “He opened my ears to understanding that salvation is a free gift,” said Cooper, who had remained a baseball fan.
I’m the most joyful I have ever been. I encourage the community to support the Salvation Army because we do a lot of good work here.
“He told me about Jesus and said I had misunderstood as a youth that you must be holy because God is holy. I had thought I couldn’t do that, given up on Christianity and gone from unbelief to anger. He’d broken his back in a collision at the plate and turned to painkillers and alcohol.”
Down to 100 pounds, Cooper went to Austin after his release, spent six months in the Salvation Army’s Adult Rehabilitation Center and was assistant manager of one of its thrift stores until taking an offer in 2012 to manage the shelter at 811 E. 10th St. He now weighs 180 at age 55.
“We love the unlovable and care about the people that people don’t tend to care about,” he said.
Cooper’s father Carl died in 2002. His mother Sue Pafford is in Tyler. He has a brother and a sister. He has no children.
Accepting residents after 5 p.m., the shelter only requires that they be sober and find work to stay for up to three months. Putting out cots in cold weather, it has held up to 65 men, women and children. Cooper has four staff members, somewhat similar to his assignment as a supervisory sonar technician on the U.S. Bunker Hill cruiser.
Cooper said being homeless is less daunting than people think because a homeless person quickly learns where food and shelter may be gotten. “It’s very doable,” he said.
“There’s almost a joy in it because of the lack of responsibility. I had always had alcohol and occasionally marijuana, and I had a friend who managed a construction company in California. I went out there from Utah, and things brought me down to a very dark place. I was a good builder, but I lost the desire to build other people’s homes when I got divorced.
“I have never been a violent person, but I was always hustling, trying to get enough money to get my stuff. I met a fellow who had a peach ranch, and for the last three years I lived on that ranch and worked for room and board. I didn’t care about people and was happy to use them. Now it’s the other way around. I don’t mind being used and putting someone else’s will above my own.”
Cooper also finds fulfillment as an elder at Redeemer Lutheran Church and in studies of theologians Martin Luther and Martin Chemnitz and hymnist Paul Gerhardt. “I’m in love with the clarity of our belief in Scripture alone,” he said.
“I’m the most joyful I have ever been. I encourage the community to support the Salvation Army because we do a lot of good work here.”
Redeemer Lutheran Pastor Erik Stadler said Cooper “is so thankful for the change God made in his life that he wants to share it with those around him.
“Chris has a lot of patience with the people at the Salvation Army and others,” Stadler said. “He and others have saved us thousands of dollars in maintenance fees by their donations of time. He has done electrical work, cut down trees and taken out carpet and put in laminate flooring.
“He went with me to Katy to repaint the inside of my house and get it ready for sale. He is a great self-trained Bible scholar who has pointed me to sources on the Internet and podcasts that I appreciated.”
Fellow elder Bobby Stokes said Cooper “is a dedicated Christian who loves to serve people and serve God.
“He found Christ later in life after he had been through a lot of ups and downs,” Stokes said. “Chris is a humble person who feels like what he does at the Salvation Army is what God wants him to do. He is always willing to share what he has with anybody who is down and out.”