In the mid-1990s, Mr. James, who went by the nickname “Swaine,” started drinking heavily after his wife died, his friends said. Then he lost his job at a printing company and severed ties with his family. Several of his front teeth were knocked out when he fell on the floor while intoxicated.
Yvette Stewart, 70, lived two doors down from Mr. James, and sometimes she and her family would take care of him when he showed up at her house drunk. The two became close, she said, and when her father got sick, Mr. James offered to help.
But Ms. Stewart said she told him she would only agree if Mr. James quit drinking cold-turkey. And so he did. “Swaine made it look easy to give up alcohol,” Ms. Stewart said.
Mr. James began to escort her father to church every Sunday. There, Mr. James became interested in the gospel. Ms. Stewart showed him the Book of Proverbs, Psalms and then John so that he could learn more about Christianity. (Ms. Stewart showed Mr. James Proverbs so he could see that abstaining from drinking was rooted in the bible.)
Soon, Mr. James started to help around the church, throwing out the garbage and carrying groceries into the kitchen. At first, Ms. Stewart thought Mr. James was doing it for cash tips from church members. But after a certain point, he stopped accepting money, according to Ms. Stewart.
Around 2000, he was hired as the official caretaker, and eight years later, he moved into the church. He was the first to greet newcomers and the one to stay late with the seniors until their rides arrived. He was known for always being on time and giving great pep talks.
“Anything you wanted to do in life he believed in you,” his cousin, Mr. King, said. “I owe a lot of my success thus far to the confidence he gave me.”