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Ex-millionaire Finds Happiness Aiding - and Joining - the Poor


This article is taken from a story written by Erin Kelly for the Orange County Register in November 1986.  I saved the article because it melted my heart when I read it almost 25 years ago, and it still has the same affect on me when I read it today.  It helped put things into true perspective for me then, and it helps remind me what is most important every time I read it. 

Costa Mesa - Thirty years ago, Michael Dwaileebe was the ultimate Orange County success story.  A savvy real estate broker and investor, Dwaileebe had $400,000 in the bank (which was a lot of money 55 years ago - thirty years prior to 1986), prime Costa Mesa land worth millions and a Newport Heights home where he and his wife enjoyed a swimming pool and backyard cabana.  "I loved making money," Dwaileebe recalled.  "I was always wheeling and dealing."  Today, 77 and divorced, Dwaileebe lives alone in a tiny one-bedroom Costa Mesa apartment, has a net worth of less than $300 and eats senior-citizen specials at Denny's restaurant.  In the afternoons, he paints houses to earn money.  Dwaileebe has worked hard to achieve his poverty.  Twenty-seven years ago, the wealthy investor became a born again Christian.  He started selling off his real estate holdings and spending his money on toys, food and clothing for the less fortunate.  "I was struck by the words of Christ, saying that you should sell your property and give the money to the poor," Dwaileebe said.  "The pastors I knew, my friends and my wife told me not to take it so literally.  The pastors said just give 10 percent to the church and keep the rest for yourself, but that's not what Jesus said.  I was following Christ and I was pretty well considered a fanatic."  Dwaileebe began his unofficial ministry in the 1960s by driving truckloads of dolls, bicycles and fruit into riot-torn Watts "while the ruins were still smoldering."  Five years later, he began to turn his attention to the hungry he saw around him in Costa Mesa, Santa Ana and Huntington Beach.  Today, Orange County residents - especially the poor - know Dwaileebe as "Brother Michael," a crusty, white-haired man who hands out free groceries to the hungry six days a week from the parking lot of South Coast Christian Church at Victoria and Placentia avenues in west Costa Mesa.  Dwaileebe funds Brother Michael's Christian Mission with donations from the public and from his earnings as a house painter, a job that brings in half of the mission's revenue.  Dwaileebe said he doesn't understand why more of Orange County's well-off citizens don't contribute.  "There's enough wealth in Orange County to keep everybody in comfort," he said.  "But people don't want to admit that there's poverty here, or if they do, they say it's the person's fault and not the fault of circumstances.  They forget that we really are our brother's keeper, and we should not shirk that responsibility."  Dwaileebe said people traditionally feel more generous around Thanksgiving and Christmas and usually answer his appeals for holiday turnkeys for the poor.  "I appreciate it, but I just wish they wouldn't forget about us the rest of the year," he said.  Dwaileebe said his mission revenue is about $2,600 a month, enough to feed about 2,000 families.  The aging philanthropist is able to feed so many for so little because he buys his food from the St. Vincent de Paul Food Distribution Center in Orange.  The center, which serves nonprofit corporations, sells most of its food for cents a pound.  Fruits and vegetables go for a mere 2 cents a pound.  Daileebe and his dozen volunteers, most of them concerned local citizens, also collect day-old bread from area bakeries and slightly damaged, but edible canned goods from local grocery stores.  On Sunday, the only day that Dwaileebe doesn't hand out food from the church parking lot, he loads up the groceries and delivers them to some of the poorest neighborhoods, riding around in an aging white pickup truck that bears the message: "Without Jesus Christ, you are stuck with your sins."  Area businessmen who knew Dwaileebe 30 years ago say they are amazed at his transformation.  "I think we were all surprised," said Roy R. McCardle, a Costa Mesa real-estate agent who remembers Dwaileebe from the 1950s.  "He did a complete turnaround.  I guess I first became aware of what he was doing in the 1960s, when he started collecting old bikes to bring to children in Watts.  It took quite a bit of courage for a white man to walk into Watts alone right after the riots."  Dwaileebe said that before his conversion, he never would have gone near Watts.  "I used to be very bigoted," Dwaileebe said.  "When I first came to Costa Mesa (in 1945), I told people I left Los Angeles to get away from smog and the 'niggers,' - that's what I used to call black people then.  I realized later that Christ loves all men equally and that I should too."  Today, Dwaileebe prays that the American people will open their arms to illegal immigrants from Mexico, who comprise the majority of the hungry who come to him for help each morning.  On a recent Friday morning, Dwaileebe led the hungry in a prayer, recited in a mixture of Spanish and English.  "Above all, dear Jesus, teach the government here to love us because you love us."  Although most of the immigrants speak little English, Dwaileebe, who speaks little Spanish, has taught them to sing "I'm so glad Jesus loves me" in near-perfect English.  Paula Dabalos of Santa Ana said that without Brother Michael, she and her eight children would go hungry.  "I pray every night that Brother Michael will keep giving help to the people," Dabalos said in Spanish.  Jean, a 56-year-old Santa Ana woman, who declined to give her last name, said she comes to Brother Michael for help because she is sick and cannot afford to feed herself, her two teenage children and her grandchildren on her income from Social Security.  "Brother Michael is a fantastic man," Jean said.  "This is one of the few places you can come for help without going through all the bureaucratic red tape.  He allows you to keep going while maintaining a certain amount of dignity about yourself."  Although selling off all his worldly goods cost him his second wife, Dwaileebe has the support of his two children from his first marriage, who don't care that he has spent their inheritance.  "I think it's wonderful," said daughter Donna Dwaileebe, 50, a marriage and family counselor who lives in Costa Mesa.  "He's really committed to his work and he's happy doing what he's doing.  What more could a daughter want of a father?"  Dwaileebe said she was in her early 20s when her father began selling off his holdings.  "I wasn't surprised," she said.  "I don't think anybody in the family really tried to stop him - I know I didn't.  He's always been a very independent-minded person and I think everybody pretty much accepted that Pop does pretty much whatever he wants.  And when he does something, he doesn't do it halfway.  He's eccentric, and that's OK."  She said she and her brother Mike Jr. worry about their dad, who has had 12 heart attacks in the past eight years.  But whenever they give him money, he just spends it on food for his mission, Donna Dwaileebe said.  "He just tells us he's OK, and he seems to be," she said.  "Even after his heart attacks, he just gets up and goes on his way."  Still, the feisty septuagenarian worries about what will become of his mission when he's gone.  "I'm not indispensable," he said, his brownish-blue eyes beginning to narrow as he grinned.  "I'm wonderful, but I'm not indispensable."  

* I spoke to Donna Dwaileebe last year (2010), after her father passed on to be with the Lord a number of years ago.  She said when she went to his small apartment to gather his things, after his passing, she found only two shirts, two pairs of pants, and a pair of shoes.  He left only the absolute bare necessities for one man.  

Ms. Dwaileebe did not find her father's Bible in his room at the time of his passing, and had often wondered what happened to it.  In June 2011, she was contacted by a Christian woman named Violet in Soledad, California.  Violet was in possession of the Bible and had found it among some of her mother's belongings, which she had passed on to her many years before.  She sent Ms. Dwaileebe the Bible, complete with all of her father's notes, highlights, etc.  She expressed to me that she was very thrilled to receive this treasure after 25 years!  God is so good to us! she exclaimed.  

I would say that Brother Michael left only the bare necessities, the road-map to eternal life in glory, wherein lies immeasurable eternal wealth, and a legacy fitting a true apostle. 

I Corinthians 2:9 "Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has it entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him."  Jesus said in Matthew 6:20, "Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moth nor rust corrupts, and where thieves do not break through and steal."

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