John 3:16 Mission director bear witness to hope, changed lives
BY BRAVETTA HASSELL World Scene Writer
Tuesday, December 25, 2012
12/25/12 at 5:48 AM
Despite what the world on the whole may show, there is reason for hope, according to John 3:16 Mission executive director, the Rev. Steve Whitaker.
He is a hopeless optimist.
One might surmise he'd have to be, to continue to run an organization that helps struggling families "spiral up" and helps those living on Tulsa's streets find healing recovery from the causes of their homelessness.
"If we as a community continue to produce people that are homeless, then we need to get to the root of the cause," Whitaker said. "If the root of the cause is broken communities, then we need to help reestablish communities."
Nationally, the number of hungry and homeless individuals is on the rise, the U.S. Conference of Mayors reported last week. Requests for emergency food assistance rose in 21 of the 25 cities surveyed in 2012 and remained at the same level for three of the surveyed cities. More than half of those surveyed reported that homelessness in their cities had increased.
But Tulsa was recognized earlier this year by the 100,000 Homes Campaign as ranking No. 2 in the nation in the percentage of chronically homeless people moving into permanent housing each month.
There is progress, but the problem of brokenness here and across the country persists, Whitaker acknowledged.
Still, Christmas is the season of hope and expectation.
This holiday season, Whitaker has reason for hope with John 3:16 and its mission.
A last look at his database of the mission's clients shows about 9,000 people receiving services ranging from shelter to recovery programming to spiritual help to food assistance.
But Whitaker is hopeful.
"I am a hopeless optimist because I've seen so many lives changed," he said.
"Just success after success after success of seeing people changed," he said. "And now 23 years later, I have people that come back and say, 'You remember me? This is who I am and this what I'm doing now.' "
He points to examples and leaves out names.
A man he called "Brett" had struggled with addiction and alcohol and had been on Tulsa's streets for several months.
He heard a sermon on the Prodigal Son, the biblical parable of the young man who squandered his inheritance with wayward living but ultimately came to his senses and went home. And "Brett" - a man with a family, with kids and a van, a home - went home too, Whitaker recalled.
There was a man more troubled than Brett who the Mission had encountered on the streets multiple times.
He was in and out of the shelter but ultimately got into a recovery program. His change was gradual over a year-and-a-half's time, one step after another, working with counselors to address a wide variety issues including mental health and character problems that were causing his troubles.
He had such problems with anger that he was unemployable.
"But now, he is a security guard, he's not homeless, he is married, he has one child."
Sometimes the successes are so big, Whitaker doesn't recognize the people who come to visit the Mission years later, introducing their family and children. Sometimes it is confusing.
Could Whitaker tell more stories? He said he could go on for days.
John 3:16 Mission performs its outreach with compassion and hospitality and encouragement, Whitaker said.
These are things that build relationships and that earn staff the right to speak truth into the lives of the struggling and encourage them to make changes if they will.
"Maybe they will listen to what we think may be solutions for their problems, and if they don't listen, maybe we've made a friend," Whitaker said. "The least we can do is sit down and break bread together."
The problems the country is confronted with are "tremendous" ones to resolve, but Whitaker believes there is a unique independent spirit in the United States, and "we can do amazing things, astounding things."
"I know there are great needs in our community and around the nation, but I have to say that I'm excited because I think that we as a city, we as a state, as a nation have a great opportunity to make changes in the lives of people if we'll just reach out and grab it.
"We've had successes right here. I know how well-studied people are around me, I know how articulate they are, I know how gifted our community is, I know how philanthropic we are. This community is making great strides and I can't help but be optimistic about that."
He prays for the president, he prays for the people in the nation "because they need it, we need it."
Even in the face of that need, however, Whitaker is hopeful.
"I'm optimistic that our tomorrows will be better than today, because we have that strength," he said.
"I don't want to reduce it down to we need to love each other a little. I think it's beyond that right now, but it'd be nice if we took a little time to accept each other a little bit, to quit accentuating the differences and pull together for a while."
Original Print Headline: A 'hopeless optimist'
Bravetta Hassell 918-581-8316
John 3:16 Mission Executive Director Steve Whitaker stands in front of a display outside their administrative offices at the Northpoint Center in Tulsa. MICHAEL WYKE / Tulsa World