A New and Improved Rescue Mission: Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse

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As I was driving into downtown Syracuse, I noticed a traffic sign pointing to The Mission District, which is home to the Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse. The sign was an official NYDOT traffic sign, so that spoke volumes to me on how the Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse works with the local community. Being candid, normally the first thing you’ll notice about a rescue mission or faith based program is how little they work with their local community.

I know in my last sentence I painted with a big brush grouping most faith based missions together. The truth is most still follow outdated models and build themselves into huge ivory towers because they follow Jesus, and by following Jesus they can stay blind to any real change. There are, however, a few faith based organizations that are blazing a trail of change to be able to better help their communities. I love seeing the Calgary Dream Center at homeless conferences, learning and growing how to end homelessness in Canada. I have huge respect for Jeff Lilley and the change he has been able to bring to Seattle’s Union Gospel Mission. Most missions have layers of century-old traditions that make real change nearly impossible, so when leaders like Jeff step in, you know they have to face walls of opposition just to take off the neck-tie. I love how Los Angeles Mission is working with Home For Good, and others stakeholders in Skid Row are working on a coordinated entry. I am blown away how my friend Murray Soroka was able to get a group of local churches to place 400 people in apartments using the housing first model. Yes, there is change coming, but for every one of the great stories I know, I can share hundreds more of faith based programs that will not work with their community and use the bible to validate outdated models that no longer work.

Please know I love rescue missions, and please know if it sounds like I am coming down hard, it’s only because I honestly believe that the faith based community could end homelessness tomorrow if they decided to.

I used to work in church marketing and church growth. For me, the rescue mission model was the model American churches should adopt. Tony Morgan, a church leadership consultant asked, “if your church closed tomorrow, would your community notice?” – that one sentence should be the foundation of all church marketing. Forget the elaborate worship experience that leads to dynamic preaching – feed people – clothe people – help people get out of homelessness – work with your community including other churches – do those things and people will want to visit your church. If you’re a church leader and you’re having trouble filling seats on Sunday, chances are you’re not really helping your community FILL THEIR NEEDS.

I was sitting having lunch with Alan Thornton and a few leaders at Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse, and I could not get “New and Improved Rescue Mission” out of my head. Like I said, I do love the rescue mission model, but I hate that because so many missions are resistant to change, the impact of most faith based programs are far from what they should be, and what their community needs.

Old mission model was to make Jesus disciples, but memory scriptures plus forced bible study and work time just adds structure, and when that structure is gone, most people go back to their old ways. I can feel some of you getting mad at me because you can share the names of graduates from your program who are now sober, but do you measure your failures? Do you measure the people who refused to go into your program because they didn’t want to be forced to pray at 5:30am? For every person you celebrate as a success, how many failures of people who left your program because you simply refuse to adapt to the world as it is today? Do you keep track of how many “graduates” are still sober and doing good 1 – 3 – 5 years later? The new and improved mission model collects data on failures to adjust programs for better outcomes.

Old mission model runs programs of 30 to 120 days, sometimes a year or two-year program they call transitional. Often, the people who need help the most, chronic homeless who have been on the streets far too long are passed up. New and improved mission model embraces permanent supportive housing and tries to create programs that will help everyone in their community – and not just believers. If Jesus is the healer, it’s always blown my mind that most church-run programs often will not work with the worst-of-the-worst, people who need our help the most.

OK, I know I went on a little rant here, and this post was really to highlight the great works at Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse, but it’s just so frustrating to me how block-headed the faith based community can be. If we started loving and helping everyone, and not just believers who look, act and think just like us, we’d be doing far more for Body of Christ than our outdated models of forcing poor people to listen to preaching before they eat. Come on, that’s not evangelism – that’s coercion! STOP IT!

When I visited with Alan in Syracuse, one of my first questions was “how many people from other missions come visit you?” Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse on average places 40 people per month into permanent supportive housing, that’s 40 per month that are ‘permanently’ no longer homeless. Most rescue missions are a revolving door of homelessness. Just drive by most any mission and you’ll see a mass of people waiting outside just to be ‘warehoused’ overnight. If I ran a mission, I’d want to visit Alan and his team to learn about all the great things they are doing for real impact in ENDING homelessness.
After eating lunch I mentioned to Alan I needed some coffee. In a way, I simply set myself up to learn about more “new and improved rescue mission” coolness. As you may or may not know, running a thrift store is almost a signature  operation for most any rescue mission, but Alan and his team take thrift store to a whole new level. First, part of their DNA is partnering with others in the community, so a mutually beneficial relationship Café Kubal near the Syracuse University campus was a perfect fit, and at least to me, the coolest mission thrift store I have seen.

Oh, I almost forgot, and this story would not be complete if I didn’t share how I first interacted with Alan. Back when Super-Storm Sandy hit New York City, Alan helped us make a miracle happen for a few missions in NYC. You can read about that on Huffington Post: Power of Social Media Helping Homeless Services After Hurricane Sandy.

I met Alan and his team at this year’s National Alliance to End Homelessness conference, which I am always impressed when a rescue mission shows up at that event. That said, I wish other missions would step out of their comfort zone and network with other homeless service providers.  I have a dream that maybe someday Association of Gospel Rescue Missions and National Alliance to End Homelessness will somehow create a platform for all of us to network and learn from each other. Like I said, the faith based community could end homelessness tomorrow if it wanted to. The only way we are ever going to end homelessness is by working together.

I have huge respect for Alan and his team at Rescue Mission Alliance of Syracuse. Change is hard, yet change for organizations with century-old traditions is nearly impossible.  The old mission model worked decades ago, but our world has changed, and homelessness has changed. We need a new and improved model to help our hurting neighbor’s in today’s world. Some of you may balk that these new models of working with the community, measuring failures, and helping everyone, even non-believers, are not what faith based organizations should be doing, but I must argue if you really look at the life of Jesus, that’s exactly what He would be doing.

I am by no means a bible expert, but from what I understand about the life of Jesus, He fought against out-dated religious traditions and was a huge advocate for real positive change. I even get the hint that He may have loved and helped all people regardless of if they believed in him or not!

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