“Kindness is a physical expression of God’s love when we do something for another human being.” said Emily Vondrak, Director of Development and Public Relations for The Gospel Mission. “It is absolutely based in Christ-like love.”
“The hard part is that sometimes kindness means saying ‘no’.” added Paul Mahaffie, Pastor and Executive Director. “Some people think we are mean when we turn people away or require a satisfactory breathalyzer before providing someone a meal. I don’t believe it is. Sometimes we have to exhibit tough love in the short run to help people in the long run.”
One example Mahaffie gave is providing money to pan-handlers. Residents, guests or employees at The Gospel Mission can tell you from first-hand experience, that often folks pan-handling do so only long enough to be able to afford a hotel room, drugs and alcohol, then binge until the money, drugs and alcohol runs out. “Providing a dollar to them, is like putting a gun in their hand,” Mahaffie says, “they are on a road to self-destruction. Our goal is to help them stop and turn that around.”
Turning lives around begins with the basic necessities – food, shelter, clothing and dignity. These are the things The Gospel Mission is most known for and still a huge part of what they do, but both Vondrak and Mahaffie will tell you the most important part of their work is to lead people to Christ.
The Gospel Mission started 82 years ago on 4th street in Sioux City, when it was a rough and shady part of town. “I’ve heard you literally had to climb over drunks to get in the door” Mahaffie says. In those 82 years, The Gospel Mission has grown to include offices, three shelters, a thrift store, food pantry, café and soon second donation center all on Bluff Street in Sioux City. Two additional Thrift Stores operate in the metro-area.
“Last year, we began offering ‘I Had No Idea’ tours of the campus,” added Mahaffie, “most people only knew we provided shelter and a meal.” The phrase “I had no idea” was often uttered as people learned about the breadth and depth of the work done by The Gospel Mission to help people out of homelessness or severe poverty. “The tours often ended up taking 2 hours because we had so many questions. Unfortunately, COVID means that we had to halt those tours for a while.”
In what can only be described as miraculous intervention, The Gospel Mission has had no cases of COVID at its facility or among employees. Mahaffie shared, the same situation is reported by Gospel Mission organizations in New York, Philadelphia and other cities. Besides relying on prayerful coverage, the facilities have also put precautionary measures into place. For now, temperature checks preface every entry, the food pantry limits occupancy, meals are served as “to go” and the daily chapel services are not open to the public. “The public has missed the chapel services,” said Mahaffie, “we have a lot of people asking when they can start coming back again.”
The Gospel Mission is more than a place to eat and sleep. The services provided are designed to help each individual deal with the issues being faced and turn to a new way of living. For many people addiction issues are central to this turn around, which is why the rules are firmly and lovingly enforced. “Rules make a difference. They help people be accountable and turn to a new way.” Says Mahaffie. Free haircuts, street medicine, information sessions and skills training are among the other services provided. Some people need to be taught how to brush their teeth or bathe because their entire life has been one of homelessness. Every activity is done to help individuals find a sense of self-worth.
“Besides having rules, some of the things we do differently is to stay with individuals and provide the full extent of support to see the path out of homelessness. There is no time limit to how long someone can stay with us. It depends on their personal progression. As long as they are growing and making steps toward independence, we are here to help and support. We do more than meet the basic needs, we focus on self-worth and employment. Many of our residents work in the thrift stores or other parts of the organization to build skills.” Mahaffie explains.
Additionally, The Gospel Mission helps individuals and families who have a home but are destitute. Called the “Families in Need” program, The Gospel Mission holds special chapel services and events for these families periodically. “At holidays, we invite them in for a service and then provide a box of food supplies for a traditional meal, toys for the kids, clothing, etc.” he added. “We want them to know they are loved and cared for.”
When asked how The Gospel Mission funds all this work, Mahaffie and Vondrak point out that they are entirely funded by private funds and some grants, but they always steer clear of funding sources with “strings attached”. And the generosity of the community they describe as “unbelievable.” They credit the community generosity with the longevity of The Gospel Mission through tough and plentiful economic times. There are donors from all parts of Siouxland as well as across the country. “The Thrift Stores are also a huge part of what we do,” notes Vondrak. “The clothes, toys, furniture and other items donated either go directly to residents in our shelters or to the thrift stores. 100% of Thrift Store revenue comes back to The Gospel Mission for providing services.”
Obviously, funds are important but so are volunteers. “We have a lot of volunteers regularly, but at the holidays people fight over who gets to help. Thanksgiving and Christmas volunteers are booked a year out.” Mahaffie says with a chuckle. At those times, instead of serving meals buffet-style, the recipients are seated at tables and waited on by volunteers. Mahaffie stresses that being served a meal is a tremendous experience for many of their residents or guests who often feel invisible to the world. “And serving impacts the volunteers too,” he adds. It is uncertain how the holiday meals will be served in 2020. “We haven’t made the decision yet,” Mahaffie explains, “we’re exploring options and want to be sure we keep people safe.”
The culture at The Gospel Mission is clearly ‘other’ focused, not self-centered. Each interaction, each smile and welcome exude kindness. Mahaffie summarizes it this way “From staff to volunteers to residents and guests, kindness is what we do.”
The Gospel Mission Food Pantry is open 9-11 am Mon-Fri and regularly includes hot pizzas as well as pantry staples.
The Gospel Mission operates three shelters. One for single men, one for women and women with children and a third for single men with children. Parenting skills are embedded into the services provided to residents with children.
There is a “Day Room” at The Gospel Mission for use by non-residents. It is a place people can come to warm up or cool off, take a nap, make phone calls to schedule appointments, etc.