Guiding Light Reflects on 90 Years Serving Grand Rapids
It’s probably too many candles to fit on a cake, but Guiding Light is celebrating anyway – 90 years of service to the homeless and hurting in Grand Rapids and throughout West Michigan.
“For the better part of a century, God has been providing us the resources necessary to change the lives of those arguably most in need,” said Guiding Light Executive Director Stuart Ray. “Through His Spirt and with His grace, we’ve been able to partner with countless individuals and organizations to mend and save the lives of those in need of rescue, recovery and re-engagement in their communities.”
Guiding Light’s history is as complex and varied as the men it has come to serve. It was first established as “West Fulton Mission” on March 31, 1929, a mere seven months before the big stock market crash that kicked off a decade of closed banks, financial hardship and lack of work.
In its early years, the Mission was less about handing out food and more about spreading the gospel and saving souls. The organization did have an on-site thrift store, but for the most part, the space existed as a meeting place – a street church of sorts, attended by whomever founder John Vande Water could get to come.
In 1944, Vande Water was asked to serve at a mission in New Jersey, and Andrew Vander Veer took over the reigns in Grand Rapids as field missionary. Vander Veer kicked off a new era for the Mission. With a growing heart toward those ravaged by drugs and alcohol, he helped form an “Alcohol Victories” committee and moved the organization closer to downtown.
Vander Veer challenged the public with a competition to come up with a new name. Guiding Light Mission was chosen out of 600-plus entries.
The publicity and support for the new downtown Guiding Light was strong. The late 1950s through the ’60s was a boom period for donations and local church support. The programs and services offered were vast: Bible classes, meals for the hungry, weekday meetings, gospel services, youth programs, juvenile assistance, family support, hospital calls, church planting and more. All were geared toward bringing people closer to the Lord.
The next few decades were a time of introspection for Guiding Light as it grew into its present location at 255 S. Division Ave. A philosophy of, “We don’t turn anyone away” made the organization a safe haven for the troubled all through the 1980s. But this begged the question: “Where do we want men leaving Guiding Light to turn next?”
Downtown Grand Rapids grew rapidly during the late 1990s and early 2000s. New restaurants, businesses and artist communities were springing up regularly. The arrival of the Van Andel Arena and the DeVos Convention Center drew thousands of visitors to Grand Rapids every month and created thousands of new jobs in the area.
With the economy looking auspicious and the heart of Guiding Light still beating strong, the turn of the century became a chance to change the street population’s blurry future with a newfound focus.
When Ray – who owned Burger King of West Michigan, one of the largest franchises in the restaurant chain – joined as executive director in 2009, he led a “re-envisioning” to transform the organization from traditional homeless shelter to a recovery and re-engagement community.
“Stuart had the heart for this area and the individuals we serve,” said AIS Construction Equipment Vice Chair Michelle Behrenwald, who was on the board when Ray was recruited and continues to serve on the advisory board. “While revamping the model was a culture shift for the organization and the community, we have seen tremendous results and impact as a result of Stuart’s vision.
“Stuart is a leader who is on his knees and at the helm. He is a faithful man who believes in God and in God’s purpose for himself and every person we serve. He has the vision and tenacity to see this through.”
Since then, Ray and the dedicated board and staff at Guiding Light have been working hard to carve out a new ideology, one that can have measurable results and lasting change. An emphasis on employment, independence and sustainable housing has opened up a new world of challenges and possibilities.
With the last several years of local job growth and economic healing, Guiding Light is doing everything it can to help men face their addictions, get back on their feet and take control of their lives.
Today, Guiding Light is focused on recovery and re-engagement services through four main programs, also referred to as its pillars of light: Back to Work, Recovery, Iron House and The Job Post. Programming is tailored to client needs on a case-by-case basis, working with each individual to determine the best path.
“We recognize each member of the community has unique and essential strengths that must be utilized together to fulfill God’s purpose,” said Guiding Light Board Chair Ed Postma. “Operating on the same principle as a three-legged stool, we believe each area of our ministry is as important as the other in creating balance for lives that seek healing and a fresh start with Christ as the epicenter.”
Guiding Light’s Back to Work program gives men the keys to financial independence through work while Guiding Light Recovery offers an intensive, drug and alcohol recovery program designed to give men structure and opportunity to engage in change.
The Job Post and Iron House are Guiding Light’s social enterprises, meaning revenue from the programs support Guiding Light’s mission while also aiding in the financial sustainability of Guiding Light’s four pillars of light.
The Job Post is a hiring and recruitment firm that provides job placement services for men and women who are temporarily unemployed or are seeking career advancement. Iron House provides a safe and secure living environment in a residential area outside the inner city, allowing the men to live more independently as they transition back into the mainstream of society.
“What we have discovered is the need to continue telling our story,” Ray said. “And a big part of that story is in acknowledging both how far we have come, and yet how much work we still have to do.”
In celebrating its 90th anniversary, Ray says it’s important the community at large know how grateful everyone at Guiding Light is for the support it’s received over the last nine decades.
“Words fall short in expressing what it’s meant to receive donations at every level, and that means someone pitching in with a couple of dollars as well as those with hundreds or thousands to share with us,” Ray noted. “Our hearts are lifted to know that there are so many people willing to explore a relationship with us that fulfills our mission, and re-kindles in us daily the urge to continue doing God’s work.”
About Guiding Light
Founded in 1929 as the West Fulton St. Mission, Guiding Light has grown into a robust recovery and re-engagement community designed to help those living at society’s margins fulfill their God-given potential. The nonprofit has been building on a near century of compassion and is celebrating 90 years of helping Grand Rapids men in 2019. Through its Back to Work, Recovery and Iron House programs, Guiding Light works with men struggling with addiction and homelessness to return to society. For more information, visit guidinglightworks.org.
THIS MEANS THAT ANYONE WHO BELONGS TO CHRIST HAS BECOME A NEW PERSON. THE OLD LIFE IS GONE; A NEW LIFE HAS BEGUN!
2 CORINTHIANS 5:17