Guiding LIght yellow 95th anniversary logo

95 Years of Guiding Light | 1929-2024

Guiding Light was first established as the “West Fulton Mission” by a layman named John Vande Water on February 2nd, 1929, a mere seven months before the financial crash that precipitated the Great Depression. In its early years, the Mission was less about handing out food and more about “spreading the gospel and saving souls.” For the most part Guiding Light existed as a meeting place – or “street church of sorts” – attended by whomever founder Vande Water could get to come.

In 1944, Vande Water was called away to serve at a mission in New Jersey, and Andrew Vander Veer took over. Vander Veer kicked off a new era for the Mission. Vander Veer had a place in his heart for those struggling from addiction, he helped form an “Alcohol Victories” committee and implemented plans to move the organization closer to the Heartside neighborhood of downtown Grand Rapids. He also challenged the public with a competition to come up with a new name. Guiding Light was chosen out of 600-plus entries, and in 1957, the new Guiding Light Mission was officially opened at 50 South Division Ave.

The 1960s was a boom period for donations and local church support, and the publicity and support for the new downtown Mission was strong. Guiding Light services were offered in the form of Bible classes, meals for the hungry, weekday meetings, gospel services, youth programs, juvenile assistance, family support, hospital calls, church planting and more.

Shortly after moving to its new location, Guiding Light Mission started what would become one of the most important components of its program today. After receiving its certification from the state, Guiding Light Mission began offering treatment for those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction. This would eventually develop into the S.T.A.R.T. program. The program evolved over time, turning into the New Life in Christ program – and eventually morphing into what we call the Guiding Light Recovery program today.

The VanderVeers served faithfully until 1966 when Andrew died suddenly while delivering an evening chapel service. The following years were difficult for the mission. Cornelia passed in 1968, and after a brief stay, the new director resigned. The board began seriously considering shutting the doors, and in 1968 Guiding Light Mission was officially closed.

The mission remained closed for one year until Jacob Vredevoog, an assistant to the VanderVeer’s, reopened Guiding Light Mission as an independent faith project. He did this with his own money and with the support of local donors. Vredevoog served as Executive Director until his death in 1972.

The mission was then led and expanded by a number of directors including Edward Oosterhouse, Herman Koning, Lucky Hobson, and Chico Daniels. Under their leadership, Guiding Light Mission outgrew its original location and was moved to its current locale at 255 S. Division Ave.

Throughout the early 00s, Guiding Light developed a reputation as a rough and undisciplined homeless shelter. Tales of open drug and alcohol abuse and criminal activity were common place and had tainted the organization’s community reputation. This changed in 2009 when Stuart Ray was named Executive Director and shifted the focus of the organization. Up until this point Guiding Light’s mission was primarily directed at giving men immediate relief from homelessness, but neglected long-term solutions. Under Ray’s leadership Guiding Light adopted the tagline ‘We’re Not a Mission, We’re On One,’ and began to focus on investing heavily in giving individuals the resources they need to put their life back together and break the cycle of homelessness and addiction that had brought them to Guiding Light in the first place.

Under Ray, Guiding Light opened the ‘Back to Work’ program – which was a dedicated reengagement program offering men a bed at the mission, three meals a day, and spiritual support provided they were employed or looking for work. He also reinvigorated Guiding Light Recovery, a dedicated long-term substance abuse treatment program. He also invested in the first three properties that would come to comprise Iron House – a sober living apartment complex dedicated to providing affordable housing for Recovery graduates.

One of the very first residents of Iron House was Brian Elve – who came to Guiding Light Recovery in 2010 as a client – and would go on to become director of the Recovery program himself. Under Elve’s leadership the Recovery program grew to help hundreds of men – with a success rate boasting 78% of clients that moved to Iron House achieving a year of sobriety.

With the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Guiding Light leadership made the decision to temporarily pause the Recovery and Back-to-Work programs. The Guiding Light building at 255 S. Division was donated to the Kent County Health Commission to serve as a triage center for men and women experiencing homelessness and showing symptoms of COVID-19 infection. Men of the Back-to-Work program were put up in hotels, and the men of the Recovery program were given a choice: if they remained in the program they were going to be quarantined and moved to empty units at Iron House. All programming was to be continued remotely and the men would have to adhere to strict health protocols. They were also given the opportunity to leave and to come back when things got “back to normal.” Of the 20+ men enrolled in the program not a single one chose to leave.

In 2021 the Guiding Light board of Directors chose to not reopen the Back-to-Work program, and Stuart Ray stepped down as Executive Director after over a decade of service. The organization was at a cross-roads. Decision-makers were faced with the question: What is the best way for Guiding Light to serve the community moving into the future? It was decided that the organization would pivot into doubling down on its, until now, niche area of expertise: recovery.

It is not uncommon to hear throughout the extensive recovery community in Grand Rapids that the Guiding Light Recovery program is among the most comprehensive, challenging, yet successful substance abuse treatment programs in not only the state of Michigan, but the whole country. Offering a long-term intensive rehabilitation program for men at no-cost, with an emphasis on years of after-care and community support through Iron House, has proven to be what Guiding Light truly does best.

In April 2022 Director of the Guiding Light Recovery Program Brian Elve was promoted to fill the shoes of Stuart Ray as Executive Director to oversee the pivot of the organization to become one focused on recovery, and recovery alone. Today – 95 years from its inception, and through uncountable evolutions – Guiding Light has truly found its footing and calling. As the organization rolls into it’s 95th year of service; plans to expand the recovery program to include women, the expansion of sober living properties, and increased investment in substance abuse treatment, leaves much to look forward to.


Receive a quarterly newsletter by U.S. Mail

Newsletter Mail Signup


Receive our e-mailed bi-monthly stories and updates

Email Signup