I had the opportunity to sit down with Heather Rice, Program Coordinator and Executive Assistant at Whosoever Gospel Mission, a nonprofit organization that provides food, shelter, clothing, education, counseling, job training and rehabilitation for men who are in need of assistance or are experiencing homelessness. The New Life Program works in three phases: 1. Foundations Phase, men receive the services listed previously and begin job readiness training by working around the mission, attending chapels and classes, building a resume, engaging in a vocational discovery process and preparing for their job search; 2. Careers Phase, men pursue off-site job training and employment and continue with vocational counseling and financial management assistance that ends in a graduation ceremony after three months of fulltime off-site employment; and 3. Aftercare Phase, men move out into independent living and continue to receive counseling and advice. Heather said that long term programs such as this one allow her and other staff members to really get to know the guys and see every step of their journeys. She is able to see how God restores things in their lives. For instance, a man named Ben visited the site again after graduating from the program. Formerly homeless, Ben’s relationship was now restored with his wife, and they had a car, a home, and a baby. Success stories such as Ben’s help her realize that God’s grace is so big and can extend to everyone.
And this is her story of finding grace and humility in volunteer work…
Heather Rice was born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia where she spent a lot of her youth doing community service, specifically at the church near her grandparent’s house. Her first introduction to Whosoever occurred when a girl in her class in high school asked Heather to team up and work at the Mission in the sorting room for their required community service. This led to Heather extending her community service hours past the required amount as she began to find her place of sanity and sense of belonging at Whosoever. After graduating high school, she worked part time during her undergraduate educational years at Cairn University (formerly Philadelphia College of Bible). Bob Emberger, executive director of Whosoever, quickly became her mentor. He began giving her rides home after work and Heather fondly talked about how those 20 minute car rides were like counseling sessions for her.
From these conversations, Heather realized she had a pretty hefty superiority complex that Bob challenged her to push back from. She explained that she had always sought the praise of adults as a means of finding personal significance. She found that volunteering and working hard were good ways to accumulate that praise. Receiving praise fed a self-righteous notion in her that she was somehow better than other people. She served others for her own sake, and not for the sake of those she was helping. Volunteering was about her getting what she felt she needed out of it. The problem was, she wasn’t satisfied. The pressure and need to be good and her arrogance of thinking she was better than others because of her good works were at a boiling point when Bob gave her a book to read called Transforming Grace by Jerry Bridges. It was life giving. The book helped her see that ministry is not rooted in one’s efforts to please God or people. It’s rooted in the fact that Christ has already done it all for us. By God’s grace, we can rest in Him. At the age of 16, Heather had taken on this mature topic of self-righteousness and authentic service and, with the help of her mentor, realized that
“[Her] concept of grace had not been big enough for the sin and darkness in [her] heart.”
This idea was reinforced for her while she continued to work at Whosoever Gospel Mission. She saw the same heart motivations that she possessed in the hearts of the men at Whosoever. Some of the men who had been using or engaging in other illegal activities were trying to earn praise from others – their fathers, family members or friends who also used. It was like living as a salve to the fear of man (the Bible’s way of saying we as humans seek the approval of others rather than the approval of God), rather than living in the freedom that comes of loving people and fearing God. Heather said that it was humbling and freeing to see the parallel of sin between her and the men at Whosoever and allowed her to further connect with the people she was encountering. After coming to grips with some of the depth of sin in her own heart, she can say confidently that if God’s grace is big enough for her, then it’s certainly big enough for any man that’s ever going to come to the mission.
She finished her Urban Missions degree and moved on to a master’s program in Counseling at Westminster Seminary, a three year program that she completed in five years. She continued working at Whosoever and found that working at the mission gave her real case studies to which she could apply her graduate work. Currently, Heather is working on her dissertation for a Doctor of Ministry degree which is helping her better connect with the guys at Whosoever. The goal of her project is to help the men at the center rebuild healthy relationships with their children. The process of this project begins with Heather conducting one on one interviews with interested fathers by asking them questions about their children and families and then seeking to identify points of struggle or contention that might hinder healthy relationship building. The next step is to dig into Scripture and unpack a biblical-theological framework of families and fathers to guide the mending and strengthening process as the men work to build their relationships with their kids. She’s found that when you can apply the hope of the gospel to tough situations, the brokenness and barriers of the situations become easier to overcome for the father. The last step is talking through ideas for how to overcome these barriers; for instance, Heather might suggest little changes a man might try – like changing his tone when texting his daughter from one that’s “demanding and ‘me’ centered” to one that is more “her” centered, caring and compassionate. The theory is not to look to be loved and respected by your daughter, but rather, try looking simply to love and respect her.
In regards to stereotypes about people who have experienced homelessness and incarnation that she has seen during her work, Heather said that there are at least two very different groups of people who might create very different stereotypes. First, there are the folks, generally from the middle to upper classes, who think homelessness is a result of laziness, poor choices, or lack of motivation. Second, there are some people actually experiencing these situations who may have their own skewed perspectives on their situations. By this, she’s referring to a victim mentality where the person only focuses on what is being or has been done against them (things they cannot change) rather than the personal decisions, actions and reactions that may have contributed to their situation (the result of personal choices and their consequences). In response to both types of stereotypes, Heather says it’s not so simple. The struggles of a person experiencing homelessness — and yours and mine for that matter — are always a mix of several factors. The good news is that, when the root causes of the problem are identified, the hope of the gospel changes everything. She says there are five reasons why people struggle:
I sin ~ I do what’s wrong, and I suffer the consequences
Others sin against me ~ people hurt us in all kinds of ways when they sin against us in big and little ways (it could be as small as gossip or something bigger like abuse)
We live in a fallen world ~ Ever since sin entered the world when Adam and Eve disobeyed God, death came along with it and everything started to unravel – sickness, death, natural disasters, etc.
Sin has become institutionalized ~ There are corrupt systems, like slavery and discriminatory laws, that are broken and encourage oppression that leaves people feeling stuck
Satan seeks to destroy me ~ He exists and works against us in any way he can
Heather says that the good news of the Gospel is that God deals with all of these issues at the cross:
“When we identify sin and call it what it is, we can receive God’s forgiveness because of Jesus’ sacrifice on our behalf on the cross. When others sin against me, I am reminded that I have been forgiven much, and therefore I learn to forgive. When I feel the pain of life in this fallen world, I remember that Jesus declared ‘it is finished!’ and I remember that Satan is defeated and a better day is coming! By God’s grace, we can work to correct injustices. The cross also helps put these struggles into perspective and reminds me that no matter what comes against me, God has gone on record that He is for me! The cross changes everything. It redirects the identify of an individual as a son or daughter of the king, not just someone experiencing homelessness and subjected the mistreatment and neglect that our society unfortunately inflicts on people experiencing homelessness.”
The reality is that it isn’t about blaming one person or one institution, but rather a complex mix of these things that exist in a fallen world. Heather concluded by borrowing a saying from a friend. She shared, it’s about recognizing that,
“Some people are born on third base and wonder why not everyone makes it home as easily as they do. What they don’t realize is that other people were born on first or second base, or in the bleachers, or maybe not even in the ballpark. Those of us who made it home, it’s our job to go outside the park and help others find their way inside, find their way home.”