Guiding Light’s Stuart Ray Infuses Homeless Men with the Gospel

Written by Paul R. Kopenkoskey on . Posted in Local

Stuart Ray Guilding Light sign225Stuart Ray has been Guiding Light Mission’s executive director since 2009.Etched in Stuart Ray’s memory is the first time he gave a panhandler money. The man asked for 75 cents and Ray consented to his request. A few days later, he found the same man stumbling in the street, drunk.

Lesson learned: Ray’s intentions were good but the results were anything but.

Looking back on that day in the summer of 2009 — the same year he became Guiding Light Mission’s executive director — Ray says he received a sobering lesson in what’s really required needed to help homeless men discover a better way of life.

“I learned all I was doing is enabling him, not empowering him to live a productive life,” said Ray, adding the man was a former employee of his when he owned a string of Burger King restaurants.

“Productive” is the key word for Ray. There are literally hundreds of men living constructive lives for Christ today thanks to Ray and Guiding Light’s 10-member staff. That means former destitute men are holding down a job, have a savings account and place of their own to live and have discovered their identity in Christ.

On the surface, Guiding Light Mission, located at 255 S. Division Ave., appears similar to a handful of other Christian ministries that seek to help the down-and-out who are often seen walking the streets within the Heartside District, an area in Grand Rapids which is bounded roughly by Fulton and Wealthy streets and Grandville and Lafayette avenues.

The way Ray sees it, too many homeless men who receive help either remain homeless or end up living on the streets again after receiving short-term help from some ministries that keep them in perpetual poverty.

All the men who wash ashore Guiding Light’s doorway are in a similar rut, he added. They’ve often lost their job, their spouse and home as well as the dignity a productive life provides.

“Generally, they show up carrying a plastic bag with their cloths in it,” said Ray. “They’ve pretty much hit bottom when they come here.”

That’s where Guiding Light comes in. Its ultimate goal is for the men to never need the ministry’s services ever again once they’ve been appropriately mentored. Such a goal takes more than a short-term fix, said Ray.

With a $1.7 million annual budget, Guiding Light serves a yearly average of 400 men primarily through its back to work program, which includes the use of the ministry’s computer lab for online job searching, email, and resume preparation, use of phones and working with a job coach.

Then there’s its substance abuse program known as New Life in Christ, which has a 70 percent recovery rate, Ray said, meaning the men remain sober a year or more after graduation. Those enrolled in the substance abuse program are required to pay rent, hold down a job and start a savings account.

“It’s a step toward independence,” Ray said. “Change is hard. They have to be willing to make a change as we worship and pray with them.”

Additional services Guiding Light provides include emergency shelter for transients from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m. nightly, interdenominational spiritual care programs and referrals to social service agencies within the community.

Stuart Ray and cross225Guiding Light Mission’s executive director Stuart Ray has no doubt God gives all men special gifts and talents.The key to Guiding Light’s mission is to help the men discover God’s plan and purpose for them.

“We think God gives all men special gifts and talents,” said Ray. “I want to empower folks, help them become contributing members to society. I follow an upside down pyramid: the client knows best what they want their recovery to look like.

“We want to help individuals become engaged in the community, reach their full potential and reengage with their families.”

Before hiring on at Guiding Light, Ray, for three decades, was a franchisee of 42 Burger King restaurants in West Michigan.

He said there is cross-fertilization between what he learned as the head of dozens of Burger King restaurants and what he seeks to accomplish at Guiding Light.

“I learned with Burger King if you put your employees first, they’ll put the customers first,” he said. “It’s is a little different population at Guiding Light but not really different. We’re all more alike than different. I learned people get up in the morning not to disappoint but to please.”

Ray added people they tend to follow good leadership.

“Employers tend to see employees as a commodity and tend to blame employees when it’s a void in the leadership,” he said. “Some leaders tend not to want to look inward as leaders.”

Guiding Light Mission was launched in 1929 by John Van de Water and was initially known as West Fulton Mission. In 1957 it relocated to 50 South Division Avenue and was led by Andrew and Cornelia VanderVeer.

Through a series of leadership changes that included Andrew dying in 1966 and Cornelia in 1968, Guiding Light closed the same year Cornelia died and remained so for one year until Jacob Vredevoog, an assistant to the VanderVeer’s, reopened the mission as an independent faith project.

In November 1979, Guiding Light moved to 25 Commerce St. SW and remained there until 1984 when it moved to its current location, 255 South Division Ave.

Much of the debate surrounding panhandling these day centers on the people standing on street corners holding handwritten signs that, in one way or another, ask for donations from motorists.

In some ways, they remind Ray of the former employee he tried to help by giving him 75 cents five years ago.

“I know it’s an embarrassment to the community,” Ray said of the sign-holding panhandlers. “But I’m not a fan of putting more ordinances on them and throwing people in jail. We’re not fixing anything. In fact, we’re making it harder for people to move forward, and I don’t believe it is what Jesus would have done.”

Author Information
Paul R. Kopenkoskey
Author: Paul R. KopenkoskeyWebsite:
Paul R. Kopenkoskey is a full-time freelance writer and editor for an assortment of publications including Grand Rapids Magazine, Grand Rapids Business Journal, and Faith Grand Rapids magazine. He has completed his first novel with the working title, Karl Beguiled. He and his wife, Barb, live in Wyoming, Michigan. They have three children and five grandchildren.

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