Hope at Christmas

Meeting needs of the needy is mission’s call

Meeting the physical and spiritual needs of Tulsa’s downtrodden has always been a hallmark of John 3:16 Mission and that is especially true during the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays,

At Thanksgiving, John 3:16 reaches out to the poor with sacks of groceries – with turkeys – to provide and brighten the holiday, the Rev. Steve Whitaker, senior pastor and CEO of John 3:16 Mission said in a recent interview on KCFO AM970.

The big freezer at the Family Center of John 3:16 had 62 turkeys just a few days before Thanksgiving, Whitaker said.

“We put the word out to the community and before the weekend was over we had between 3,000 and 4,000 turkeys,” Whitaker said. “That’s from Tuesday to Sunday. The food came in right before we had to give it away. When we got done, I had turkeys I can give away at Christmas time.

“We distributed about 4,300 Thanksgiving baskets, 4,300 turkeys with that, to families that are at risk.

“I want to assure everybody that one thing that John 3:16 does well, we do the case work. We know the needs of the families that come in. These are not people who are running around, playing games. These are people that have legitimate needs.”

One thing Whitaker noticed this time was a larger number of young families – especially young mothers with small children.

“And the real heartbreaker is our elderly,” Whitaker said. “They are on fixed incomes and they just can’t make it right now.

“It’s a heartbreaker when a grandma comes in and says, ‘If you can’t help me with Thanksgiving, I’m not going to have Thanksgiving dinner. And I want my family to come over.’”

A typical Thanksgiving basket from John 3:16 has a turkey, cranberry sauce, yams, potatoes, rolls, corn and green beans.

Most of the homeless come from the families that are at risk of hunger, he said.

“It is families that are fractured for one reason or another – inside out and the outside in,” Whitaker said. “We have a problem in Tulsa – all these people we serve are from Tulsa, they are not from Oklahoma City and they haven’t ridden a train here.”

Christian purpose

Whitaker said Christians are called to help people with needs, physical and spiritual.

“It’s one thing to give somebody a theological agenda but if we don’t do something along the way, of course, we want to share our faith,” Whitaker said. “There is a sense that we have to do something on the ground and real for that person, meeting real needs in their life right now.”

From time to time, people and organizations have offered large sums of money to John 3:16 Mission because of their work with the homeless. Sometimes, those offers come with conditions.

“Numerous times in our work at John 3:16 we have been ridiculed and made fun of for our faith,” Whitaker said. “God has told us that’s going to happen and we are not worried about that. And there have been other times when people have said there is funding available. All the funding that you need – if you would just take that John 3:16 thing off the front of your building. If you have seen the John 3:16 at our building, it’s up in granite.

“That’s our answer to the community that says to not give honor to our Lord. As one man said, ‘God’s greatest gift to mankind is transformation.’

“We can feed people and we can do all these things but the goal is for God to transform a man and a woman from the inside out and make them whole.

“The only time you see real change is when Christ comes in and makes a change from inside out.”

John 3:16 has large posters in its lobby with the Four Spiritual Laws – a Bible tract written by the late Dr. Bill Bright which outlines salvation through Jesus Christ.

“People look at that and ask, ‘Is that true?’” Whitaker said. “And if that’s true, then I want that.”

Whitaker said they will stand in the lobby and invite Jesus into their lives.

“That’s the end goal for John 3:16,” Whitaker said.

Conversion is not a requirement to get assistance at John 3:16 Mission. Everybody is going to get taken care of.”

Winter shelter

When winter hits, Whitlock said he calls it “killer cold” because some people will freeze to death. When it gets below 40 degrees, then the wind-chill factor puts some in real danger.

“If some of them don’t come in, they surely will be very ill from exposure or they may expire,” Whitlock said. “We have found frozen bodies in encampment. We are very busy right now going out to all the encampments to make sure the word is out to everybody. And we will go by some of the hardcore campers we know who will wait until the very last moment. And some may not come in.

“We will do our very best to reach out to them right now.”

When the low temperatures come, John 3:16 will take in everyone who comes to their door, Whitaker said.

“We have a kind of overflow situation at John 3:16 where when all the beds get filled, then we start putting people in our great big lobby – kind of set up like an airport lobby where people can actually sleep on the benches.

“And if that doesn’t get us enough beds, we’ve got another 150 mats we can put down in our cafeteria and our chapel.”

The Salvation Army recently had a fire just down the street from John 3:16 Mission. It was cleared quickly but they had to send everyone to John 3:16.

“We work together with them all the time in that regard,” Whitaker said.

Living on donations

John 3:16 Mission will serve between 180,000-200,000 meals in 2016. The mission gets no government funds but is totally reliant on charitable giving from individuals, businesses and groups.

“Individuals are our main source of giving,” Whitaker said. “Secondarily is the churches. A lot of corporations and businesses are very generous. We are grateful for that as well.”

Whitaker said the panhandling problem in Tulsa is as bad as it has ever been.

“It is hard to know where to give your gifts,” Whitaker said. “There is the problem of ‘unconsidered charity.’ That has to do with somebody just driving up to someone holding a cardboard sign saying they have a need and giving their money to them rather than giving their money to where they know its going to fulfill a useful purpose.

“John 3:16, even though we were founded in 1952, is still a grassroots ministry. We have never abandoned who we were from the very beginning. It’s about the Gospel and making disciples. And relief came second.

“And a lot of missions now, their primary cause is social justice. There is nothing wrong with social justice but it leaves out the eternal. It leaves out what is going on with the soul of that person.”

Alcoholism’s effects

In November, Oklahoma votes to liberalize its liquor laws and allow grocery stores, convenience stores, drug stores and other retailers to sell refrigerated hard beer and wine.

Whitaker and John 3:16 deal with problems with alcoholism all the time.

“That was a very controversial issue for me in particular,” Whitaker said of the vote. “The number one gateway drug is alcohol. People start with a little bit of a drink. I have done casework with thousands of people. It happens when some guy gets a beer across the tailgate. They took that first beer and progressed, even in their high school years, to hard liquor and some other drug, and before you know it, a person is addicted.

“People are saying that no, that’s not true. But it is true. It has been empirically proven that alcohol is the number one gateway drug.

“This (new law) is going to be bad for our community. There will  be more crime. There will be more drunk driving. Insurance rates for everyone will go up marginally because of this issue because we have higher alcohol consumption.

“It’s a bad deal all around. All we can do is try to help people to abstain.”

People who are “fragile in their recovery” from alcoholism will face a greater temptation because of the new proliferation of alcohol sales.

“There is a potential of relapse in their life,” Whitaker said. “We are putting that right in their face.”

Whitaker said the people that do his kind of work in Texas would argue that the liberalized liquor laws in that state are causing problems.

“There is no arguing – it is empirically true that the number one gateway drug is alcohol,” Whitaker said. “Nobody sets out to be a homeless person or addicted. But every day, a new alcoholic stumbles in the doors of John 3:16 Mission, saying, ‘I need help badly right now.’”

Gambling is a growing in Tulsa as tribal casinos race to grow and more people – particularly low-income people – gamble.

Just after casino gambling was legalized in Oklahoma, John 3:16 starting getting people with gambling addiction coming to them for help.

“Addictions fracture families,” Whitaker said. “I am diametrically opposed to it. It is harmful to our community. We can prove that there will be more crime. We can prove the state of the family in our city and our state will be harmed. It’s just going to be harmful.”