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Rescue Missions Evolve as Times and Needs Change

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Rescue missions appeared in Britain two centuries ago as industrialization and urbanization attracted people to cities, where unemployment and alcoholism were rampant. America’s rescue missions emerged after the Civil War.

Pacific Garden Mission sent its horse-drawn “gospel wagons” through the streets of Chicago, picking up derelict men, offering them meals, and preaching salvation from sin. Those who failed to stay sober were said to “fall off the wagon.”

Today, rescue missions serve increasing numbers of women, families, and children with novel approaches, including life skills training.

“There has been a big shift in our culture and in Christian views on why so many people are substance abusers and homeless,” says historian Lyle Dorsett, the Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Ala.

 “It used to be that alcoholism was labeled a sin, but increasingly it has been labeled a disease. This shift brought more emphasis on job training and addiction counseling,” he says.

Today, more than 300 missions are part of Citygate Network (formerly Association of Gospel Rescue Missions), which is based in Colorado Springs, Colo. John Ashmen, Citygate’s president, says one of the country’s best missions can be found nearby at Springs Rescue Mission.

During his decade as CEO of SRM, Larry Yonker has helped to quadruple its annual budget to $8 million and expand its reach through a growing campus and new programs to help people transition out of poverty.

The mission runs job training programs as well as businesses where program graduates can work. The mission raises funds through its Mission Catering business, where chefs certified by the American Culinary Institute train mission clients to prepare and deliver tasty meals.

SRM also hosts programs for people dependent on drugs and/or alcohol. Clients can choose to participate in either faith-based or secular programs.

Yonker is a former VW-driving, nuke-protesting seeker of truth and meaning.

As a marketing and development executive at Compassion International, he helped raise millions of dollars to help needy children around the world. Later, his consulting work helped other nonprofits raise millions more for worthy causes.

When SRM hired Yonker’s firm to help with fundraising, something clicked.

“When I got a chance to walk among the poor in our city and meet people broken with homelessness, substance addictions, sexual addictions, and so many other challenges that are often swept under the rug, I realized these are the people I want to help,” said Yonker.

Today, 69-year-old Yonker is more conservative, but he’s happy to forge partnerships with people, businesses, and organizations across the political spectrum.

SRM has worked with the Springs’ Republican mayors and with former Democratic Governor John Hickenlooper to combat homelessness.

At a time when many prominent Christian leaders are culture warriors, Yonker has been a peacemaker and bridge-builder.

“Many faith-based organizations only engage with those of similar spiritual perspective, and that’s unfortunate,” says Ashmen. “Larry has been a stand-out leader because he fully understood the power of collaboration and employed it early-on in his tenure for the benefit of poor and powerless people.

“Larry is secure in his beliefs—and he has made sure that the Christian gospel remains central to Springs Rescue Mission—but he also understands that providing the full array of life-transformation opportunities for people is impossible to pull off without strong partnerships and alliances,” Ashmen continues. “To make that happen, you have to willingly work across political and theological lines like Larry has done.”

Ashmen says he has brought rescue mission leaders from across the country to Colorado Springs to see the SRM work firsthand.

Loving your neighbor

One Springs community leader asked Yonker over lunch one day, “Larry, why do you do what you do?”

Yonker’s answer paraphrased the Gospels of Matthew and Mark: “My faith tells me that the greatest commandments are to love God with all your heart and mind and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that’s what I want to do.”

Some rescue missions limit which “neighbors” they will serve, with some excluding LGBTQ people. But Yonker says SRM has always followed an open-door policy.

“We want everyone to feel welcome on our campus,” he says. “The Bible says God hates divorce, but we accept divorced people. Why wouldn’t we accept homosexuals? We want to serve those God gives us to serve.”

Yonker is preparing to pass the torch to a new CEO. Retired Maj. Gen. Jack Briggs, former director of operations for headquarters U.S. Northern Command, will take over as CEO Oct. 15. Briggs served on SRM’s board while directing NORTHCOM.

“During my whole life in the military, I went wherever the military told me to go,” Briggs said. “Now, I’m choosing to follow the invitation of God to participate with Him and be a part of His plan for Colorado Springs and in the lives of these people.”

Briggs’ passion was shaped by growing up in a family that emphasized caring for the needy, and is informed by his own immediate family’s experience with addiction and homelessness. “When I look at our homeless population in the Springs and elsewhere, I see my own family members, at one place or another in their lives.”

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Steve Rabey

Steve Rabey is a veteran author and journalist who has published more than 50 books and 2,000 articles about religion, spirituality, and culture. He was an instructor at Fuller and Denver seminaries and the U.S. Air Force Academy. He and his wife Lois live in Colorado.