Welcome to the River

In 2002 at the age of 19, I was in Vancouver’s red district — a small block of town where everything from prostitution to very public drug use is permissible. I was with my church, visiting a church in that district, and I was scared. What business did I have walking those streets, attempting to have meaningful conversations with people I would never see again? I remember three faces vividly — a prostitute (with blonde hair, a silver dress and wrinkles that put her in her late 50’s), a man in his early 30’s with a black t-shirt to match his unkept hair, and a young woman with rolled-up jean jacket sleeves, screaming at me to “get away!” as she shot heroin into her left arm.


More than fear, I felt ill-equipped for those situations and conversations. The church we visited served meals and hosted chapel-like services, which was incredibly noble considering the environment and the fact that the pastor was very poor himself. But I’m not sure they did much else. In hindsight, their ministry was similar to the original model of rescue missions across the country: SOUP - SOAP - SALVATION.

In 2017, in today’s culture, that model is becoming extinct.

When soup kitchens first opened, that bowl of broth was the difference between health and sickness, between life and death. Soup wasn’t necessarily filling, but it was enough. It was clear, however, that a meal wasn’t sufficient to address the needs of the needy and places to bathe became available. As most of these services in those days were provided by private organizations and churches — many of them faith-based — one could not serve the body while ignoring the soul with it’s eternal parts. So, salvation was clearly as necessary as the other services. After all, Jesus directly criticized those who presented well on the outside, but were “filthy” on the inside.

But in today’s world, what good is “enough” when you can have extra helpings of full meals or free groceries? What good is a shower at a shelter if you are no longer desperate to impress an employer and acquire a new job? And what good is salvation, some would say, if that’s the ultimate goal some program or preacher has for you — saving you from something unseen and in the future — while potentially ignoring the present condition and circumstances a needy person is in. 

I found myself asking these questions on those Vancouver streets and only now, sixteen years later, am I beginning to find answers. 

In the three S’s above, it’s clear there’s a missing, fourth “S” — self-sufficiency (maybe that’s two more S’s) — and it’s the tipping point between surviving and thriving. I am often asked why homelessness is increasing in Visalia. I would say it’s because of, in part, a lack of emphasis on and requirement of self-sufficiency in many social services and public policy in general. When California Proposition 47 passed in 2014, it did some good for folks like our Life Change Academy graduates who are living new lives and get the benefit of felonies being erased from their records. But as a whole, according to a USA Today report, this Proposition “…has done little to help these people restart their lives…thousands of addicts and mentally ill people have traded a life behind bars for a churning cycle of homelessness, substance abuse and petty crime.” 

Was it so difficult for the state to ensure those being released from prison would land into a stable situation and ensure they wouldn’t cause other (potentially greater) problems for Californians in other areas?

Desmond Tutu

Desmond Tutu

In light of the changing culture and how organizations like Visalia Rescue Mission are adapting to address the need, our Executive Director, Al Oliver, said it best, “Rescue work is no longer a simple proposition. It’s less like pulling someone from a still pond and more like a raging river.” And as clergyman, Desmond Tutu, said, “There comes a point where we need to stop pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.”

So, welcome to the river. It’s going to take all of us to create solutions for what we find together upstream.

Ryan Stillwater

Ryan is a longtime Visalian — a graduate of Redwood High School and Fresno Pacific University with a bachelors degree in Christian Ministries. Intrigued by the partnership between the Visalia Rescue Mission and the City of Visalia, Ryan began putting his vision on paper as VRM's Oval Venue Coordinator in August 2013, and has sparked the interest of many throughout the community. Ryan and his wife Amy (a Mt. Whitney High School graduate) have been married for seven years and have three amazing kids — ages 6, 4, and 4.