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Rockford Rescue Mission’s 50 Years of Changing Lives

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For nearly half a century, it’s helped people who have nowhere else to turn. Jim Killam explores this ministry that embraces and acts on the words of Jesus Christ, and explains the rich history of this difficult but rewarding work.

Meal line at the Rockford Rescue Mission

Want to see a face of the Rockford Rescue Mission today? Spend a few minutes with Fannie.

The mother of six and grandmother of three is learning to sew during her stay at the Mission’s Women’s Crisis Center. Day Coordinator Leona Tennin teaches it as a Life Skills class, designed to impart knowledge that could produce income. Fannie already is creating handsewn purses and pillows, with an eye toward setting up an online business.

“I’m so excited to be learning this,” she says.

Or, talk with anyone in the Mission’s Life Recovery Program who is receiving vocational training in the Restoration Café next door. Today, some serve meals to judges and lawyers whom they first encountered in courtrooms.

Or, attend a Restoration Celebration – the Mission’s semi-annual graduation ceremony. Listen to program graduates tell their stories – stories of despair, then courage, then hope and redemption.
Then, rethink whatever stereotypical image you held about rescue missions.

“I think the perception still is, we’re a shelter, a food program, that people camp here forever, that we’re not about helping people move forward in their lives,” says Executive Director Sherry Pitney. “And that’s just not us at all.”

Chris Eldridge, director of development, leads with that idea when he conducts tours of the Mission’s West State Street center.

“I say, ‘Welcome to this nice facility. Most people, when they think of a mission, think of an old renovated brick church building with cots in the basement,’” he says. Then he’ll point to a wall-sized photo of the original storefront Mission on Kishwaukee Street. “And definitely we started there. But we are light years away from that now.”

Eldridge hears a similar refrain on most tours: “I knew you changed lives, but I had no idea what was going on down here.”

“Even people who are connected with the mission and are donors to the mission, and somewhat know us, when they first take a tour, it’s the extent of what we do that they have no idea about,” he says.

Entering its 50th anniversary year in 2014, today’s Rockford Rescue Mission certainly still feeds and shelters the homeless through its Men’s and Women’s Crisis Centers. That’s only the beginning. The Men’s and Women’s Life Recovery Programs offer a free, residential, nine- to 12-month experience that not only provides addiction treatment, but also spiritual help, education, vocational training, even health and dental care. The Mission operates the Restoration Café next door, and a sprawling thrift store at 2710 20th St.

That’s all without accepting a single penny of government money. The Mission exists and functions solely on donations from thousands of individuals and hundreds of churches and businesses. This year’s budget is $4.7 million; the full- and part-time staff numbers 84 people, and there are hundreds of volunteers.

But the story of the Rockford Rescue Mission begins with the prayers of one faithful couple.

In 1963, the Register Republic newspaper published a series of articles and photos about a growing problem in Rockford: homelessness. Nadine Pitney read those stories with interest. She and husband Gerald, a Baptist minister, had moved to the area from Missouri in 1959, and they’d seen a steady increase in the number of homeless alcoholics around the city. Nadine was teaching a class at their church, from a book that emphasized the need to think not only about foreign missions, but about inner-city needs at home. The book challenged readers: What are you doing about those needs?

Nadine came home one Sunday and told her husband: “I will never teach another mission study book until we do what I have been teaching.” With that, they began to pray for a way to help Rockford’s homeless. They prayed that God would send someone to start a rescue mission.

The answer to that prayer turned out to be a 43-year-old recovering alcoholic who worked at Chicago’s Pacific Garden Mission. In his drinking days, Ray Stewart had been in and out of jail, in Rockford and several other cities. At the urging of an area pastor he’d met in Chicago, Stewart came to Rockford to start a rescue mission. He drove around town on Feb. 15, 1964, looking for a building to rent. After a few misses, he pulled up to a “For Rent” sign at 116 Kishwaukee St. The rent would be $100 a month. On May 1, 1964, the Rockford Rescue Mission opened its doors.

Stewart proved to be more of a visionary than an administrator. By November, the Mission was $4,000 in debt to local businesses who had helped it get started. But Stewart also had formed a relationship with the Pitneys and their church, and Gerald (known to friends as G.O.) was spending an increasing amount of time at the new mission. Soon, Stewart would leave Rockford and the Pitneys would be left to run the Rescue Mission.

For a couple who earlier had set sights on being foreign missionaries, this was as unglamorous as ministry could get. G.O. routinely would break up fights; he and Nadine both regularly cleaned up vomit and worse messes, all for barely a salary and a life of humble service to the poor.

“This work is a killer, and not for the faint-hearted,” G.O. once wrote in The Rescuer newsletter. “It’s where heaven meets hell every day.”

An old bread truck rattles down the city streets, stopping every few blocks at a restaurant or caterer. At the wheel sits a familiar preacher, dressed plainly except for his trademark cowboy hat and boots.

An eight-year-old boy rides in the back, on a makeshift wooden bench. With his knees, he steadies two aluminum pots, both half-full of vegetable soup. It’s his job to keep the soup from spilling as the preacher drives. With this kind of January cold, the Mission will need it all tonight. Steam rises from the pots, and the boy extends his hands over them for warmth. …

Gradually, the truck fills up. Another catering business contributes leftover tossed salad and tomato soup. A bakery offers its usual racks of day-old bread. Two supermarkets give some soon-to-expire produce. That’s how it goes most days. The Mission gathers and uses good food that others were ready to throw away.

The preacher drives on. Around every corner, soup sloshes. The boy holds on. … He wonders to himself: How on earth did we end up with a job like this?

– From the book, Rescuing the Raggedy Man, 2004, Rockford Rescue Mission.

The boy in that story was Perry Pitney. The preacher, of course, was his father, Gerald O. Pitney, and that was their everyday life. Perry would grow up to succeed G.O. in directing the Mission through its largest transition, from its second location (1971-99) on Madison Street to the $4.5 million facility on West State Street that it occupies today.

The Mission plans to revive the bread-truck scenario for its 50th anniversary banquet on Sept. 18, 2014. It’ll take place in a tent, with soup served out of the back of a delivery truck.

“It’s definitely the antonym of what we typically do in a banquet, where it’s just a nice, elegant place to sit and watch something from afar,” Eldridge says. “This will be kind of hands-on.”

The idea, he says, is to take people back to the days when the Rescue Mission was a ragtag operation, never quite sure if it could keep the doors open one more month.

Historical displays are being created that will add to the theme that Mission staff wants to convey to donors.

“Because of their generosity and their commitment to the mission, look how far we’ve come and how many people we’ve reached,” Eldridge says, “from those who stood behind a truck 50 years ago to those who stand in line in a nice facility today. Everyone has been an individual story and every story has been changed, and altered and edited, because of their generosity.”

The Mission will use all of 2014 to celebrate its collective story of changed lives. A promotional campaign, with the tagline, “That’s my story. What’s yours?” kicks off at the end of 2013. The story isn’t just about the people who came through its doors. It’s also about people who gave and volunteered, and people who dedicated their entire lives to serving Rockford’s poor and hurting. And, says Sherry Pitney, Perry’s wife, it’s the overarching story about the faithfulness of God.
“That’s who we are,” she says.

“Anyone God uses significantly is always deeply wounded.”
– Brennan Manning, Ruthless Trust

Nadine Pitney’s father had been an alcoholic, so rescue work always was intensely personal for her. Once, when working in ministry to women at the Mission, she watched helplessly as a young, alcoholic mother decided to leave with her little girl, rather than stay and continue receiving help.

“Nadine watched them walk down the sidewalk, and she went over into the laundry room, bent over the washing machine and just cried and cried,” Sherry Pitney says. “Because she could remember what that was like, having a parent struggle with alcoholism and what that did in her home life.”

The past decade at the Mission has been marked not only by tremendous program growth, but also by tremendous personal loss. Perry Pitney died in a traffic accident in 2005. Nadine passed in 2008, and G.O. in 2010. Both had endured years of failing health. The Rev. Pat Clinton, who had helped to lead the Mission through a transitional period a decade earlier, died of brain cancer in 2011.

Sherry had been tapped by the board as executive director several years before Perry died, as he struggled with his own pain and addictions, and ultimately resigned to pursue art and music.

Before Sherry accepted the executive director’s role, she called Nadine for advice.

“I had a long conversation with her, and she kind of made me feel bad – ‘Why would you question God’s leading in that?’” Sherry says. “So that was kind of confirmation for me then, because I really struggled with the whole idea. In the rescue mission world, there were probably only three or four female executive directors out of 250 missions in the United States. So it was unique to rescue missions and, I think, unique to the evangelical world that I came out of.”

She remembers then-board president Bill Roop asking her, as Perry was leaving the Mission, what she wanted to do.

“And I said, ‘I’m not here because I married Perry Pitney.’ I remember as a senior in high school just a call on my life for full-time Christian ministry. And I said, ‘God hasn’t removed that call, so as long as you’re OK with me, I’m here until God says otherwise.’”

Sherry has quietly guided the Mission ever since – often drawing on her own painful experiences to better understand the hurting people she serves.

“I can remember one day thinking, ‘I really can understand,’” she says. “I’m seeing people in a totally different way. I thought I had compassion. I didn’t know, until you personally go through it and you see people totally differently. So that’s been my filter for the past 12 to 15 years.

“Either people have experienced that themselves, or they’ve had deep, deep struggles with someone in their lives that have helped sensitize them.”

People who remember the Pitney family’s pioneering role in the Mission still ask Sherry, “Now what is it that you do there?”

It doesn’t bother her.

“I’m just trying to be faithful to the gifts God’s given me, in my limited abilities,” she says. “I say to the leadership team all the time, you’ve got to lead out of great humility. And the day that you think you’re something is the day you really need to check yourself – the day you think you can do it without dropping to your knees and saying to God, ‘I don’t have any clue.’”

Looking forward, the Mission’s staff hopes to provide additional services for women and children – the new face of homelessness. They’ve been doing that since the 1980s, when the Mission bought and renovated the former Poole Hotel on West State Street, turning it into the Christian Care Center.

The building was razed in 2007 to make way for the new Winnebago County Justice Center.
“That created a whole other dynamic for us,” Sherry says.

The former Red Cross shelter, located several blocks from the Mission, has provided a short-term solution, but it lacks a kitchen and just isn’t large enough to meet the demand for a 24-hour shelter. Another facility would help.

Still, the Mission’s work remains all about changing lives.

“In recent years, we’ve gotten more intentional about, what does that mean?” Sherry says. “We’re very holistic in our approach. We felt like we were really missing it with vocational training. That’s why we started the café. We’re just looking more intentionally at, what do we need to do at 9 to 12 months down the road, to produce that person who’s going to be fully equipped with every tool that they need to be successful?

“It’s the changed life for me, too,” she adds. “And that’s what we’re about. We’re about transforming to become that likeness of Christ. We’re all on that journey.”

Some of the historical portions of this article are taken from Rescuing the Raggedy Man, by Perry Pitney with Jim Killam, 2004, Rockford Rescue Mission. Used with permission.

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