Guest Commentaries

Lighthouse CEO: Message of Jesus can't be separated from mission work

Whatcom Council decision on hiring practices feels biased
May 24, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
The Lighthouse Mission center at 910 W. Holly St. was recently torn down to make room for a new 300-bed homeless shelter.
The Lighthouse Mission center at 910 W. Holly St. was recently torn down to make room for a new 300-bed homeless shelter. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

By Hans Erchinger-Davis, Guest Writer

A year and a half ago, my best friend from high school overdosed a couple of blocks from my office downtown. A year ago, my little sister took her own life, leaving a 1- and 3-year-old behind. The past 17 years of my life, I’ve been fighting alongside the Lighthouse Mission for people and families recovering from trauma and abuse on the streets of Bellingham. So it’s personal to me.

As someone also formed by the ways of Jesus who leads an institution that does likewise, this dedication to suffering people also goes beyond mere experience. It emerges in submission to a unique account of truth and justice that’s not grounded in culture but in the person of Jesus. It’s him that we follow into the Bellingham streets.

The message of Jesus cannot be separated from the services we offer. It’s in our DNA to carry out our mission of “healing homelessness with Christ’s power and love.” It’s because of this that the Lighthouse Mission regularly declines offers of government funding for programs and services that might limit the ability for our homeless friends to voluntarily participate in prayer, worship, memorials, Bible studies and basic Christian formation.

While we serve people from all walks of life without any faith requirements, we make sure all those religious services are highly accessible due to their effectiveness in transforming lives. A recent survey showed 86% of our guests prefer this spiritual emphasis.

Because we meet a vital need in our community, the mission has had a valued relationship with Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham. Our desire to come together and cooperate intensified in March 2020. Because of the federal and state mandate for social distancing, the Lighthouse Mission moved the Drop-In Center, now Base Camp, from Old Town to Bellingham High School, and eventually to its current location at the Public Market in the downtown area.

During the pandemic, every time Whatcom County wanted help, the Lighthouse Mission chose to work together for the good of our community. With no other willing and capable providers, the county reached out, requesting the Lighthouse Mission help set up and staff the COVID-19 Isolation and Quarantine Facility at the old Motel 6 for more than a year.

When Whatcom County offered direct funding for hazard pay to our staff, the mission respectfully declined. We had already given bonuses to our frontline workers, and we worried that accepting government funding might limit our ability to share our faith. In addition, the mission had just increased the rate for hourly staff by 18%. Time after time, the mission chose to cooperate and focus on shared ideologies with the county instead of focusing on our differences.

When the county council recently voted to deny working with the mission because of our legally valid religious hiring practices, after all the support we had provided them, I must admit it hurt. The county’s offer to purchase kitchen equipment would have supported our shared cause of feeding the hungry while not limiting our voluntary religious activities — a win-win.

This arbitrary decision by the county council feels biased against those who, like the mission, live out their faith every day. Since the mission serves roughly half of the homeless and at-risk population of Whatcom County, and is poised with our new facility to significantly increase this capacity, it also feels like bad governance, too. Unfortunately, there will be countless people who will now suffer hunger over a preference in ideology.

Thankfully, the mission won’t stop. We will continue to serve our guests and create space at the table to work with anyone or any organization that wants to fight homelessness alongside us. We will also continue to support our staff in their sincerest efforts to live out their faith. And, as always, we will aim for healing homelessness both in the present, the future and for eternity with the tender love of Jesus in Whatcom County.

Hans Erchinger-Davis is president and CEO of Lighthouse Mission Ministries in Bellingham.

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