Attendees wait for the nightly church service to begin at the Victory Mission, a local outreach that Rev. Jim Harriger has led since 1993. After nearly 23 years at the helm, he is set to retire on Jan. 31.
They’re seen on street corners, searching for food, shelter or sometimes some work. Others lounge in doorways, shielded from the cold — or in summer, fleeing the sun. And every night of the year, you can find them at the Victory Mission’s evening meal seeking to fill their hungry bellies.
Each unique, yet sitting side by side, one word describes them all. But the most obvious word isn’t homeless.
“Men and women who are homeless may have a lot of problems, but at the very basic level, they’re the same as you and me,” says Rev. Jim Harriger, who has served as the rescue ministry’s executive director since 1993.
He’s seen the mission through many changes during his nearly 23-year tenure, but the biggest one is yet to come. Because on Jan. 31, he’s retiring.
Serving the Mission
While Harriger has led the mission for the majority of its existence, he wasn’t there at the very beginning. Its founders were Everett and Esther Cook, retired ministers who began feeding Springfield’s homeless out of the back of their station wagon in 1976.
Two years later, they moved into their first storefront: a building at 309 College St., where they were soon serving a hot meal to 10 and 32 people every night.
Tonight, that number is slightly higher: During the winter, up to 120 men, women and children gather every evening to be fed.
“We do that every night of the week, every week of the year,” says Harriger, who notes that volunteers are welcome to come and help serve. “It’s frontline, because you’re right there with everybody coming and getting food,” he says. “You can talk to people, you can sit at the table, or you can stand behind the line where you’re kind of protected. It’s fairly easy way to come and see.”
Some nights, volunteers even supply the food. One of the those people is Alan Long, who has been bringing a meal to the Victory Mission once a month for 17 years. “I think somebody has got to step up and do it,” he says from behind the serving line, ready to dish up the night’s eats.
Alan Long (left) has helped supply a monthly meal at the Victory Mission for 17 years. He works with members of his church — the Sac River Cowboy Church in Strafford — to supply the food. “I just figure this will be something we will do forever,” he says.
The aroma, drifting from around the glass, makes his menu seem a tasty choice: More than 30 pounds of meatloaf, 24 boxes of macaroni and cheese and five gallons of green beans — “with bacon in it,” he makes sure to note — are at the ready.
But for Long, the commitment is about more than just food: It’s a calling to love one’s neighbor. After all, “they all need a chance,” he says.
A new season
That chance is what Harriger has worked to bring the guests of the Victory Mission since he came to town in 1993. It had been a busy time just prior to his hire: The mission’s first job program launched in 1985, the organization incorporated in 1988, and the Victory Mission Family Center, now defunct, opened its doors in May 1992.
The ministry also went through at least two executive directors in fairly quick succession before Harriger was hired, an appointment that was briefly mentioned in the Springfield News-Leader on May 6. He brought his wife and two daughters to Missouri from Washington D.C., where he’d been working in rescue efforts with the Central Union Mission.
After arriving in Springfield, one of Harriger’s first goals was ensure the mission’s programs recognized their clients’ worth. “The hardest thing for people who are homeless is being invisible,” he says. “People look through them, around them, past them.”
Treating people with respect is still a goal of the mission. As the evening’s church service concludes, a flood of guests quickly pours into the restaurant. Tables fill the room, and people fill the tables: Each place set with cutlery, a paper napkin and a glass of iced tea. Some people know each other, others appear to be alone. Some make eye contact, others don’t.
Perhaps the latter is a learned behavior. “If you…see somebody standing on the curb with a sign, how do you look at them?” questions Harriger. “As much as possible, you avoid looking them in the eyes because doing so acknowledges they’re there. That they’re human, that they’re a person. And then once you do that, you have to deal with all the feelings that are stirred up about this person standing there, begging from you. And we don’t want to deal with those things.”
A new location
The Victory Mission moved from its original location to 203 W. Commercial St. in 1981. Here it is pictured in the early 1990s. (Photo courtesy of the Springfield Victory Mission)
Those negative feelings can manifest in various ways. Even in its earliest days, local businesses weren’t thrilled about the mission’s presence. Such feelings of prompted a move to Commercial Street in 1981 from its original location just off Park Central Square.
At least that’s what Everett Cook tied the move to. When asked about the relocation, he said that “we’re actually moving out on the request of the Downtown Springfield Association’s committee,” in the Springfield Leader & Press on Nov. 5 of that year.
The association denied the claim — but the perception was a theme repeated even after the mission’s move north, fueling years of tension and a plethora of newspaper articles.
Working towards acceptance
The Victory Mission wasn’t the first outreach for low or no-income people on Commercial Street: There may have been others, but it was at least predated by the Missouri Hotel, which began serving such individuals in 1974 and was taken over by The Kitchen in 1985.
By the time the mid ’90s rolled around, both sides — the shelters and the neighbors — tried to come to terms with each other. Studies were done, ordinances added, consultants brought in and discussions held to try and mitigate the issues.
“We started meeting together down at Hamby’s,” says Harriger. “We’d tell stories. And Midtown people would tell stories about transients urinating in their yards, sleeping under the bushes, stealing things, having to take off work to go to court and nobody would show up. And Sister (Lorriane Biebel) and I would tell stories about people whose lives were changed. At some point, along the way, we stopped telling stories and we started listening.”
The work culminated in a “Good Faith” agreement between the Commercial Club, the Midtown Association, The Kitchen and the Victory Mission. Signed on Feb. 19, 1996, the short agreement stated that the homeless shelters wouldn’t expand their services.
However, Harriger says that the agreement didn’t quell all negativity — especially after the Victory Mission, after being denied permission by Springfield’s City Council to build on donated land on Nettleton Avenue in May 1998, purchased a new building on Commercial Street. Other issues, “and us making an offer on this building, kind of destroyed the (Good Faith) agreement,” says Harriger.
That building — formerly home to Crank’s Drug Store — was purchased in November 1998 and the mission relocated there in 2003. It houses, among other things, the mission’s administrative offices and Cook’s Kettle restaurant. The building at 203 W. Commercial St., as well as the donated land, have since been sold.
In 1998, the Victory Mission purchased the building that formerly housed Crank’s Drug Store. At left, the building is shown in the late 1920s or early ’30s, and in 2016 on the right. (Vintage photo courtesy of Bob Piland)
Today, Harriger says he doesn’t know if his neighbors’ attitudes toward the mission have softened. He doesn’t know because he stopped attending Commercial Club meetings — monthly gatherings of many business members along the street — around 15 years ago.
“I realized that if I did not go to the public meeting, I did not have the group standing up and throwing stones at me,” says Harriger. “And they settled down, because they didn’t have anyone to throw stones at. And I was a lot better off.”
The work of the mission
As plates are filled with food, volunteer runners take them to guests waiting to be fed. Many say thank you as the plate is placed in front of them. Then they eat hurriedly: The food keeps going until it’s gone, dished out to the each of the eager hands that dart up when asked who wants more.
But that meal is only one of several programs that the Victory Mission offers to the community. Others include its food pantry, family ministries, a vintage thrift store, a speciality designed 12-step recovery program, Christmas gift basket distribution, lodging and more.
Such services are known nationwide, says Anthony Stirling, a homeless man from Wisconsin who first came to the mission in 1997 after growing up in foster care.
“I didn’t really have what most people call parents,” says Stirling. When he was a teenager, his caretakers decided he was old enough to fend for himself — which, in Stirling’s case, translated into a life on the street. As winter approached that first year, he was advised by other homeless people to get out of town — and go south to Springfield.
“Everybody, like, knew about this area,” recalls Stirling. “They said, ‘Well, you can go to Springfield, Missouri. Go down to Commercial Street…You’ll never go hungry, and you’ll always have what you need.’”
So he did. He’s left and come back twice since then, once in 2002 and again in 2015. For him, the transition from homeless to home-found has been difficult.
“I’m stuck in a loop, as a lot of people are down there,” he says, citing things like child support and other bills that make a difficult pattern to break. “It takes away most of what I need to get back together. I’ve kind of been stuck in this cycle for 20 years. I’m 36 years old, and I’ve spent 20 years of my life homeless.”
But things are looking up: He recently found a job as a welder, and hangs out with a group of men who are employed with the aim of saving up and moving out of the mission. Someday, he’d like to go back to school for engineering. He has hope: hope that things will be different this time.
But Anthony sees others at the mission with demons, such as alcoholism and mental illness, that must be faced as well. And those people, he suspects, may be enabled by the mission to an extent. “Because they know that no matter how far out they get, no matter how far gone they are, they can always come here for a free meal,” he says.
Harriger realizes that enabling is a risk in this type of work — but it’s one he’s willing to take.
“We see people with potential,” he says. “Everybody that comes in has a potential to be all that they can be. And it’s up to that person to work toward that potential. We’ll help. We’ll provide classes, we’ll help you get your ID, point you towards medical help, towards jobs. If you stay with us in a program, we’ll help you in that program. But you’ve got to do the work.”
Victory Trade School
One way men can literally do that work is through the mission’s Victory Trade School (VTS), an academy that offers programs in culinary arts, family science and High School Equivalency. The VTS dates back to 2003, and according to Harriger, has been “really the biggest change for what we do” in his tenure with the organization.
Students enrolled in the culinary arts portion of the program graduate restaurant-ready, with six certificates recognized by the National Restaurant Association Educational Foundation under their belts. The school also has a zero-tolerance drug and alcohol policy, which “means if you test positive for alcohol or drugs you are done,” says Harriger. “No excuses. No reasons why.”
While enrolled, students also gain a lot of hands-on experience working in Cook’s Kettle, a five-day-a-week restaurant that’s open to the public. “It’s just this amazing thing to watch,” says Harriger. “As you sit downstairs in the restaurant, you just see mens’ lives change over this 12-month period as they’re with us in culinary arts.”
While enrolled in the program, students are eligible to live in dormitory space in the mission’s Victory Square, a former nursing home that began housing the mission’s sleeping space in 2006.
Its 150-bed capacity is divided into three sections: In addition to the dormitory space for VTS students, there’s free housing for up to 90 days, and transitional lodging for a fee. “Moving the residential part of what we do off of the historic Commercial Street was a very good thing to do,” he says. “Because it got the overnight men away from here.”
As the meal comes to a close, the diners don’t linger. After seconds and thirds are consumed, they head for the door as quickly as they came. But many will be back tomorrow.
In a figurative sense, Harriger sees changes that should happen just as quickly — but won’t come about before he steps back from the mission on Jan. 31. “We have not yet as a community totally faced the issue of how do you help someone who is homeless move forward in life,” he says.
But he does have suggestions on how individuals can make a difference now. “Here at the mission, we have people volunteering every day,” says Harriger, mentioning things as simple as answering the phone, working in the food pantry, teaching, mentoring, doing maintenance and helping with clothing drives. “I had a student at Bolivar High School have other students make blankets. I brought in a bag of knitted scarves that somebody had taken the time to knit. (It’s) the little things.”
And it’s the little things — both from the Victory Mission and the Springfield community — that Stirling says make a difference for him, too. “If I were to speak of this area as a whole, I’ve never had an issue finding a job, I’ve never gone hungry and I’ve never gone cold here. Ever. There’s great people here, great churches, great resources. And if you ask me again two months from now if (the Victory Mission) is doing the right thing, I’d say yes…”
Want to connect?
A retirement celebration will be held for Jim Harriger on Jan. 23 from 2 to 4 p.m. The event, which will be held at Central Assembly of God (1301 N. Boonville Ave., Springfield), is free and open to the pubic. To RSVP, or to volunteer with the mission, call 417-864-2217.