When Ron Buchinski retires in June as Executive Director of the Lighthouse Mission, Hans Erchinger-Davis will assume the post.
What brought you to Bellingham? Are you a local?
I am a local. I’m a fourth-generation Bellinghamster. My great-grandparents on my dad’s side had a dairy farm where Costco is now. They were German immigrants. My Grandparents had a bakery over on Holly Street across from Kinkos where the Tokyo House is now. My folks have been landlords in the community for a long time. I was born and raised here. I went to Carl Cozier Elementary, Whatcom Middle School, Sehome High School, and Western Washington University. I moved down to Seattle for a little while and did some tech stuff. I then went to grad school at Regent College in B.C. before coming back here, and getting married.
I really got into the arts when I was in Vancouver studying Theology. I fell in love with filmmaking and documentaries in particular. I came back to Bellingham and produced a documentary about the Lummi Tribe and the Native American response to 9/11. It ran the festival circuit and was eventually archived at the Smithsonian. As it was winding down I found myself newly married and having just bought a house. I realized that producing documentaries in this area doesn’t make a whole lot of money.
So you said, “You know what I’ll do? Nonprofit work.” [laughs]
[Laughs] Yeah that’s where the big bucks are.
I was looking around for jobs and doing some small videos on the side and a job opened up here at the Mission to be a Chaplain for the recovery program and I thought, ooh that sounds interesting. It was in line with my theological views on caring for the poor. It was in the hometown I love, and it lined up with the emotional beats in my own life that drive me to want to work with people on the fringe. The stories were pretty good too. I got the job and have been at it for ten years. It has since become a vocation and a calling. It’s been quite a trip.
For me, I found that the emotional landscapes I’m allowed access to are far more life-giving to me than simply pointing a camera at someone for a documentary. I got so much more depth, especially as clergy. As a filmmaker I enjoyed a style of filmmaking called Direct Cinema—it’s kind of a fly-on-the-wall filming where you’re using human behaviors to tell stories. There is no narration, no talking heads. Viewers feel like they’re really there as the action is unfolding. Of course I enjoyed sitting in the theater and watching people’s responses to my films—people crying or laughing, but I never knew what came of those people in the audience. Were they fundamentally changed for the better? I would loosely keep in touch with the people I filmed but I never really knew what came of them either. In contrast, the people I encounter here I get to walk alongside in a deeper way. I get to see real transformation happen in hearts over long stretches of time. And I get to see my own heart change in the process. This has been a place for a lot of growth for me.
There are lots of hardships as well. Some of the people you walk alongside and invest deeply in make big mistakes and then they’re dead. It just rips your heart out. And then you realize this work is very serious. I had to learn pretty quick that I’m not going to “save” anybody. I’m a pretty dependant actor in this divine drama. I’ve got a role to play, sure, but this truly is the Lord’s work. I just try to listen while I keep one eye on the beauty and one eye on the horror.
Can you give an overview of the various programs of the Lighthouse Mission and how they fit together?
Well Missions are not what they used to be. In the old days it was soup, soap, and salvation or three hots and a cot, so to speak. Today we recognize that people can be pretty complex and that if you want to be effective in fostering change you have to address the entirety of a person—the spiritual, physical, mental, relational aspects; including addressing them at whatever stage of recovery they might be in. To do this we’ve worked out a tiered system we call the Continuum of Care, with three easy ways in.
The first way in is the Drop-in Center—the welcome mat for Whatcom County’s marginalized. It’s where you go if you just showed up in town and have nowhere to go, if you just got the boot from the place you were staying, or if your car finally got towed and now you have no place to sleep. It really is the hub for anything to do with homelessness in this area. It’s where you go to find out what to do next. It’s comfortable, there’s a cafe, a ping pong table and games, and lots of socializing going on. There are also lots of services in the Drop-in Center. There’s an eye clinic, Sea-Mar Medical clinic and Law advocates that show up weekly. We also do special events there like Super Bowl parties where we get a 100 donated Little Caesar’s pizzas and watch the game clean and sober.
Next is our easy-access meal program where we do 300-400 meals a day—breakfast, lunch and dinner. And third is our low-barrier Overflow Shelter which has 40 mats on the chapel floor with a divider separating the genders.
Once you’re in our doors there are a number of ways you can go within the Men’s shelter or the Agape Home—our women’s shelter. We’ve got medical respite, a mental health dorm, a workers dorm, case management, life-skills classes, bible studies, pastoral counseling, daily chapel services, a mental health professional, a childcare center and more. There’s a lot going on. Every night we have over 160 people sleeping under our roofs.
The New Life Center houses our our Admin and our New Life Program which is a year-long addiction recovery and Christian discipleship program. It’s the latter part of the continuum where people have to be highly motivated and willing to give up their lives for a year to begin the hard work necessary to change. Once they graduate that program we offer the last stage of the continuum: Transitional Housing. It’s a chance for the knowledge gained in the New Life Program to sink in—a chance to start living out the plans they made over the year. A lot of times that means going to school, reconciling with family or finding work.
The Mission isn’t designed to be a person’s end-game. We always want to keep a little tension in play each step of the way. Of course, we want to be realistic about what can be expected of someone that’s gotten to the point where they need to stay at the Mission. And we want to stay reasonable about a person’s processes of healing. So we push for improvement at a pace at which someone can improve. Like a good piano teacher not expecting Beethoven right off the bat, while also not allowing them to stay stuck on Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. We want to see outcomes that are congruent with the individual. We have to be very careful about how we define success.
So what would you say to someone who drives past a homeless person with a sign and wants to help but is afraid to hand cash out the window because they are don’t want to enable. What would you say to someone that says, “I want to help but I don’t know how”?
The first thing I would recommend is to treat that person on the street corner with the utmost respect. That usually means acknowledging their presence—looking them in the eyes and saying hi. One of the great difficulties you find when you are homeless is that you are invisible to others. Think about how that affects a person and their sense of dignity and worth.
Now do you give them money? I respectfully say no. We ask our guests not to fly signs. It seems to me that most money given them generally helps keep them in the woods. For some folks it really is a scam. You can make a lot of money. I want to say it is around $200 a day or more if you have a good story, a good location, if you are female, if you have an animal with you. If you look pregnant you really can bring in the dough, but unfortunately most of that money will feed someone’s addiction. Giving money might make you feel good in the moment but it doesn’t help anyone. It’s toxic charity.
I do recommend supporting the agencies in town that are being effective—the charities that are working, that you can see results from. I also recommend you pray for people. If I’m honest with myself I find that I’m often in on something beyond my management, something over my head. And all I have left is prayer. People are like icebergs. You only see the top tip. I allow myself to feel the sadness. I get angry about the injustice. And then I try to do something about it. If you find your heart being tugged by what you see listen to that. Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit. Get yourself involved, volunteer at the Lighthouse Mission, be alongside people in a safe context, figure out what giftings you have and what niches you can fill.
I first came to this Mission with my dad for a meal when I was eight years old. I remember seeing a wall of day old doughnuts and thinking that was pretty cool. I sat around a table with some guys who were from different walks of life, hunched over their plates and chatting with me looking all rough. I remember the shift in my mind where I realized, oh these are real people.
Ok. So being a 4th generation Bellingham native you know this city pretty well. If you have a self care day where are you going to go to relax?
Well something fresh on my mind because I just did it this weekend is Locust Beach. It
Was my birthday on Saturday so we got a bunch of families together and went to the beach. It was just beautiful. The kids loved it. We went skimboarding and had a fire on the beach.
I got myself a Boosted skateboard, one of those electric long boards and I love riding on that. That is my escape. When you have little kids it’s hard to get away for large chunks of time, but you do have twenty minutes. When I get the time I go out and ride the side streets on Alabama Hill. I used to be an avid snowboarder in my day. Now I maybe get up once a year. But I can take this skateboard out and decompress a little after work, feel the wind in my face, and just get a little carving in. That I love. That’s some self care.
Now from Alabama hill you could probably ride that all the way here.
Yeah. I do. When it’s good weather and I am not dropping my kids off at childcare I will do that. It’s only a few miles away.
Now this is kind of unique—an organization of this size that is focused not just on one aspect of care but the full spectrum, the continuum of care here in the heart of downtown. This is a very important part of town and here you sit in the middle of it. What do you think that says about Bellingham?
I think it suggests that Bellingham is a vibrant hospitable community. We’re donation-based. Our donors are our stakeholders and they’re the ones that allow this place to flourish. The fact that the people of Bellingham and Whatcom County are so generous with the poor I think reflects very well on our community.
I think this is the ideal location for us because of the proximity to other services in our community—help with finding employment, housing, healthcare and the like. Worksource, the Opportunity Council, the library, the YMCA, places like those are all within walking distance. We also don’t want to duplicate services, so if someone else is doing a good job at something like say financial literacy, we don’t want to try and do it. We’ll partner with them or at least make a good referral. We want to stick with what we’re good at and allow others to do what they’re good at. It allows for a team effort.
We really aim to be good neighbors. We’re looking to do a new program of community cleanup with our guests. Right now we send cleaning patrols out in the immediate vicinity but we are hoping to spread that out even further.
One of the interesting things is that if you are out and about around downtown at two in the morning on a Saturday night you can come across some really awful things happening in it’s back alleys. Bellingham definitely has its shadow side. However, the closer you get to the Mission the safer you feel. People who are up to no good know that we’ll call the police in a heartbeat if we see something going down. Our lights are on and we’re staffed 24-7 and people feel safer with us here. We’re in the business of outcomes and seeing lives change, so people know they can’t bring their shenanigans too close by. They might stay on the fringe until they’re ready for help, but ultimately they know the Mission is sacred space and there when they need it. So in a way the Mission really is a light shining in the darkness, kind of like our name.
So the board announced that you will be the next executive director when Ron retires in July.
Yeah he is moving back to Nebraska to be closer to his family. So they have appointed me as Executive Director as of July first.
How does your life change on July second?
Well my life changes in a few ways. Now I’ll be in the hot seat. My hope is that I exhibit a thoughtful, humble, gracious leadership style that takes our Mission’s history and heritage seriously. I hope to take the needs of our area seriously. I want to take Bellingham and Whatcom County’s communal spirit seriously, and bring a restorative relational tone to bear.
My role will be to create the conditions that make it possible for really great things to happen when our staff and guests get together. The right sort of staff, a strong financial footing, excellent programming, a rich environment for wonderful things to happen in the lives of our guests. I want to be a good steward of all of that. That’s the orbit I’m thinking about.
I have a lot of gratitude for everyone who has contributed to the Mission’s deep history over the years, and of those presently contributing to it’s exciting future. The cast of characters have been numerous—I’ll be the 10th Executive Director—but our purposes have been the same: restoring people through Jesus. I have a lot of ideas and I’m really excited to dig in and get to work. I have to thank Ron Buchinski and the Board getting us into a really good place this last decade. We have a solid foundation with incredible potential. I think this Mission can be one of the best missions of its kind in the country. And at the end of the day, more people get their lives back and become more whole and entire the community flourishes because of it.
I love this Mission. It is a love for all the great things that God is doing here in the town I love.
What does Bellingham need? What are we missing?
In the homelessness realm the thing Bellingham needs most is a larger front door to our continuum. We have found in the last couple of years that we are having to turn people away left and right due to space constraints. That would mean a larger low-barrier shelter. Right now we are just inundated with people. We have 160 precious men women and children a night sleeping here. Homelessness is up eighteen percent this year. The need for outcome-oriented shelters is more crucial than ever before.
Secondly I could see it being really helpful to have a larger transitional arrangement. Specifically a faith-based one. There are a lot of halfway houses out there but after having done this for while now I find that those that are a part of an intentional Christian community really seem to have a better chance than those that aren’t.