Enlarging Compassion’s Territory

Seven years ago*, God dragged John Mohan “kicking and screaming” into a new career.

Mohan, an ordained elder in the Church of the Nazarene, went from being a self-described “typical white suburban pastor, with little awareness of homelessness,” to chief executive officer (CEO) of Siloam Mission, an urban Nazarene Compassionate Ministry Center in Winnipeg, Manitoba, arguably the coldest capital city in the world.

The first time Mohan walked into the mission, which at that time was located in a tiny converted restaurant building, he thought, “I guess God is calling me to a ministry of obscurity where I’ll never be seen or heard from again.”

He was wrong.

Mohan is now the very visible CEO of a mission with an annual operating budget of $4.3 million (CAN). He appears regularly on the radio and television, is featured in magazine and newspaper articles, and is tapped as an expert on homelessness. When he arrived at Siloam Mission, an estimated 25 people were helped daily. That number is now between 400 and 500. The mission owns a 58,000-square-foot, four-story, inner city building. It operates a full-sized dining room, a 105-bed emergency shelter, and a 2,100-square-foot health center. “I’m overwhelmed by the size of it,” Mohan said.

Patrons may receive meals, emergency shelter, health and dental care, clothing, pastoral care, referral services, and transitional programs in employment training, computer literacy, and art.

Mohan had no experience in running a compassionate ministry center. It all started because of a simple trust in God.

“I had the absolute conviction that God had my best in mind, and His plan for me was the best plan. If I could trust God with my salvation, I could trust God with my career,” said Mohan.

“If I could trust God with my salvation, I could trust God with my career.”

Submitting His Résumé, and His Heart

In 2001, Mohan and his wife, Brenda, were serving the 100-member Alpine Church of God in Swift Current, Saskatchewan, population 16,000. They had spent 22 years in various ministry assignments. Toward the end of the year, the Swift Current congregation was undergoing a period of conflict, and Mohan was asking God whether they should stay or go.

“I prayed for God to ‘enlarge my territory,’ just like the prayer of Jabez,” said Mohan. “But I was only thinking in regards to church work in that community.”

Then his brother-in-law, a pastor in the Church of the Nazarene, invited him to apply to Siloam Mission, which was in search of a CEO.

Mohan submitted his résumé, then immediately withdrew it.

The timing, and his heart, wasn’t right. A few months later, Mohan resigned from his pastoral position. “So I did what all pastors do when they don’t know what to do,” Mohan joked. “I went back to graduate school.”

Still, Siloam pursued him. The chair of the mission’s board of directors called Mohan and asked him to consider the assignment. Mohan laughed to himself, “If he’s asking me, then all the better candidates have already said no.”

Finally, after consulting with his wife, Brenda, Mohan gave in. He may have been a “typical white pastor” with little understanding or concern for the downtrodden, but with one exception, he says. He was raised in a single-parent home by a father who was in the armed forces. His mother was an alcoholic, and often lived in “dismal circumstances.” That planted seeds of compassion that maturity helped to nourish.

Intentional, Accidental, Providential Growth

Every person who would come through our doors, no matter how ragged or dirty or smelly or whatever, I would treat as if Jesus were coming through my door.

From the start, Mohan decided he would emphasize excellence as well as compassion in everything the mission did, striving for the best facilities and services possible.

“Every person who would come through our doors, no matter how ragged or dirty or smelly, or whatever, I would treat as if Jesus was coming through my door,” he said.

The response has been an explosion of growth. He has seen the expansion come through what he describes as intentional, accidental, and providential action.

Intentional. Mohan wanted Siloam Mission to be a household name in the Christian community, so he began recording short commentaries that aired daily on a local Christian radio station. He wanted to help the church community understand three things: 1) the issues of local poverty and homelessness, 2) God’s heart for the poor, and 3) the church’s responsibility and privilege to serve the poor. As churches were informed about the needs, they engaged, resulting in generous financial and volunteer support.

Accidental. In the winter of 2003, as Siloam Mission was running out of winter clothing, they contacted the media to help spread the word. The response was overwhelming, donations more than quadrupled from their usual amount, but that was just the beginning.

“The ‘accident’ was a phone call from a grandmother, whose granddaughter, a first grader, wanted to help homeless people but didn’t know how,” Mohan said.

The little girl, Hannah Taylor, was invited to visit Siloam. Then Mohan offered to speak to her class about homelessness. He talked about the Good Samaritan. Hannah said, “We’re going to raise money for you.”

Several weeks later, Mohan was presented with 137 cans of coffee, warm clothes, and blankets, and a check for $1,200 (CAN), all raised from an art and bake sale held by Hannah’s first grade class. Hannah went on to fight homelessness by starting the Ladybug Foundation, now one of Siloam Mission’s donors. (See www.ladybugfoundation.ca)

Providential. At one point the mission was low on funds. Mohan prayed, “O God, where is the money going to come from?”

Soon after that he received an unsolicited E-mail from the vice president of the Russ Reid Company, a direct-response fundraising firm, which offered to take Siloam on as their Winnipeg client. In January 2004, Mohan provided them with their entire donor list of 780 names, which had previously generated $170,000 (CAN) in annual donations. Now the supporters list contains more than 30,000 people who will fund the 2008-9 operational budget of $4.3 million (CAN).

One recent event was altogether intentional, accidental, and providential: A letter, out of the blue, came in 2006 from attorneys of a late Winnipeg pharmacist, a Jewish man named Saul Sair, who wanted his estate to serve the homeless. They asked for a proposal, which led to a $1 million gift to Siloam Mission to create the Saul Sair Health Center, which opened in August 2007.

Serving the Homeless, Serving Christ

God has indeed enlarged Mohan’s territory-and his heart, his vision, and Siloam Mission’s capacity to serve.

“The homeless give you far more than you give them,” he said. “God calls holiness people to compassionately engage with the poor. When we do, our love for people and for God is enlarged, and we have an increased awareness of Christ’s presence in our own lives.”

Anita K. Palmer is a freelance writer and editor in San Diego.

*Holiness Today, July/August 2008