Daniels' Passion Shines

June 12, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Rev. Chico Daniels’ passion for his work shines through as he ministers to the homeless, the drug and alcohol addicted, and the poverty-stricken people who enter the Guiding Light Mission every day.

“My greatest fulfillment is knowing that we are meeting some incredibly important needs here in Grand Rapids,” Daniels said of his work as executive director of the mission.

The faith-based rescue mission in the heart of downtown Grand Rapids offers alcohol and drug recovery and employment assistance programs to men who are “lost” or really down on their luck.

Daniels has spent more than 25 years ministering to others, but his life could have turned out a lot differently. As an African American, he says he knows what it feels like being black in America. He grew up in a segregated neighborhood and went to segregated schools. If he had stayed on the track he was on as a teenager, he said, he could have landed in a rescue mission himself — or in prison. He has a brother in prison. He has lost a brother and a sister to AIDS.

“I’m so grateful for the intervention in my life. Christ saved me and changed my life and took the anger and hatred out of my heart,” he recalled. “Since then, I have felt obligated to give something back to the community.”

Daniels was born in Wilmington, Del., and raised in Orlando, Fla. After high school he joined the U.S. Air Force with the intention of “getting off of the track” he was on as a teenager because he was headed in the wrong direction. He spent six years in the military, first in London and later on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean.

“I went into the military hoping to change my life and eventually did, because that was when I met Christ, really, for the first time,” he said.

It was during his time with the Air Force, he said, that he received the calling to become a foreign missionary. He said he was influenced in that direction by two women who were foreign missionaries, one of whom became his wife. Following his stint in the military, he attended a Bible institute with Christians in Action and was ordained into the ministry in 1984.

“I gave my life to the Lord, and I’ve never regretted that decision. It’s been an incredible journey,” Daniels reflected. “I could probably be a pastor of a large church, but I want to be where the people are and where the need is the greatest.”

For the first couple of years, Daniels carried out missionary work in London and Sierra Leone, West Africa, with the organization Christians in Action Missions International. He and his wife, Vanessa, returned to the states in 1986, and Daniels went to work as regional director for Match Two Prisoner Outreach, a one-on-one prison visitation program in Vallejo, Calif. For five years, he worked in some of the toughest state prisons in California — Folsom, San Quentin and the California Medical Facility in Vacaville. Following that, he served two years as an itinerant evangelist in the inner cities of California. Next came a stint as director of Inner City Services and the Bay Area Rescue Mission in Richmond, Calif. He and his family took up residence in a mission house in Richmond’s infamous Iron Triangle neighborhood: a center of drugs, crime and violence. That was where he got hooked on rescue mission work.

“It got into my blood. I saw men coming out of prison and coming to the mission because they had nowhere else to go,” Daniels recalled. “They were getting their GED, being reunited with their loved ones, and coming to faith in Christ. I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”

In 1995 he was hired as executive director of the Visalia Rescue Mission in Visalia, Calif. There was a large Dutch population in Visalia, and many of the residents had relatives in Grand Rapids. It was that Dutch connection, in part, that brought him to the Guiding Light as executive director in February 2001.

“Left to my own devices, I was planning to go into an entirely different direction rather than becoming a missionary,” he said. “But God knows best. This is what I’ve been doing now for the past 25 to 30 years. It has taken me through a number of different organizations through the years, but ultimately, all roads have led to Grand Rapids and to rescue mission ministry.”

The Guiding Light Mission’s outreach has grown during Daniels’ tenure. The mission served more meals and housed more people last year than in any other year in its 49-year history: 242,013 meals and 38,201 bed nights. It’s both a homeless shelter provider and a Christian ministry that’s supported entirely by the philanthropy of the local church community.

Guiding Light’s transient dorm facility at 255 S. Division Ave. can accommodate about 100 men per night, and longer-term housing for up to 34 men is available in the mission’s “Spiritually Accountable, Vocationally Equipped” program, which helps transient men re-enter society with employment training and spiritual guidance over a period of time. In 2005, 12 percent of the 96 SAVE participants achieved employment and 21 percent earned their GED.

Daniels said the mission is now on track to break last year’s record.

“The number of men graduating from our program is up,” he said. “We also assist the men in getting jobs when they move out of the mission. The number of men who received jobs is up — 27 percent of our clients have been employed this year. This year, 55 percent of our men have graduated from our program, which is a phenomenal achievement compared to 30 percent last year.”

Guiding Light belongs to the Association of Gospel Rescue Missions. The gospel, Daniels said, is Guiding Light Mission’s true focus.

“We’ve discovered that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Give a man a well-cooked meal and a clean bed to sleep in at night, and it really gives you a chance to minister holistically,” Daniels said.

“Instead of just ministering to some disembodied soul, we want to minister to the whole person — physically, spiritually and mentally. People don’t really care how much we know about God until they know we care about them. Once people know you care about them, they’ll listen to anything you have to say about your God.”

Daniels plans to expand the Guiding Light Mission’s services. He hopes to purchase the building directly behind the current mission facility and merge the two buildings, which would add 45,000 square feet of space. In the near term, another of his goals is to build some “lighthouse” or re-entry homes for men in the community. Down the road, he envisions a “rescue ranch” out in the country, where Guiding Light could offer vocational training programs for men who are serious about changing their lives, he said.    

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