Inside Track: Desire to learn shapes career
Executive director of Heartside Ministry nearly missed out on opportunity to attend college.
Growing up in Zimbabwe, Tendai Masiriri’s parents always imported on him the importance of pursuing a full education — and Masiriri took it to heart.
He was a diligent student through high school and, after graduating, earned his bachelor’s degree from Andrews University. It’s that pursuit of an education that brought him to America in the first place; he came overseas in 1999 to study for his first master’s degree in social work at Indiana University South Bend.
“Sometimes, I’m thinking, ‘Maybe I’m still listening to my father’s voice — and when am I going to stop?” Masiriri said with a laugh.
But his desire to continue learning has colored his career to this point, and it’s something he carries with him each day as the new executive director of Grand Rapids-based Heartside Ministry.
Masiriri, who is working on his doctorate, almost didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. His parents died when he was young, and had his adult sisters — both of whom were married with families of their own — not taken him in, he likely would not have completed high school.
“They could have said no,” Masiriri said. “But I can tell you that they really made me feel at home. They took me in and took care of me, and they even sent me here for my studies.
“I saw hospitality — I can say I’m a product of radical hospitality, and I am evidence of what bringing someone in can do for someone.”
Through that experience, Masiriri gained an appreciation and a desire to help people achieve their goals. So, he became a minister, which he said is the best way to lend a hand, as most social services in Africa are administered through churches rather than the government.
But as he continued to study and become more well-versed in the American education system, Masiriri discovered he could be more direct in providing aid.
“I thought, ‘this looks better,’” he recalled. “I’m not just praying for these people, but I can help give them practical skills. And I always was inclined toward helping people, making sure that I could be the hands and feet of good causes.”
After completing his MSW, Masiriri worked at Kent County Correctional Facility as a behavioral health clinician, assisting incoming inmates and identifying potential suicide risks, screening for mental health and substance abuse issues. Not long after, he became a program coordinator for the Kent County Re-Entry Center, working to help inmates transition and return to the population following the completion of their sentence.
Masiriri said he always thought he would spend his entire career as a clinician, eventually retiring as a Ph.D. psychology clinician. But as he spent time working with patients on a one-on-one basis, he began to wonder if that was the most efficient way to help the greatest number of people. So, he went back to school, entering Grand Valley State University’s Master’s of Public Administration program.
“As a clinician, you help people one at a time,” Masiriri said. “But when I went back for my MPA, I learned more about health systems, policies, how to run an operation and I began to appreciate the more macro-level and global thinking that gave me perspective.
“A single decision made as a clinician affects one person and maybe their families. But working in administration, a single decision affects people by a hundredfold.”
In 2009, Masiriri joined Bethany Christian Services as a regional director and eventually vice president of global operations. In 2015, he begun work directing interdisciplinary services for a PACE program via Porter Hills in Holland, providing all-inclusive care for the elderly.
He was announced as Heartside Ministry’s executive director this spring, and Masiriri said in his new role, he has found a place that uses all the skills he has learned in his 26-year career.
“This seemed like the perfect place to incorporate my wide range of experiences,” he said.
For example, Masiriri’s experience working with inmates at the jail opened his eyes to the stigmas that come with mental health issues and substance abuse and how that colors the public perception of those suffering.
“My clients from the jail, I would see them and I’m telling you, there are many who did very well,” he said. “But it’s amazing how sometimes people with mental health, substance abuse challenges, are frowned on because there’s a stigma — and besides that, their disease makes them act out because it’s a disease of the brain. It really affects you, unlike if I had a stomachache or a heart problem — that’s not impacting my behavior.”
While he’s no longer seeing the immediate impact of his work firsthand, Masiriri said he enjoys helping a broader swath of people with each move.
“Now whenever I make decisions, it feels a little removed from what’s happening on the ground,” he said. “But when I’m looking at it from a global perspective, I see how it’s going to at once affect hundreds of people because I’m making it at a macro level. So, a lot of carefulness has to be taken in decision-making because one stroke can affect a thousand.”
When Masiriri is making those hard decisions, he is able to find comfort in his faith. At a personal level, he says it’s like “an anxiety pill,” and said knowing that God crafted each person in his image allows him to treat each person differently and with compassion.
“Being a minister, it gives me meaning and gives me perspective in the heat of life’s struggles,” he said. “When you are surrounded by confusion and experiencing things that you cannot explain, there’s something in me that reaches out to a higher order, and when you’re trying to make sense of a broken world, it helps to appeal to a higher power.
“Even when it looks doom and gloom and chaotic, there’s a God in heaven who’s in control.”
In his spare time, Masiriri is working to complete his Ph.D. in interdisciplinary sciences at Western Michigan University, which will complete his formal education and give him more time to fish, go to the gym and ride bikes with his daughters. But he’ll always continue to study the human condition, as another hobby of his is reading self-help and psychology books.
“They help me to understand what it is to be a human being,” he said.
That desire to continue to learn and understand each person is critical to Masiriri’s work. And though he hasn’t been there long, Masiriri recognizes everyone who comes in the door at Heartside.
“I see myself in all these young people who come to us wanting to get an education, to beat all the odds and different barriers,” he said. “And there is a difference between the barriers I faced in Zimbabwe and the barriers these people face here. But barriers are still barriers, and when I look at every young man or young woman who goes downstairs to study, I see myself.”