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What d'ya need?

lise funderburg


LISTEN to the piece about Lise's trip to Whosoever Gospel Mission thrift store in Philadelphia that aired on Weekend All Things Considered.

LISTEN to personal shopper Lise hunt for finds at the Whosoever Gospel Mission Thrift Store.

Slide Show

SEE pictures of the people and stuff at Whosoever.

The Whosoever Gospel Mission has been around since 1892. Currently, it's home to 60 formerly homeless men who are recovering from drug and or alcohol addictions. It is partly supported by a thrift store that bears its same name. Most of the men live in the mission and work in the thrift store. The entire operation is run by Reverend Bob Emberger.

Recently, Reverend Bob spoke to our artist reporter Lise Funderburg about his work at the mission. The following are excerpts from their conversation.


RB: Well, this building was built by the mission for the mission in 1907. But the real big building that has our name written on it, that building was built by 1819, that used to be a wool mill and then we bought that in 1895 and that was the mission and then this building was built in 18, rather 1907 for the mission.

LF: So is the mill section which is a pretty stocky, square building is that now the dormitory area?

RB: No, thatís what we call out industrial building. We kind of use it as a warehouse to sort and store the stuff for our thrift stores. But the dormitory building was built to be a dormitory for the mission in 1907.

LF: And so, how many men can live here and do live here? Are you always at full capacity?

RB: Pretty much. Our capacity is 60 and we're pretty much full all year around. The only thing that changes is in the winter time our waiting list might get a little longer then in the summer. We operate at capacity all year long, for the most part. We do get a waiting list but the problem with a waiting list is if someone is homeless you really can't contact them all that easily. So itís kind of up to them to keep in touch with us. If they give us a phone number of a pastor or a friend and we call many times that person hasn't seen them for days or weeks.

LF: And whatís the sort of profile of the men who come here. I know that men who are staying at the mission work in the thrift store, that all the clerks are men who are living here at the mission, right?

RB: Well those who are on the floor. The person who runs the cash register is a staff member but he's a graduate of our program. In fact 11 of our 22 staff members are graduates of our program. And they're regular staff, full time they have health benefits, tuition reimbursements, full time salary.

RB: . . . pension plan. You know. . . .

LF: Great.

RB: But there are men in the store, on the floor who are in our program and that's one of the program requirements, you know a work therapy program and job readiness training.

LF: I notice that the men are tremendously polite.

RB: I'm glad to hear that.

LF: But it also feels like theyíre. . .that it's part of their mission to. I think that when I heard that these were men in some form of rehab and I don't think I originally knew that it was rehab from being homeless and I thought that it was substance abuse.

RB: That's a piece of it. One of the benefits that we have in our program is it's along term program, it's 6 months or longer. There are shelters in this city that do a fine job but the problem is that when you have men living on the street they tend to be very guarded, very protective, they put a lot of walls up for self-protection and survival but when they come to a long term program like ours and they begin to be socialized we really emphasize community around here that we are a community and that your life impacts the life of others for good and for bad. So we really talk about community and being responsible to each other. And when you have that kind of environment those walls of self protection begin to crumble and men become socialized and so in the thrift store they will be more sociable, more pleasant, more polite, more outgoing then if they were just coming into a shelter getting a shower food, and then leaving the next day. Those walls would stay in tact in the shelter whereas here they do begin to crumble and fall down which is good because it's good for them because those same walls that keep them protected keep them from loving others and keep them from being loved.

LF: So this is a faith-based mission. But do you require that the men who come here have faith?

RB: No. We don't discriminate or require anybody to have any particular faith. You can be pretty much whatever you choose to be. Now, we do tell people up front that we're a Christian based mission and if you absolutely hate Christianity this probably is not the best place. But to be honest most of the men come here because they grew up in a church environment and they wandered far from that and they think back to those days as pleasant days and good days and so the fact that we're faith based actually draws them because they realize that this is a place where they can get help and maybe go back to some of those better days.

LF: Are men who come here still addicted or using alcohol?

RB: Yeah. A person could be high on drugs this morning and come into our program this afternoon. We'll take them right off the street.

LF: So the experience of your founder who called out to god and was cured of his addiction, is not, that's a one step program, that's not a 12 step program.

RB: That's not typical, to be honest, now, this is my opinion but I think the reason why his addiction was taken away so quickly was I think because he did have a larger purpose of starting a program and if he were constantly struggling with addiction and relapse and cravings it would have been real tough to start something for other people so I think God in his mercy you know for his own purposes just took it away but that's very unusual. Most of our guys struggle and battle and it's more of an ongoing continuum kind of thing where they can have success and overcome it but they can have battles and struggles especially when certain triggers come into their lives, stress factors that can trigger a relapse. And we try to deal with some of those things and help them to work through those issues.

LF: Do you use a twelve-step model, a sort of Alcoholics Anonymous model for helping the men?

RB: That's part of what we do. We actually use a program called ďOvercomersĒ and it's more of a faith-based program. It's a national program it's got 12, we call them 12 goals and it deals with a lot of the same issues that the 12 steps of AA would deal with.

LF: Such as. . .

RB: Such as coming to the point where you realize that you're helpless and you need somebody bigger then you to over come your problems. Taking inventory, seeking forgiveness of those that you've offended that you have done wrong to, that kind of thing. . . Itís with more of a faith based, see. . . AA is a fine program but it's pluralistic and it doesn't pretend to be a faith based program so we adopted a program that was more compatible with what we do here.

LF: Okay, this has all been very interesting and now I'd like to talk about the really important things -- the thrift store and its contents.

RB: Yes.

LF: Why, for example, up on the 2nd floor in that beautiful auditorium like room where you keep the furniture do you have the pricing only at 2 points during the day sop if I come before the 3:00 pricing I cannot buy a piece of furniture. WHY?

RB: Why? To try and make it as fair as possible.

LF: Okay, fine.

RB: We used to do it otherwise and um,

LF: You mean I could see something and say how much is that and someone would come up with a price.

RB: Um hum, yeah, and we were always accused of being unfair playing favorites so we don't hold things for anybody. And those are the times when things are taken off of the truck. They're taken off twice a day and so that way it gives everybody a fair shot and it's first come first serve. But in years past it could get ugly.

LF: No kidding. I'm still recovering from a moment this summer when I was, I had seen this beautiful metal sort of medicine cabinet with a glass front and it was unpriced at the end of the day on Friday. So I came on Saturday. I made, I dragged my sister with me. If you opened at 9 I was here at 8:15. Read the paper chatted up the people around us. There was a very delicate dance going on around us of people being friendly yet keeping their position in line and then this one woman in particular was really friendly and we purposefully did not speak about what we were there for. And when we came in I tried not to run upstairs I was being polite and, of course, she had her eye on the exact same cabinet and got it.

RB: That was your mistake. You should have made a mad dash.

LF: I know. I still feel pain in my heart about that.

RB: Yeah.

LF: But, Iíve gotten many wonderful things here. And what are, do you have particular sources for the furniture, the clothing. Do you have way too much that comes to you? I know you pick up for people.

RB: We get about 8 to 10 tons of clothing a week. Now we give some away without charge like if a social service agency sends somebody to us with a letter and a need we'll give them free clothing. We also sell clothing, that supports the program we have for homeless men. And then clothing that we cannot sell or give away we bale into these thousand pound bales and most of those are shipped overseas to very poor countries and we get about 4 cents a pound for that so it helps us but then it also helps people in other countries that are very needy.

LF: I don't know if you've done a market analysis of Whosoever versus the other thrift shops in the area, but I have, (RB laughs) de facto, and it seems to me that actually, the people who shop here are poorer than people who shop at some of the surrounding thrift stores, not exclusively because certainly a lot of the people go to the same ones but it does seem like. . .it just feels that way. Do you know anything about that?

RB: Well, I think we're the cheapest store in town price wise. We do get a pretty good mix of people though. We do get a solid middle class we do get some very needy people but many times they'll get things at a discount. Again, if they have a letter we'll give them a half price discount. And we'll also give them clothing for free. But we also get some wealthy folks who come here, in fact when we raise prices those are the ones who usually complain the most. But it's a pretty good mix of people.

LF: Yeah. And you also get dealers who come through.

RB: Oh, a lot of dealers (LF: Yuck. I hate them) Antique dealers, they come in, walk around and leave.

LF: Right, right. Um, you also have food.

RB: Once in a great while

LF: I've seen bread.

RB: Well, we just give that away. We don't sell that. That's given to us. we just get so much bread that if we're not going to use it, rather then let it go bad so we'll just give it away in the thrift store.

LF: Well I see people making such careful decisions about how they spend their money which is one way I think that I feel like people just weren't peeling out bills to pay and, I sort of like to be reminded of what money means, I mean I'm middle class so it's not a hardship for me to buy clothing but I really, that's one of the things I appreciate about being in the environment here is being reminded of how precious economic resources are, for other people. And also I like that when I'm low on cash and all I have are nickel rolls and dime rolls the cashiers never look askance at me so I figure they are used to every kind of monetary denominations that come in.

LF: So what else is important to know before I go shop about Whosoever.

RB: If I could just tell one story about the thrift store that's kind of neat, we are supported financially by a teacher who lives in Margate. And she was on welfare, she was a welfare mother, dirt poor and a few years ago she wrote me a note with a gift and she told me that when she was on welfare the missionís thrift store was the only place she could shop and support her family. And she worked her way through college she went to college became a teacher and teaches in Margate and she just took time to write us from Margate thanking us for this thrift store and also supporting us financially. So we look at our thrift store as a ministry that goes beyond just raising money for what we do for homeless men, which is also a ministry, but we view it as a ministry to the community as well.

LF: What's the age of the men who come?

RB: 21 and over. Most in their 30s and 20s, some in their 40s a few in their 50s. The oldest person we ever had was 72 and he was a baker and um, he was great (laughs) he would bake everything from scratch. We all got fat that year.

LF: You slowed down his recovery program, You extended it for years!

RB: No, actually, we didnít he, um, he graduated. He lives in a veteranís home and he supports the mission financially. But he was just a lot of fun to have a round. Everybody loved Bob.

LF: Okay, well. . . . Iím ready to shop!