NIAGARA FALLS – Tom McLaughlin is interim executive director of Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission, having been involved in the business of helping some of society’s most disadvantaged since 1987.
He will tell you he didn’t set out to do the Lord’s work. This father of six was successfully climbing the corporate ladder when a series of events led him down an entirely different path -- serving the poor.
But, he said, “It hasn’t been a sacrifice, it’s been a privilege.”
McLaughlin left his career with the General Electric Company to work at the Syracuse Rescue Mission Alliance in 1987. He rose to the position of associate director, before moving his family three hours west to become executive director of the Buffalo City Mission in 1997.
It was while he was at the Buffalo City Mission that he was asked by a friend, Shaun Smith, for advice on starting the new Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission in Niagara Falls.
McLaughlin began as an adviser to the Falls mission, left Buffalo City Mission in 2007, served on the Falls mission’s board of directors for two years, and was named its interim executive director six months ago. He helped the board seek grant money to rehabilitate its site at 1317 Portage Road, the former YMCA building, which dates to the 1920s. The mission had purchased the building for a nominal fee just one year ago.
The mission recently procured a $1,763,222 capital improvement grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of New York, with the assistance of M&T Bank, to renovate the building.
“That grant is going to go a long way in helping us make that building beautiful and more efficient,” he said. “Our challenge after that will be in bringing more paid staff in, and the cost of running it on a day-to-day basis. The mission is a grass-roots organization and we are so dependent on the community.”
Established in 2006, the mission started an RV soup kitchen in 2007; moved into an unused church at Linwood Avenue and 22nd Street in 2008; and in 2010 purchased a home at 1023 Ferry Ave., where it opened it first homeless men’s emergency shelter with 16 beds. The mission no longer houses men there and must sell the site as a condition of its grant.
The mission currently houses and feeds around 35 to 50 men a night, offering emergency shelter for men who have nowhere to go and single-room occupancy for men who need longer-term housing at its Portage Road site. It provides programs to help men break the cycle of alcohol and drug dependency, offers medical screening, financial literacy programs and jobs skills training.
One of the first items on the renovation list will be the installation of a commercial kitchen, along with the refurbishing of the existing residential rooms and bathrooms. Plans also call for the establishment of a “discipleship center” to provide separate living quarters and a positive learning environment for men ready to participate in a rigorous leadership program.
“We hired an associate executive director, Mark Cerbone, and he runs the day-to-day business,” McLaughlin said. “He works 30 hours a week. I do public speaking and public relations and became interim director when the Mission was trying to get the grant.”
McLaughlin volunteers his time at the mission. He has actually worked a full-time job for the past 10 years at Pariso Trucking in Tonawanda.
McLaughlin recently took some time to chat about the mission and the path that led him there.
Question: Let’s start at the beginning, where are you from?
Answer: I was born and raised in Syracuse and when to the State University of New York at Oswego, where I was a math major. That’s where I met my wife, Marcia. We got married and I went to work for General Electric, and Marcia worked for IBM. We were a normal, corporate family. After our second child – we have six kids -- Marcia stayed home with the kids.
Q: So how did you get involved with mission work?
A: It was 1987 and I felt the Lord called me to this. This is not something I wanted to do. I was making good money, but there was a series of events that led to my wife and I starting a long decision-making process before I left the corporate world.
Q: What happened?
A: I had the opportunity for a promotion in Binghamton and I took the job on a Friday and I went to church on Sunday, and my pastor – who knew nothing about this -- came up to me and asked me if I had made any big changes in my life recently. He said he and his wife had been praying and she suddenly stood up and said, ‘Tom and Marcia are out of the will of God.’ We call this ‘word of knowledge.’ That was the start of a deep, heart-wrenching search and I turned down the promotion.
Then, the pastor said they needed help at the Syracuse Mission. I couldn’t eat, I couldn’t sleep. I finally went down there and asked them what they needed and they said they were about to hire a workshop director. They had someone in mind. I said, ‘Fine.’ But then they wanted to meet with me and they ended up hiring me, instead.
My pay was cut in half. It was a huge decision. But I fell in love with the people. We sold our bigger house in Syracuse and bought a smaller one.
We retooled our lives. We drove old cars. It all worked out. I have never had a month when I couldn’t pay my bills. Our kids were always warm and well-fed and went to good schools. God always took care of us.
Q: What religion do you practice and had you ever volunteered to work with the poor before?
A: I was raised Catholic, but when I was 25, I had an experience where I really felt God met me and I accepted Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I belong to the Assemblies of God Church and that’s where we raised our children.
I had donated to causes before, and our church would do evangelical outreach with the Syracuse mission, doing skits and plays for them, but I had never really worked with the poor. It had never crossed my mind.
Q: Is Niagara Gospel Rescue Missions affiliated with a specific denomination?
A: No. We’re Christian, but not a specific denomination.
Q: Have any of your children followed you into this line of work?
A: Our oldest son is a minister in the Assemblies of God Church; our second son is an associate pastor in the church; we have a daughter working with the poor in Southeast Asia; and our youngest is studying for her master’s of divinity degree in seminary, so that’s four of our six. They are all wonderful kids and I couldn’t be happier.
Q: So you went from Syracuse to the Buffalo City Mission -- how long were you there?
A: I was there from 1997 to 2007 and was executive director. They were going through difficult times and were in a rebuilding stage. We started a new women’s and children’s shelter while I was there, on Michigan and North, called Cornerstone Manor.
Q: Isn’t that a long-range goal of Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission, too?
A: Yes, we definitely want to minister to women and children, too. They come now for meals, but we have no residency right now for them. We have to get this building up and running first, but we can’t wait a long time for the women and children.
Q: What did you do after you left Buffalo City Mission in 2007?
A: I was getting ready to go into fundraising and had a job set up in Atlanta. But Tony Pariso was on the Buffalo City Mission’s board and his wife and I and a couple of others were starting a business – a small campground called Branches of Niagara, on Grand Island, and they didn’t want me to go to Atlanta. Tony offered me a job, so I turned down Atlanta and have been working for his trucking company for the past 10 years.
Q: And then you got involved with Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission?
A: I had been advising them. (Founder) Shaun (Smith) had told me of the need in Niagara Falls and I knew how to administer a mission. I know there are good people in this community behind us, who support us.
It’s not us who turn people’s lives around – it’s God.
We’re not just concerned with people’s condition in this world, but with their souls, so they have a full, happy and abundant life here, and in eternity.
Everyone who works at the mission has been in a position of loss. We’ve been broken or sad and we’ve gone to a full, happy, abundant life. So, we don’t look at the poor as being less than ourselves. They have a hole in their hearts that can only be filled by the love of God.
Q: Do all who come to you for help accept religion?
A: Some don’t want it initially, and some don’t want it at all. We just tell them why we do it and invite them. We don’t know who will respond and who won’t. We make it available, but they come as they will.
Q: Aside from the cosmetic changes to the facility, what other plans do you have for the mission?
A: When I was at Buffalo City Mission, our budget was close to $6 million a year. The Niagara Gospel Rescue Mission budget is about $300,000 a year. It needs to be closer to $1 million a year. Missions are volunteer-driven, and we need volunteers, but we need key people in paid positions, too.
We see a number of men come here with alcohol and drug addictions and they’ve had their lives turned around and they’re working at jobs now, or working at the mission. We are retooling our whole 12-step program.
We have a discipleship program, where the men attend regular sessions, Bible study, get a GED if they need it. It’s pretty organized and structured, to help them deal with the problems that caused their homelessness. And, we’ll be expanding that program, too.