Working in what is literally a closet, Tacoma Rescue Mission manager Luis Rivera Zavas does not want those who happen to enter his office to get the wrong impression. He simply doesn’t care about having a well-decorated office space because he is always on his feet having fun.
In fact, the rescue mission building, the architecture, the decorated courtyard, and the inspiring quotes which line the halls make it seem like a place of hope and belonging compared to stereotypical homeless shelters.
“I am not in the business of warehousing people. I want people to feel welcome, to feel like this is a safe place, and get them on the way.” said Zavas.
Zavas transformed the rescue mission into a place of camaraderie and fun. Even during roll call, he has everyone interact and talk with each other.
“It becomes a fun time. Our clients share positive outcomes and opportunities with each other so they can uplift one another, which has changed the dynamics significantly. I hope the fresh set of eyes I could bring is what helped push the mission to change back to its original design. Like I said, I am not in the business of warehousing people — I’m in the business of helping them and getting [the tenants] back on their way.”
Zavas, a Puerto Rican descendant, served 26 years in the military and retired in 2014. He has a wife, three kids and four grandchildren and made the promise to them and God to do anything to make sure everyone gets an equal shot at life.
“In the military — after you go through whatever mission you go through — you will get into contact and get into a sort of firefight. After you get into a firefight, once you’re done – you put your knee down and re-consolidate and recall what happened; and that’s what I try to bring here. We take a knee, look for resources in a safe space where they can re-energize and re-enter battle out in the real world.”
In 2011, Zavas started attending church, where he met Juan Carlos Alvarado, a South American pastor. Alvarado left the ministry and went back to work for the people, and told Zavas, “Do not tell people to come to church. Go out there and share the love of Christ with them by sharing the goodness of humanity.”
Zavas, with the help of his friend Steve Stanford, who also works at the mission, decided to give food to the Tacoma homeless but failed miserably.
“People looked at us like ‘Who are you?’”
It was Oct. 2014 when the Tacoma Rescue Mission came into Zavas and Stanford’s path. There was a serious overflow of people and, back then, clients were forced to get out by a certain time. It was during this closure that they figured this was the time to really go out and help. Zavas and Steve would park in front of the mission and give away all the food they had prepared and started to do it every week.
“It was becoming the ‘soup guy’ that I came to meet and establish genuine relationships with the people at the mission.”
When asked how he got the job, Zavas had mentioned it was through one of the people who he established a bond with at the shelter.
“It was actually through a client who told me to put my money where my mouth is and apply for this position. I came here driven for the fact [that I] need to help others and whatever mission God put us to do; he will lay the tools out for you. And you know something – after being in the Army for 26 years, where everything is structured, disciplined, and rule-oriented – I am now in structured chaos, but I love it.
“God, through the Army, prepared me to do this job. The Tacoma Rescue Mission is an oasis in the desert. I know it’s not common to see that here in the state of Washington, but it’s true. It’s a disservice to call us ‘a shelter.’ We are not only here to house people, but to enable people to overcome whatever obstacles that landed them here. We are here to help people step back into society and keep families together.”
And this is only the men’s shelter. The Tacoma Rescue Mission has an addiction recovery program, a women and families shelter, a youth program, and a challenge learning center. The Rescue Mission isn’t simply a place of refuge for those who believe they have no place to turn — it truly is an, “oasis in the desert.”