The main things Randy Stiffler remembers about life on the streets of Parkland are “being dirty, being cold.”
A run-in with drug users that left him bloodied and battered sparked his desire to change.
Stiffler was in the hospital five days, recovering from eye and head wounds. While he was hospitalized, Pierce County impounded the roadside RV he had been living in. When the hospital discharged Stiffler, he had nowhere to go.
The hospital gave Stiffler some clothes, put him in a cab and sent him to the Tacoma Rescue Mission’s New Life Square at 425 South Tacoma Way. The facility houses the mission’s emergency shelter, along with its New Life drug and alcohol rehab program.
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The mission, one of the city’s oldest and most visible agencies assisting the homeless and destitute, operated for more than half a century in downtown Tacoma.
But in 2001, after negotiations with city leaders who felt the mission’s location was hindering downtown redevelopment, it moved to a new 37,000-square-foot, $5 million building on the thoroughfare.
FINDING NEW LIFE
Three weeks after Stiffler arrived at the mission in 2005, he enrolled in the New Life program and started the climb back from street life.
Today – as a manager in the mission kitchen and a volunteer who has taught Bible study classes at the mission – he serves nourishment for both body and soul to the men and women who seek refuge there.
“The way I see my job is to help build up the self-esteem of people in the program,” he says.
Stiffler, 48, is both cook and coach for the kitchen crew, some of whom are mission residents. He says he uses his own experience to help others at the mission “become productive members of society.”
He knows that this is easier said than done.
DEAR GOD: IT’S ME, RANDY
“Three months into the (New Life) program is when I actually found God,” Stiffler recalls. “God was there all along. I just didn’t know how to talk to him.”
He started writing letters to God, and found that writing helped him clear his head and clarify his goals.
“Those letters to God are very important,” he says. “I still have them.”
Today, he advises mission residents to try the spiritual exercise.
When he teaches Bible study classes, he explains Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount as “God’s instructions for us to live.”
He translates the Beatitudes (“Blessed are the poor in spirit …”) into plain talk for his students: “Be peaceful. Be pure in your thinking and clean in your mind. Do the right thing. Be humble.”
Stiffler says he always had a strong belief in God, but he never really attended a church until he entered the New Life program. That’s where he heard about a Tacoma church called SOMA (the name comes from Biblical references to the body of Christ) and joined it.
“It means we are the church,” Stiffler says, explaining the name. “It’s not just the building, but it’s the people.”
A WAY OUT
After arriving at the mission, Stiffler started volunteering in the kitchen, where he discovered he had a gift for taking basic meals and enhancing them.
“This is how we turn canned beef stew into my own beef stew,” he says, as he supervises workers who chop fresh potatoes and carrots to add to the canned product. Stiffler adds a few scoops of garlic powder, then stirs a giant stew pot with a paddle-sized spoon.
His cooking skills got him hired as food service coordinator in the mission’s Good Neighbor Cafe.
The cafe feeds several thousand people a week, Stiffler says. Both breakfast and dinner are open to mission residents and street people. Lunch is served only to mission residents, volunteers and staff. Stiffler says that after spending the day serving and preparing meals, he sometimes forgets to eat when he goes home. Or, he simply pops a frozen dinner in the microwave.
“It’s hard to cook for one when you’re used to cooking for hundreds,” he says with a smile.
Stiffler grew up a military brat, living all over the world, including Japan and Germany.
As a young man, he joined the Air Force and spent some time guarding nuclear missiles. After the Air Force, he attended college for a while, but didn’t finish. He married and had kids, but his marriage ended in divorce. His ex-wife and children went one way (his kids now live in Nebraska), he went another.
He worked for an airline in Denver, but when the airline pulled out of the city, he was out of a job.
“I went to Florida on vacation and never came back,” he says.
His next move, in 1998, brought him from Jacksonville, Fla., to Tacoma to care for his grandmother. He says he got mixed up with “the wrong crowd” and started drinking and doing drugs. By 2003 he was homeless, looking for places to stay and ways to make money. He remembers waking up before sunrise, doing “a lot of walking around.”
“You migrated to wherever somebody would let you stay for a while,” he remembers.
Today, Stiffler is off the streets. He has an apartment in central Tacoma. He finds joy in his work in the mission kitchen. He rejoices when someone else at the mission triumphs over addiction, lack of skill or faith, or whatever holds the person back.
“You feel for people that don’t make it,” he says. “You pray that they keep trying. As long as they keep trying, there’s always hope.”
All around the mission kitchen are posters bearing positive affirmations like this: “God forgets the past. Imitate him.”
Randy Stiffler is trying.
Debbie Cafazzo: 253-597-8635