by Christian Morrow, Courier Staff Writer
As far back as his elementary school days in Bethel Park, Jerrel Gilliam hated bullies.
Not that he was bullied—he was always large for his age—but when he would see smaller classmates being intimidated or threatened, he stepped in. It was a lesson he learned from his father, a pastor originally from the Hill District, who was also a two-time heavyweight Golden Gloves champion.
“I found it difficult not to get involved and protect the weaker schoolmate,” Gilliam told the New Pittsburgh Courier in a June 21 interview. “That pattern of helping others has carried with me through my adult life.”
He will now carry that pattern forward as the new executive director of the Light of Life Rescue Mission on the North Side. The mission announced his appointment in a June 12 press release.
“After a national search, we realized that our new executive director had been serving the organization since he was a child,” said Board Chair Glen Graner. “He’s the perfect candidate for driving what our organization is working to achieve—a place where life transformation can take place for even the most desperate individual.”
Gilliam said he was introduced to the mission as a child when his parents, James and Alma, pastors at Shiloh Church in South Park, would volunteer there. Jerrel Gilliam served as pastor at Shiloh for some years, but his path to serving God and his community through the mission was not direct.
For a time, he served as a paramedic for the City of Pittsburgh and enjoyed being able to help people in crisis situations, but one evening he had an epiphany that led him back to the church and eventually back to Light of Life.
“One night as we were leaving an emergency scene in the Hill District, I looked up and saw a single mom with young children watching the ambulance leave. I began to realize that I could be the best paramedic in the world but still not make a major impact in our urban community,” he said. “I decided like the old story goes, to leave the rescue station at the bottom of the waterfalls pulling people out of the water one at a time and climb the mountain to reach people before they go over the falls. I surveyed my options; education, politics, social services, but decided that the only institution with a history of heart transformation is the church.”
Though Gilliam has served the mission for several years as program coordinator, program officer, director of programs, director of discipleship and, most recently, as interim executive director, he is now tasked with working on a strategic plan, which will encompass plans for the new building and growing two initiatives—street outreach and intervention. Light of Life has strived to meet people where they are, be it a homeless camp under a bridge or at the home on the verge of losing everything that is important to them.
Though the mission is probably best known for serving more than 250,000 meals last year alone, it is much more. Light of Life provides shelter to homeless men, and recovery services education, skills and parenting training for women and children. It is a rescue mission, at 10 E. North Ave.
“Today the bullies are addiction, chronic homelessness, untreated mental health conditions and spiritual bankruptcy. Most missions focus on the presenting symptom, such as homelessness, addiction, depression—while we agree these are important, we believe for lasting transformation we must get to the underlying cause,” said Gilliam. “I would estimate that over 90 percent of our clients have experienced two or more sigificant traumatic events. These major life events changes the person’s perspective of the world. After trauma they begin to live out lies about themselves, others and God. By creating a safe environment through a loving, Christ-based community we help the clients to become self-aware of these lies and ultimately find freedom. I love seeing another bully go down and people finding renewed purpose and meaning to their lives.”
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