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Love God, Love People
An interview with Bob Emberger, Executive Director of Whosoever Gospel Mission
When I arrived at Whosoever Gospel Mission in the Germantown section of North Philadelphia, I met Bob Emberger outside in the scorching summer heat as he was watering the flowers that sit outside the entrance. Bob’s care for the flowers is a small testimony to the care that he has given to hundreds of homeless men in his 24 years as executive director of the mission.
As we walked into the office area, dozens of boxes filled with canned and prepared foods lined one side of the hallway, waiting to be sorted and eventually served to the men who lived there. We walked into an office occupied by another staff member, who graciously allowed us to use the space. “We’ve got a church group upstairs volunteering today, so we can’t go up there for now,” Bob said as we sat down.
Bob was conversational, amicable, and easy to listen to. We had a pleasant conversation about Westminster, Whosoever Gospel Mission, and God’s work in the lives of broken men. Immediately, he began to tell stories of his time working on a Doctor of Ministry (D.Min.) while at Westminster. “Wendy’s used to have a big salad bar called the Superbar, it was all you could eat. They don’t have it any more, it wasn’t cost-effective, and I probably contributed to that. I would go there with all my work at 11:00, and I would camp out there for about 4 hours. I’d buy the Superbar and just nibble the whole time.”
Bob came to Westminster through the generosity of a member of his church, who was willing to pay for his doctoral work tuition. He began his D.Min. in Biblical Counseling in 1985, but didn’t finish until 1993. While his project started out as “The Counselor as a Means of Grace,” he ended up having to rework it to what ended up as “The Application of Biblical Counseling Theory and Practice to a Rescue Mission: A Case Study of the Whosoever Gospel Mission.” Dr. Emberger says of his project, “One of the ways you can do a D.Min. project is that you compare ‘before and after.’ In essence, the project ‘what was the mission like before we brought biblical counseling and a biblical framework to the mission, and what did it look like afterwards?’”
At first glance, Biblical Counseling does not seem particularly applicable to the overall structure of a rescue mission. However, Bob explained to me some of the elements he applied: “We certainly did one-on-one biblical counseling, but we also took the theological concepts that formed the foundation of biblical counseling and we applied them to the mission as an organization. For example, we decided that everything in the mission had to fall under the two great commands [from Matthew 22:38-39]: either nurture and manifest greater love for God, or nurture and manifest greater love for others. In a sense, that made the mission really easy to conceptualize, and changed a lot. There were some things that we were doing that were simply neither loving others nor loving God.” He also worked to consider the mission under the categories of creation, fall, and redemption. “We were able to see some pretty significant changes in a couple years. The mission actually was helping people and God was using those biblical counseling concepts to really make a difference in the lives of our men.”
Before he started his D.Min., Bob took two courses from CCEF to get his feet wet. Those two courses began what became a powerful time of learning for Bob. “I think, for the first time in my life, I was taught well the doctrines of grace and a biblical understanding of what grace is. I got a good education [in my undergraduate and master’s], and maybe it was because of what I was going through, but my heart really resonated with what I was learning at Westminster.”
He specifically remembers the teaching he received from Drs. Ed Welch and David Powlison: “Ed would talk about the robustness of scripture and biblical counseling. And Dave’s classes were amazing. Usually at the end of a class, before the teacher’s even done, people start rustling and putting their stuff away. In Dave’s class, many times, it was just quiet at the end. It was like Dave just walked us into the throne room of God and at the end of class you just sat there reflecting on what he had shared and talked about. It really fed my soul in ways I had never ever really experienced before.”
Before Bob became the executive director of Whosoever Gospel Mission, he was pastor of a small Independent Bible Church in New Jersey. Part of the way through his doctoral work he decided to end his time as the pastor of that church, without another job. “I was naïve at the time, I thought I would get another position immediately.” He visited his sister’s church to hear an old friend, Erwin Morrison, preach, and told Erwin that he was looking for a new ministry position. At the time, Rev. Morrison was the president of the board of directors at Whosoever Gospel Mission, and the mission was searching for a new director. Through God’s providence, Bob was hired in February 1989.
“I fell in love with the ministry,” Bob says. “I thought I’d stay one year and then move on to the pastorate. One year turned into two, and then our hundredth anniversary was in 1992 (we were founded in 1892) so I thought it’d be kind of cool to stick around for that. By that time I was hooked and I really didn’t have any desire to leave.”
Whosoever Gospel Mission is a rescue mission whose purpose is to “introduce homeless men to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, meet their basic needs, and equip them with the skills they need to become a productive citizen in both God’s kingdom and society.” Homeless men from the city come to the mission and are enrolled in a three-phase program. During the first two phases, the men live at the rescue mission and are cared for by the staff. “We help them overcome addictions, we help them get their GED or improve their education, we help them eventually get jobs and get permanent housing. We provide their food, shelter, and clothing, as well as some basic medical needs. Finally, we outsource for vocational training that would help a man go to school to get some hard skills for the workforce.” During the third phase, the men can continue to receive Aftercare support after they move out of the Mission into their own place.
Countless men have come through the program, and many have been forever changed by the love of Christ. “We believe that God is sovereign, and we believe the Spirit goes to and fro, and he has surprised us many times over the years. There are men who come in who we think are so hard to the Gospel and yet they come to faith in Christ.” Bob told me several different anecdotes of men who have come through the program.
He talked about Stuart, who was a homosexual man who had been sexually abused in a foster home as a child, became addicted to alcohol and drugs, and contracted HIV/AIDS later in life. “Stuart felt that he needed to reform his life on his own before he became a Christian. I used to say, ‘Stuart, just come as you are to Jesus and let him clean you up.’ He thought he had to clean himself up before he came to Christ. One Easter Sunday, I preached out of Revelation chapter 1. Afterwards, Stuart follows me into the office in the back, and he says ‘I want to do it.’ I said ‘do what?,’ and he said ‘I want to ask Christ to be my savior.’ So Stuart professed faith in Christ. Sadly, within a year he died of AIDS.”
He talked about Amir, a devout Sunni Muslim when he first came to the rescue mission. “Amir came here and his faith in Allah and his devotion to Muhammad was challenged. Ron Hammack, our program director, met with Amir and was his counselor. Amir brought his Koran and Ron brought his Bible and Ron would say, ‘let’s search for the truth.’ Amir was intent on converting Ron. After several weeks, Amir renounced Islam and professed faith in Christ. Today he’s an associate pastor at an Independent Bible Church, and he works full-time for Enterprise Car Rental. That was so powerful when he professed faith in Christ; that was in 1996 and he has just grown by leaps and bounds. He has a real love and passion to win Muslims to Christ.”
He talked about Tom, a chronically homeless man who came to the mission through a Tenth Presbyterian Church ministry. Tom grew to love the Lord quickly and ended up as a sexton at Tenth. He talked about Joe who lived for eight years under a bridge near 30th Street Station. God did an amazing work of grace in Joe’s life, and he is now on staff at the mission. He talked about a man who never graduated from the program, but later came to know the Lord as a result of the seed that was planted in his heart at Whosoever Gospel Mission. For the sake of time, Bob had to stop telling me stories of the way God has worked in the lives of his men, but he could have easily gone on.
He was quick to point out, though, that not every man who has stayed at the mission has had their life turned around so quickly. “You can really work hard to help somebody and then they don’t do well, they relapse and self-destruct. I remember back in the early days, we were going to have four men graduate from our program, and in one night all four of them relapsed, which meant they weren’t going to graduate. I’ve sometimes written up little blurbs for PR pieces on how well somebody’s doing, and before it’s even done printing the person has gone back into the world.”
As a result of the ups and downs of such a ministry Bob and others in the mission have had to wrestle with what it means to “succeed” in ministry. “We believe in progressive sanctification. We realize that God has made covenant promises, and just because we have somebody who has a credible testimony and he is not doing well, we don’t know what God’s doing at this season in his life, yet we claim the promise that God is still working.”
As the director, Bob is the chief fundraiser. While that is not his ideal role, he has seen the fruit of his efforts over the years. “When I came here we had a staff of five. We have a staff of 21 now, and a whole lot more ministry takes place now than then. I take comfort in the fact that the Lord’s been pleased to bless us in all the fundraising. Even though it’s still not my cup of tea and I’d rather do stuff other than fundraise, fundraising has enabled the mission to hire more staff so more ministry takes place. More things are being done for our men than would ever have been done if I was only one of the primary people who minister to them directly.”
After we finished the interview, Bob showed me around the facilities. I met a few of the men who had come to the program. I met the church group who was volunteering that day. I saw the dorm rooms, the kitchen, and the chapel area. While the surroundings were simple, the atmosphere was one of love: love for God, and love for the men whom God was changing.
Please pray for Dr. Bob Emberger and Whosoever Gospel Mission as they work to bring the Whole Counsel of God to bear in the lives of homeless men in Philadelphia, PA. For more information, visit their website