Now feeding 3,200 people in Suffolk County from his mobile food pantry, James Ryan, 44, president of Lighthouse Mission in Bellport, was once co-owner of a successful technology business. He says he found God while listening to the Bible on audiotape while driving through a treacherous snowstorm for five hours. "I realized I was living for money, and things, and wasting my time, and God had a bigger plan for me," said Ryan, who now goes by "Pastor Jim." Allowing his partner to buy him out for three years' salary, he used the money to get his doctorate in theology and transition into ministry.
While he was leading a Protestant church, Sister Elaine Bohrer, who started Lighthouse in 1991 by making 10 bologna sandwiches for the hungry from her kitchen, asked him to take over shortly before her death in 2007. Ryan took over the mission without funding or food, and in a building about to be knocked down. Using his business acumen, he built it to one of Long Island's largest evangelical mobile food pantries and hosts programs for homeless teens and children.
Why a mobile food pantry?
Long Island is a tricky place. Some people come to the mission because they need food, but it took them three buses and a long walk to get here.
Who are your biggest donors?
You would think there's a guy out there who sends us $100,000 checks every few months. If there is . . . I would love to talk to them. For us, it's $5 from a grandma, or $25 from an individual, or $100 from someone who's a little more well off. Everything here is very granular, small donations, even the food.
What are your obstacles?
Not everybody likes what we do. One time [people complained to] a town supervisor, and he said if we showed up the next week, we'd be arrested. Since it was public land and we were feeding the public, we showed up anyway. There were two police cars on the corner, but the supervisor told me he wasn't going to arrest me. I asked, 'What changed your mind?' He said, 'I saw my neighbor standing on your line.'
How do you manage your workforce?
We have four box trucks, two passenger vans and two cargo vans. There are people in charge of different teams. My outreach director is in charge of coordinating all of the volunteers, the drivers and the employees. A Long Island company, Vehicle Tracking Solutions of Commack, sponsors tracking for our trucks, and it enables us to find more strategic routes for street outreach, monitor speed and location, better manage our fuel, and see the trucks on a map [to assign the closest one for] donation pickups.
Do you find effective management strategies in the Bible?
I follow Jesus' leadership -- keep things very simple, and put people in place that I am confident in and can trust. And I understand the importance of delegation; trusting in and empowering my leadership team.
What donation goes further, $10 in money or in food?
An organization can acquire food cheaper than an individual can. But if you pull an organization's 990, you can see directors making over $200,000 a year. My salary is less than what you can buy a used Honda for. The bigger question is, If I give you a donation, how do I know it's going to go to my local community? If you don't know, join us. We're one of the organizations that you can show up and hand out the food and coats.
How did your wife and kids take it when you decided to give up your business and head a ministry?
My wife said she knew. She felt that God told her ahead of time, months before He spoke to me. The only way a married person will be a success in a ministry is if your spouse is on board with it. A house divided amongst itself is not going to be able to stand, that's what Jesus said . . . It's not easy for my kids. They'd of course like to have the new coat or the new bike, but that's not what's important.
What would you say to those who think people are taking advantage of your generosity?
Maybe they are, but the part that doesn't make sense is when it's 16 degrees and they're standing in the blistering cold, holding an oxygen tank with a walker, waiting to get a bag of groceries. Are you going to really tell me that person is out there because they're looking to get something for free and they don't really need it?
NAME: James Ryan, president of Lighthouse Mission Inc. in Bellport
WHAT IT DOES: Operates a mobile food pantry and programs for underprivileged and homeless children and teens
EMPLOYEES: 12 full time, 1 part time