POSTED ON AUGUST 13, 2008:
Man on a Mission
Steve Whitaker, martial arts master and warrior for Tulsa's homeless, fights for downtown Tulsa
At first glance, the office of the Rev. Steve Whitaker looks like that of any other minister. The wall is lined with a preacher's standard library of theological tomes, volumes on biblical hermeneutics and church administration, and other manuals related to his responsibilities as the head of the longtime downtown fixture known as the John 3:16 Mission. There is also no shortage of crosses or images of Christ on display, creating the atmosphere that is the natural habitat of any Christian leader.
But, closer inspection reveals another side to the caretaker of downtown's population of homeless and hungry.
A polished wooden plaque painted with black Japanese kanji reading "Josai Senjo" (so I was told), or "Always present on the battlefield" sits on the same shelves. Another bears a framed photograph of the 51-year-old Whitaker, clad in a traditional karate uniform, ramming his fist through what used to be a stack of 10 perfectly good slabs of concrete.
"This is my 35th year in the martial arts," the minister said.
In those three and a half decades of training, he explained, he's earned a sixth-degree black belt in a style called Kyokyushin-kai, a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, a first-degree in an Okinawan tradition known as Shuri-te, and a first-degree rank in the sword-wielding art of Iaido.
He has also trained in Gojo Ryu, Judo, Hapkido, Aikido and a litany of others.
"You name it, I've studied it," said Whitaker.
He'd likely take offense if someone referred to his martial arts involvement as a "hobby," though. Rather, he regards it as a way of life and considers it as much a part of his identity as the Christian ministry he's made his life's work.
Indeed, Whitaker seems more Jedi Knight than clergyman, as his speech and outlook on life appear to be a seamless mixture of eastern warrior stoicism and western Judeo-Christian spirituality.
In his view, the one flows naturally and appropriately into the other, and there is no conflict, or even distinction between the two. His is not the passive, non-threatening and pasty-faced Jesus often pictured in children's Sunday school literature, holding a lamb in his arms amid placid fields of flowers and butterflies. Rather, his Christ is the severe, loving-but-jealous, avenging God envisioned and emulated by rugged Old Testament warrior-kings like David, whose religious devotion often meant bloodying his sword to protect the orphaned and the oppressed from giants and wicked men. In fact, in his nearly two decades at the John 3:16 Mission, Whitaker has had to bloody his own sword, so to speak, and for the same reason, finding that his martial skills are sometimes as indispensable to the job as his Bible training.
"The people that I take care of live by the law of the streets, and the law of the streets is very much Darwinian in that it is the strongest that survive," said Whitaker. "But, the John 3:16 Mission is part of God's peaceful kingdom. We're here to love those people back to wellness--to create a loving, caring, nurturing environment for people that are addicted or mentally ill or homeless just by bad luck, to get back on their feet and find their life again."
For the most part, Whitaker said the John 3:16 Mission is a peaceful and quiet place, but that "law of the streets" sometimes worms its way in, necessitating his intervention.
The minister said he's had to use his training at least eight different times in the past 20 years.
"One interesting circumstance was a time when I was actually preaching in the chapel at John 3:16, and there was a man there that was not... in a good mental state, I would say. He was violent at that moment, and started a fight with another guy in the chapel," Whitaker related.
At 6'5" and 265 lbs., the preacher figured it would be a simple matter of pushing the two men apart and holding them at arms' length long enough to defuse the situation, but the instigator's arm was just long enough to clip Whitaker in the face with a punch, sending his glasses spinning off into the chapel's audience.
The assault didn't faze him, but if the situation continued to escalate, he said he was afraid of what might happen to the others gathered in the chapel.
"I'm a martial arts guy--we punch each other in the face for fun when we're sparring; but if I didn't get this guy under control, I was going to lose the crowd," he said
Whitaker said he then grappled the man's wrist into a joint lock and walked him to the back door.
"I was going to put him out, but something said to me to give the guy a second chance," he said.
"So, I had his wrist locked up, and he was in just enough pain to make him not try to hurt me at that point in time and try to keep swinging. So, I asked him if he would stop, and he did stop, so I found him a seat in the chapel off by himself," said Whitaker.
After hearing the bouncer/preacher's message that night, the man turned his life around.
"That night, when I gave the invitation for guys to come forward, he was the first guy down the aisle, and he made a decision for Christ that night, and I got him into a recovery program and, as far as I know, that guy has recovered to this day," said Whitaker.
"He's moved away from Tulsa, but he's come back a couple of times and thanked me," he added.
There was another instance in which three young men--one armed with a baseball bat--attacked Whitaker at Comanche Park because they saw his ministry as an infringement on their turf. Whitaker disarmed the bat-wielding ruffian within seconds, and the three quickly realized they were outmatched.
"We've come to an uneasy truce," he cryptically said of the outcome of the altercation.
Whitaker continued, "If I have to grapple with some guy and take him down, my end goal is to do something redemptive with that person."
"Have I done that at John 3:16? Yeah. Has it gone badly? Not once. Has it gone well? Absolutely. If I can stop a guy from doing harm to someone else or to himself, and reason with him--if I'm a really good martial artist, I can do that and never put myself in harm's way, and protect somebody else," he also said.
On the Battlefield
Anyone who is a regular reader of UTW knows that neighborhood thugs or occasionally unruly chapel attendees aren't the only opponents with whom Whitaker must do battle. His latest adversary goes by the name of "NIMBY," and Whitaker's fists are powerless in this particular fight.
A pervasive attitude of "Not In My Back Yard" is behind efforts to derail his planned expansion of the 56-year-old Mission, he told UTW.
The city's Board of Adjustment granted permission for the expansion in February, but a group of downtown businesses and residents have appealed the decision in the courts.
Their position is that the Mission and other services in the area are attracting the homeless and drug-addicted and threatening the safety and success of ongoing downtown revitalization efforts.
But, Whitaker said it's downtown itself that's attracting them, and that without the Mission and other services to the needy, they would have nowhere else to go, and would be a much more visible problem than they are now (See "No Rest for the Weary" in our Jan. 24-30, 2008, issue at www.urbantulsa.com for some of the early details).
"There is an assumption that this clustering of services in downtown Tulsa is harmful, but people have forgotten history. They've forgotten what happened almost 20 years ago when there was a move afoot to put John 3:16 and the Day Center and the Salvation Army and the jail all in the same area," he said. Whitaker said downtown urban settings, and not services for the homeless, are what attract homeless people: the alleys provide places to sleep and hide and dumpsters to dig through for food or other salvageable items.
"A walkthrough of every city's downtown in America will prove that they are homes for homeless, and if this city's not proactive about treating its homeless population, then all of our dreams for an entertainment district are going to be spoiled, and homelessness will be a true blight then," he said.
He also said opponents to the expansion are viewing the "homeless problem" according to all-too-common misconceptions, which are based on only the most visible examples of the homeless.
"People are seeing the chronically homeless, but what they're not seeing is the other thousands of people that are not represented in that group, who wind up coming to John 3:16 Mission for our meals and for services and for clothing. There is such a lack of understanding," he said.
Many of the people who would be helped by the expansion, Whitaker explained, are families who are at-risk for homelessness, while the paint-huffing and drug-addicted people seen wandering and panhandling downtown make up only a small segment of the Mission's beneficiaries.
He said he's confident of a favorable outcome for the pending litigation, but lamented that the case won't even be heard in court until November 10.
"In the meantime, we're still cooking all of our meals out of a 300-square-foot kitchen, and we're badly in need of renovation, and we badly need to expand to provide the meals for people that are already here," Whitaker said.
But, having grown up in north Tulsa during a time of considerable racial tension and social upheaval, Whitaker learned early on that prejudice and cultural misunderstanding are ever-present and often dangerous adversaries.
His father was a Baptist preacher in roughly the same area in which he now lives and ministers.
As the pastor of the old downtown Bowen Indian Mission, his dad was carrying on a long-standing family tradition.
In fact, Whitaker himself is the 10th generation of his family to take up the vocation of a Baptist preacher, descending from Pleasant Green Whitaker, an Anabaptist minister during the 1700s.
During the time that he was a preacher's kid in the 1960s and '70s, racial tension was a constant, and not just between whites and African Americans, Whitaker said.
"In north Tulsa, I was going to a black high school, going to church at an Indian church--there always seemed to be some form of bigotry of some kind. And whether one wants to admit it or not, there's always some insecurity in that. There's always somebody who threatens you because you're a different color--because you're different than they are," Whitaker related.
"It was a very difficult time in our society and in north Tulsa in particular," he added.
Also, during the time that "white flight," as it's called, was in full swing in north Tulsa and the Black Power movement was gaining steam and influence, another cultural phenomenon was also afoot.
Another Kind of Fight
"It was a real renaissance for the martial arts in those days," Whitaker recalled.
"I watched all the Bruce Lee movies everybody was watching in those days. Jhoon Rhee had just brought Tae Kwon Do as we know it to the U.S. There was the innovation of pads you could fight with and not break the other guy's facial bones," he said.
"And so I started studying some martial arts," said Whitaker.
At first he studied from Howard Fields, "one of the only black Gojo Ryu instructors in the area," who is still running a dojo in Tulsa, he said.
"And I jumped around quite a bit. I studied Shorin Ryu, Gojo Ryu," he added.
But, with the proliferation of martial arts and the increasing popularity and business opportunity it presented, it wasn't always easy to find a qualified, or even sane instructor.
"You know those guys that did martial arts were a whole lot more weird and strange than they are today. It was not mainstream," Whitaker recalled with a modicum of nostalgic amusement.
"This guy I studied Shorin Ryu with was one of the old school guys. He went barefoot everywhere, wore clothes like Kwai Chang Caine from that 'Kung Fu' series, and he wanted all of us to be his disciples, not just his students," he said.
Whitaker said the training routine of this particular eccentric included bare-knuckled pushups on the parking lot asphalt, hours-long breathing exercises in the freezing weather, and mandatory reading of the popular metaphysical literature of the day.
"In those days, you had to memorize--no kidding--you had to memorize Jonathan Livingston Seagull for his class," he emphasized.
"It was just some strange stuff," Whitaker said of his early wannabe cult leader.
Of course, with his deeply-rooted Christian faith and upbringing, and strong ties to his parents and six siblings, he didn't exactly fall into the "at-risk" category for recruitment into a cult.
But, with all that said, his lifetime involvement in the fighting arts does raise questions about its compatibility with Christianity's ethic of "turn the other cheek" and "loving your enemies."
And his interview with UTW wasn't the first time Whitaker has been asked such questions in his 35 years as a Christian martial artist.
"Does 'turn the other cheek' mean, when some guy comes up and strikes you the cheek--does that mean you're supposed to roll-over and let the guy continue to strike you? Or, is that even a threat to a guy who is a trained martial artist?" asked Whitaker.
But, the strike on the cheek mentioned in the Bible was not the strike of an attack, but was meant as an insult in that day, he explained.
"It was not, 'I'm going to kill you,'" he said.
"Does the Bible say you're not supposed to defend yourself?" he rhetorically asked.
"Pacifism, I think, is about as unbiblical a concept as one could find, and I'm pretty good at defending myself on that matter and helping people understand that as well," Whitaker said.
"Pacifism is not consistent with the scriptures, as far as I'm concerned. Nor does that mean that I'm going to go after somebody. I want to be a part of God's peaceful kingdom, and a peaceful kingdom commands that I apply only enough force to defend myself and to take care of those that I'm to take care of," he explained.
Also, at the John 3:16 Mission, "taking care of someone" often requires more than just providing food, clothing and shelter.
"We have a recovery program, and oftentimes, those guys need to see a strong man--not just a strong man, but strong men who are also people who are compassionate, who would not do harm to another person. A part of what we know from the martial arts is that we're mandated not to be the aggressor, and that's also mandated in the scriptures," said Whitaker.
Also, he explained that the emphasis martial arts place on self-control, self-discipline and mastery of one's flesh and appetites are concepts they have in common with the early apostolic Church, but are sadly alien in mainstream Christianity today.
But, even though his interests weren't, after all, in conflict with his faith, that didn't mean he wanted to follow his in the footsteps of this father, or his father's fathers, by becoming a Christian minister.
"It was something I saw my dad do and, frankly, there's really not a rougher job. People in the church sometimes don't treat ministers very well, and I didn't really want to do that," Whitaker recalled.
Instead, the reluctant spiritual leader initially had another plan in mind, and one more in keeping with his martial inclinations.
"I know a lot of people didn't want to go to Vietnam, but I wanted to go, and I had a lot of friends who had gone," Whitaker related.
"You know, we grew up loving God and country. And I know that's a cliché for a lot of people these days, but it wasn't for me. It was very real for me," he said in explanation.
Also, like many Americans at that time, he'd seen many friends go to Vietnam who never returned. That didn't discourage him, though--quite the contrary.
"Maybe there was some immaturity in those decisions, in wanting to go, and I guess, there was a part of me that wanted to get some payback, and there was a part of me that thought it was a duty," he said.
But, the draft ended mere days after Whitaker's 18th birthday.
"And there was no getting into the military without some kind of congressional guarantee," said Whitaker.
But, he had a back-up plan.
"By that time, I had a scholarship to go play basketball at a small Christian college," said Whitaker.
He went to Midwest Christian College in Oklahoma City, which has since uprooted and been folded into the Ozark Christian College in Joplin, Missouri.
It was there that he met Sandra, to whom he's married to this day.
It was also during that time that he had his first experiences at the John 3:16 Mission. His maternal grandfather, Lee Hildbrandt, was also a Baptist minister, and a regular preacher at the Mission.
"In the '70s, I used to come down and lead the music, Sandy would play the piano and my grandpa would preach an old hellfire and damnation sermon, so I knew all about John 3:16," Whitaker recounted.
After a few years at college, he and Sandy married and had their first child, which led to Whitaker halting his studies so he could work to support his new family, taking a job at the Public Service Company of Oklahoma in Ooloogah.
"That was a good time in my life, but it wasn't a satisfying time. I wasn't doing what God had called me to do," he said.
Also, a series of losses and personal tragedies left him somewhat lost, Whitaker explained.
The friends he'd lost to Vietnam, as well as a loss closer to home, left him "bitter and angry with the world," he said. His close friend and brother-in-law, Larry Tiger, was murdered during that period of his life.
"He was my older sister's husband. He was my sparring partner and buddy and we sang together at church," Whitaker said.
"But, he got off to a place he shouldn't have been, and he was bouncing bars at nighttime and there was a bar fight, and some guy pulled a knife and stabbed him to death," he continued.
In his bitterness and confusion about life, Whitaker ventured to find his own form of escapism.
"So, I began to do some searching, and like a lot of us that do some searching, in my search I turned to some fighting. Some guys get off on drugs, but I got off on fighting--some street fights, some professional fights," he said.
"It was not the high point of my life. I was very disenfranchised, and I was considering and doing some pretty crazy stuff," he added.
That internal conflict eventually came to a head one day when his father urged him to accompany him to a Bible conference at Fall's Creek campgrounds in Davis, Oklahoma.
"And I had no intention of going with him to a Bible conference," recalled Whitaker.
"Dad was old-school Baptist, and if you know anything about that era, it was fire and brimstone, Gaither music, that kind of thing. And I appreciated my dad. I loved my dad. But, at that point in time, I didn't want to be a minister," he explained.
But, what Whitaker called an "epiphany" was to come, which would resolve that inner churning.
A Call to Arms
For some reason, the 24-year-old Whitaker acquiesced to his father's insistence that he accompany him to the conference.
"I don't know how to describe that time--it was a time of prayer and self-reflection and lots of good preaching and lots of good singing," he recalled.
Then came the epiphany.
"I'm sitting there in this crowd of guys and God spoke to me," said Whitaker.
"To me, it was like an audible voice. There was no question in me that I was in the presence of God. I was stunned and I could not speak. I could not verbalize any words. And, as I looked around me, I was surprised that nobody else could hear the voice that I was hearing, because this was a loud, audible voice," he described.
"He said, 'Steve, I have a special purpose for you: I want you to preach and I want you to do my work,'" Whitaker said.
"God reminded me that he made me for a purpose, and that if I didn't live life the way that he had made me, there was no reason for me to live. And that reminded me of Larry," he said.
So, he quit his job at PSO and went back to college--this time attending Oklahoma Baptist University, and then Southwestern Seminary.
And, he turned away from his propensity for needless violence.
He didn't, though, turn away from preparing for violence of the necessary variety. While he received his spiritual and ministerial instruction, Whitaker also continued his martial arts training.
Soon after beginning college anew, he was accepted on the staff of a nearby Baptist church, where he remained until he completed seminary and took a job leading another church in the west Oklahoma town of Romulus.
There, he combined his martial and pastoral acumen to great effect.
"I was doing some of this unique ministry with the martial arts and preaching in an open-country church, and the church just exploded," said Whitaker.
To his slight chagrin, he said people often compare what he did with the demonstrations of the Alabama-based "Power Team."
The Power Team traveled the country in the 1980s, using strength demonstrations as a platform for preaching.
"I have a lot of respect for the Power Team, and we're after the same thing, but when you start talking about that, people go, 'Oh, like the Power Team?' and I always get a little frustrated," Whitaker said.
"You know, a 360 (degree) jump spin kick into a stack of concrete blocks suspended in the air takes a whole lot more talent than the Power Team," he said.
Whitaker continued for about three years, and word of his exploits spread, reaching as far as his hometown of Tulsa--particularly to the ears of Billy Fox, who at the time was the executive director of the John 3:16 Mission.
Based on what he'd heard of Whitaker and his martial prowess, Fox pegged him as the man for the job of expanding the Mission's services to prevention programs to reach at-risk Tulsans, to keep them from falling into homelessness.
"They kept calling me," said Whitaker. "That went on in excess of six months."
Fox and other Mission reps kept asking him to come to Tulsa, he said, and he kept declining. And that was before they'd even realized his prior connection to north Tulsa and to the Mission itself.
"It took two months for them to figure out, 'Hey, this guy's from here,'" he said.
So, why did you keep turning them down?
"I just thought to myself, 'They're crazy, and I know what John 3:16 is, and I don't want to go back there,'" Whitaker answered.
"Your first step into John 3:16 can be a bit shocking. You walk in the front door, and there's this smell of people that are unwashed, the tobacco and alcohol smells, and people who have been on benders for a long time," he continued.
"I had been at John 3:16. I had worked with homeless people, and I am just like anybody else who's slapped in the face by the smell and the look of unshaven faces and, sometimes, the empty eyes that people meet with in homeless people and the mentally ill. I didn't want to do that as a vocation," Whitaker added.
The telephone calls just kept coming, though, and Whitaker kept telling them, "Thanks, but no thanks."
That is, until another epiphany changed his mind.
Answering the Call
"Some people who are Christians hear readily from God, but I do not. I have to pray and think about it and study the word, but one day, the phone rang, and I felt that it was God speaking to me again, much like the day when I received the call to preach. God spoke to me and said, 'Whoever is on the other end is somebody I want you to go talk to,'" Whitaker recalled.
"So, two weeks later, as a matter of being obedient to God, I was in Tulsa visiting with the John 3:16 Mission and found myself accepting the call to come and work for the Mission. That was nearly 20 years ago," he said.
He moved back to north Tulsa, and into the very home in which he'd grown up.
It had been sold, was unoccupied and had fallen into disrepair, but Whitaker bought it back and fixed it up, and he's remained there to this day with his family.
He took the job of expanding their programs from ministering to the homeless to also reaching the at-risk. About seven years ago, and became the Mission's executive director.
Today, the Mission serves approximately 180,000 meals each year.
"That's not counting the thousands of food baskets that we give out," said Whitaker.
"A reference point for you is that, just last Thanksgiving, did more than 5,000 Thanksgiving baskets. Those Thanksgiving baskets will feed a minimum of four people per basket," he explained.
He said they also give away tens of thousands of articles of clothing every year, and will give out about 1,000 pieces of furniture this year.
The Mission also provides more than 37,000 lodgings in its shelter each year.
And it's entirely privately funded, by churches, foundations and individual donations, without a penny of federal, state or municipal tax dollars supporting the efforts.
Whitaker said between 70 and 75 percent of the people he serves are Tulsans, contrary to popular myths that out-of-town homeless people migrate to downtown Tulsa to take advantage of the cluster of services there.
"People have really not a very good understanding of homelessness, nor the fact that most the people that are homeless in Tulsa are Tulsans. That's verifiable if you just can go back and do the case work. You'll find that their address or addresses that they came from--they came from west Tulsa or north Tulsa or south Tulsa. Some of them come from very good homes in south Tulsa," he said.
He also said that, according to the Homeless Management Information System, there were over 4,000 unique contacts last year.
But, despite that staggering statistic, Whitaker said, "The good new is that the homeless population didn't grow by thousands of people last year."
He said more than 70 percent of those people were only temporarily homeless, and never relapse into homelessness or addiction.
"We, or the Salvation Army or the Day Center or the Mental Health Association, were able to meet their need at that point in time and help them reintegrate back into our city. And they're working and they have a home and they have a car and they're paying taxes," he said.
He also said thousands of people who pass through his doors each year go through a spiritual rebirth or renewal as a result, the vast majority of whom don't even need Whitaker to use his joint-locking, kung fu grip on them first.
"Last year there were 2,132 decisions for Christ at the John 3:16 Mission. Some of those are characterized as re-dedications, others are characterized as salvation. That's the core of what we do. Spiritual renewal, spiritual rebirth is the core of what John 3:16 stands for," he said.
But, Tulsa at-large, he said, has yet to experience such a renewal, unfortunately.
The Battle Rages
While "the cultural lines are more blurred" today, Whitaker said much of the same bigotry and racial fear he saw in his childhood and early adulthood still exists.
"In some ways, I think things have changed. In some ways, things have gotten better and in some ways things have gotten worse," said Whitaker.
"In recent years, I think things are better in north Tulsa. The city's done a good job of rebuilding infrastructure, but there are still some things that have got to be done to make things better. We've got to get stores in north Tulsa."
Particularly, north Tulsa needs a grocery store, he said, after Albertson's closed-up shop last year, leaving a vacant building at Pine and Peoria as a continual emblem of the persistent need (see "Starving in the Desert" in our Dec. 6-12, 2007, issue at www.urbantulsa.com for more details).
"I think the thing that still hasn't changed is, there's still a fear factor from people who live in south Tulsa about north Tulsa and, even though nobody admits it very much, there's a fear factor going back the other way. North Tulsans are afraid of what's going on in south Tulsa, and the people that live there. That's never changed. It's been that way for my entire time that I've been here in north Tulsa," Whitaker continued.
He said many white south Tulsans have an exaggerated perception of the gang violence in north Tulsa, while many blacks in north Tulsa, even today, still see the white bogeyman of the Ku Klux Klan when they look south past Admiral Blvd.
"We don't need to be intimidated because someone has a different color of skin, or suspect them of being a racist, or a gang member, or a member of the KKK. The black community needs to remember that most of the violence that occurs in their community is black-on-black violence," he said.
Whitaker thinks the persistent racism, or the persistent fear of racism, only distracts from more pressing concerns.
"The truth of the matter is, we're faced with bigger problems," he said.
"We're still ridiculously high in numbers of people who are hungry in the city. I've got this dream of someday Tulsa being a hunger-free zone. As absurd as it might sound, I believe we can achieve that. Rather than Oklahoma coming in number one for food insecurity and just plain hunger, we can do something about that, rather than being fearful of one another. That's my version of Martin Luther King's 'I have a dream,'" Whitaker said.
But, he doesn't foresee that dream coming true in the immediate future.
"The axiom is that most of us are just two paychecks away from being homeless ourselves, and that is absolutely true. In these days of soaring food prices and soaring gas prices, that axiom gets a little more traction," Whitaker said.
He said the number of people who are at risk or near homelessness are soaring as a result of the current state of the economy, to the point where he can't even measure it any more.
"This is not hot air or rhetoric--it's my job to know the numbers, but we cannot quantify the number of people that are calling and asking us for help right now," he said. "And right now, I'm not even allowed to renovate a building to make a kitchen and a cafeteria out of it. That's sad."
"We went through 9/11, and I wasn't afraid. We went through Katrina, and I wasn't afraid. But, I'll go on record with you now that I'm afraid of what it's going to be like in Tulsa at the end of this year," he added.
"I'm not a fearful person, but we have a fearful problem that we're going to have to step up and make a difference about, or we're going to be back to the old soup lines that we had, once upon a time," Whitaker concluded.
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