In 2013, Pastor Jim Ryan’s Jeep was shot at as he was driving on Station Road.
“When the police came, they told me it was a 9mm bullet,” he recalled. An alarming incident to be sure; his windshield was shattered and the culprit was never found. But here’s the ultimate fallout from that day.
“They couldn’t believe what we were doing with our programs and our mission,” Ryan said. “And that was the start of the police coming every week to participate in our youth programs. They told us that kids used to throw rocks at the patrol cars and now they wave. It’s changed the way the neighborhood kids interact with the police.”
Ryan, who is president of Lighthouse Mission in Bellport, has had a gun aimed at him more than once. But the important aspect of this story is that he and his staff feed the hungry daily; 84,611 people received food six days a week from their 10 locations last year. And there are human interactions that go with those numbers.
The attractive beige and green building is a noticeable asset on Montauk Highway, with meticulous landscaping and grounds maintenance. Any outside litter is quickly removed and Ryan insists on a clean interior — no dust, sparkling surfaces — oftentimes decorated with colorful artwork. A group of young teens off from school was shooting hoops Friday morning in the spotless common area. The next day, it would be set up for the two-hour Mission Kids Program for pre-kindergarteners to fifth-graders, where lunch is provided and crafts and games are played. “Because we know all of them deal with the violence in this area,” Ryan said. Most come from broken homes, but along with food for the body and constructive activities for the mind, there is a thoughtful dose of tending to the spirit via underscoring Jesus’s teachings.
There are also field trips in nature. The police officers who come to the youth programs even accompany the groups of teens Lighthouse Mission leads on kayaking trips and other outdoor activities.
“I, along with all the members of the department, would like to congratulate Pastor Jim Ryan on his recognition as the Long Island Advance Man of the Year,” Suffolk County police commissioner Geraldine Hart said. “Our officers have worked with Pastor Jim through Lighthouse Mission’s youth programs for several years to enrich the lives of at-risk teens. We commend Pastor Jim’s tireless efforts and dedication to everyone in the community.”
Too many uplifting tales take place pretty much daily for this story to list, but one includes a mom who came in and wanted a gift for her child, who was in foster care. “She had just gotten out of jail and missed her court date,” Ryan recalled. “She wanted to see her daughter one last time to give her the present and then drive off a bridge.” Ryan prayed with her and made some calls to probation officers.
“The outcome was that she got her life back and her child and is doing well,” he said.
If there were ever a “Come to the Stable” story, like the 1949 movie classic based on the absolute faith of two nuns without ready resources who look to establish a hospital for children and succeed, Lighthouse Mission fits that example. No wealthy residents hold fundraisers, but people seem to come through with donations just when they are needed.
“We have a paid consistent staff of 12 that is devoted, and help mentor and guide,” Ryan said.
There’s a photo of Sister Elaine, the West Sayville founder of Lighthouse Mission in 1992, who died in 2007, prominently displayed on an office shelf. This luminous woman, who could teach a thing or two about serenity, had set up a storefront in a donated Clare Rose building in Patchogue. Ryan, who attended Sachem High School, came to her after a dramatic life change; he chucked a highly successful business as a credit union technology provider to seek a spiritual path in 2005. His life felt empty and he sought another way. When a friend kept annoying him with Bible verses, he purchased an audio Bible and got stuck in a snowstorm on Ocean Parkway, listening to the scriptures. You could say he got ‘snowed over’ with enlightenment.
Then he found out about Sister Elaine.
“Sister Elaine is sitting there fiddling with a set of keys while I’m talking to her,” he recalled of their first meeting. “I figured I was a former businessman who could help her. Then she slides them over to me and says, ‘these are yours. God told me He was sending me a businessman and to give him the mission.’”
Ryan sat there stunned looking at the keys and interned with Sister Elaine for two years. (He earned a doctorate in theology during that time.)
Clare Rose gave Lighthouse Mission plenty of notice, but the bottom line was that they were moving their operations, and the River Walk condominiums would be built on their site. So it was time to relocate.
When Ryan chose a building in North Bellport on Montauk Highway, it was derelict, a mess with unsavory characters hanging out. (Lighthouse Mission received government and donated funding and renovated the building. For the third year in a row, they’ve been certified as a platinum-level nonprofit for financial transparency by GuideStar.org.)
When he pitched his plan to Brookhaven Town Hall, not everyone was enamored, assuming there would be long lines of people coming for food and the assumed problems that could come with that.
Former assemblyman Dean Murray went to bat for Ryan at one particular Brookhaven Town Hall meeting, when he was trying to establish the Montauk Highway location as the next Lighthouse Mission headquarters.
“The work that he does is so incredible and so needed in the community and government officials should embrace what he does,” Murray said recently by phone. “It was a pleasure to have his back just as he’s had with the community. He’s kind of the proof that having faith is so powerful.”