Vol 6: Steven Whitaker ’95
Love thy neighbor: empathy and compassion in action with Steven Whitaker ’95.
Life, however, often leads us in unexpected directions. As a student at the University of Tulsa, Steven Whitaker ’95 was invited by the executive director of Tulsa’s John 3:16 Mission to learn more about an open youth minister position. “I hadn’t aspired to work at John 3:16 Mission…quite the contrary,” Whitaker said. “My dad works for the Mission and at the age of 21, I was pretty committed to avoiding that situation.” However, out of respect for the executive director, Whitaker agreed to meet. He gained a new perspective that day as he saw for himself the great needs among Tulsa’s homeless and under-resourced families. “For the first time I felt personally responsible to do something about it,”Whitaker said.Having just changed his major at the University of Tulsa from Chemical Engineering to Religion, Whitaker said it became clear that he needed to accept the job offer. And now, 21 years later, Whitaker hasn’t really ever considered leaving the Mission or pursuing another career path. “The prospect of growing in an organization committed to serving the most vulnerable in our city has kept me here all this time,” he said. “I don’t really have time to think about doing something else as long as there are those who need help.”Since accepting the youth minister job, Whitaker went on to hold positions as Director of the Family and Youth Center, and Chief Operating Officer and Vice President of the Mission, roles he retains today. John 3:16 Mission is a Tulsa non-profit that works to relieve hunger and food insecurity by providing hot meals and food baskets, offers overnight lodging to homeless guests, runs comprehensive, faith-based recovery programs for men and women, and restores and re-develops area communities through programming for children and families.Steven came to Holland Hall as a freshman in 1991 from Gilcrease Middle School in North Tulsa. He immediately felt welcomed into his new school and says that beyond the “amazing academics” it was the community and its culture of sharing and support that helped him gain positive perspectives on life. Whitaker recalls fondly the many teachers, staff, friends, and their families who had an effect on his life and helped him hone his strengths and overcome weaknesses. Coaches Charlie Brown and Dave Owens, in particular, are both very special to Whitaker. “They always encouraged and challenged me to reach for my best,” he said. “I stay in touch with them both and if either called on me I would be there (for them).”Accepting that challenge to work hard helped Whitaker in his academic pursuits at Holland Hall and TU, and figures prominently in the important work he does for at-risk populations in Tulsa. He says the Mission faces great challenges balancing available resources with the communities that need them, and addressing people’s emergency needs while also working to improve the circumstances that contribute to the long-term problems of homelessness and hunger. But for Whitaker, his favorite success stories come from investing in personal relationships and mentoring, and not “fancy programs.” Said Whitaker, “In my time at Holland Hall and in college I realized that empathy and compassion eventually mandate action. If I observe injustice in my community, I am responsible to do something about it. Love for your neighbor means taking on his or her problems as your own and working on a solution together. It turned out the 10 generations before me were smiling down waiting for me to learn the same lessons they learned. Life is funny that way.”