Symbolism abounds in The Mission’s new home

From left, Mission board member Mike Simmons, Dickie Bryan and Mike Cianci outside The Mission headquarters, which once was the learning center on the Bryan Foods/Sara Lee campus.
Staff Writer

It’s a view generations of Clay County residents saw every day coming and going from what once was Bryan Foods and then Sara Lee.

From that hill overlooking Church Hill Road, visitors saw an expansive cemetery stretching out toward downtown and the rest of the city.

The irony of that image is not lost on Dickie Bryan and Mike Cianci as they stand outside the former learning center and administrative offices.

“I grew up on the property. I learned a lot of my vocabulary back there before I was saved,” Bryan says, waving his arms in a broad sweep as he talked about his youth when his family ran what was the region’s largest employer until it started fading more than a decade ago.

“Yes, I’ve come full circle ending up back here.”

Bryan is now a Southern Baptist minister. He and Cianci have known each other about a dozen years and have joined hands to start The Mission: A Beacon of Hope in the old Bryan buildings.

“We want to cross the chasm of the cemetery to reach the community. We want to reach them before they end up there,” Cianci says, taking the symbolism to the next step.

Many mistaken the Mission as a church. It isn’t.

In fact, Bryan has an actual church congregation in Starkville.

The mission is a community outreach providing a variety of faith-based services focusing mostly on recovery from everything from drug and alcohol addiction to domestic and related abuse. Bryan, Cianci and no one else receives a salary. Their work is volunteer.

The current services and programs are just the beginning of what The Mission and its board of directors envision.

The 4,800-square-foot learning center, which Sara Lee built in 1978, currently serves as the program’s home with counseling sessions, family nights, recovery celebrations, Bible studies, Hurting Moms groups, and other activities.

But across the parking lot, the 28,000-square-foot administrative offices, where Bryan and Sara Lee once hummed with activity, is the future.

The group envisions a food pantry, soup kitchen, medical and dental clinic for the homeless and low-income, GED, career and job training services, financial services, a residential treatment program for a small number of men, and even potentially a temporary shelter for the homeless.

Interestingly, some of the community’s homeless already live in the basements of some of the old Bryan buildings, coming and going under the cover of darkness before blending in with the community.

All that already under way and the Mission is only completing its first year.

“I was driving by here one day and the Lord told me to take a look at this building,” Bryan said of how the group ended up full circle, especially after he’d been hosting Bible study groups in his home for four or five years.

“We have a number of people and groups in the community who are interested in helping. The response, the people who have reached out, has been remarkable. This place brings back a lot of memories for a lot of people,” added Mike Simmons, one of the group’s board members.

“I get folks all the time who come up and talk about when they worked here. It’s interesting, you talk about full circle, this place provided food for so many people for so many years. Physical food from the product they made and physical food from what these jobs provided for hundreds of families over the years,” Cianci described.

“Now, we hope it will continue to grow into a place for spiritual food and nurturing,” he continued.

Roger Pryor of Pryor and Morrow Architects is working on plans for the large building. But even the organizers realize they have to finalize their vision first.

“We’ve got to give him some guidance. But it’s coming,” Cianci said. “I know it’s pretty optimistic, but I hope in 12 months you won’t even know this place,” Bryan stated. “I wouldn’t be surprised. When you have a big heart and the Lord is guiding it, things can happen.”