LISTOWEL – Twice a year the council of the Bethel Christian Reformed Church has visioning sessions. This fall they decided to do one on how to be a hands and feet ministry of Jesus here in Listowel.
“I don’t know if you know what that means – basically what it means is Jesus talks in the Bible several times about helping the poor, helping those in prison and helping those who are hungry,” said Ray Heeres, vice-chairman of the council.
In Matthew 25, Heeres said there is a verse about people getting to heaven.
When they arrive Jesus says, ‘I don’t know who you are.’
The people reply, ‘I don’t know what you mean, we’re Christian.’
To which Jesus said, ‘when I was hungry you didn’t feed me. When I was without clothes you never clothed me. When I was in prison you didn’t visit me.’
The people answer, ‘we didn’t know you were in there.’
Jesus told the people that whenever they do that for anybody they are doing it for him.
“The whole point being, what good are you as a Christian if you don’t help your fellow neighbour if you don’t help your community,” said Heeres.
That is the background behind why the church council decided to be more involved in the community.
“What good is a church in a community if it is a clubhouse for the members to come every Sunday and they don’t give a hoot about anything in the community,” he said. “Then you’re not doing what you are supposed to do.”
So, Heeres met with some other church leaders, Andrea Charest, executive director of It Takes A Village, and some representatives from social services at the old Anglican Church which is in the process of finding a new life as The Village Table.
“I don’t know if you are aware what’s going on there – Ann and Daryl Voskamp have bought it,” said Heeres. “It’s going to be a ministry centre… So we had Ann and Daryl talk to us a bit about what their vision was for the place.”
At the meeting, there was a lot of discussion about the homeless in North Perth and other people who need support.
“We learned a lot but of course, now what are we going to do about it,” said Heeres.
One idea which has been raised is doing potluck dinners where local families would bring food to The Village Table and people who need a meal would be invited to share in the meal.
“That all sounds great until you try to figure out what the COVID guidelines are and all of a sudden – well you can meet with 50 people there – but the idea was a family sits down at a table with a couple of homeless people and shares a meal,” said Heeres. “The health unit says no you can’t do that. You can only sit at a table with people in your bubble. The other bubble has to be at a table six feet away.”
Food also has to be prepared in a certified kitchen and the kitchen in the old Anglican Church building would need to be updated, so there are some obstacles to overcome when it comes to hosting meals.
Heeres said he thinks using the word ‘homeless’ might limit the people who need some help.
“What is better terminology to use because I don’t like saying we’re going to sit down with a few homeless people,” he said. “There has got to be something better than that.”
The idea of providing a weekly meal was being talked about before the pandemic started. It was going to be a partnership with It Takes A Village.
“We were all gung-ho to do that and then COVID hit and that sort of destroyed everything there,” said Heeres. “So that is still a goal… maybe it has to be take-out meals at this point.”
This work is being done to complement efforts by the North Perth Committee on Homelessness which is working with the Salvation Army.
“I know the warming centre was talked about and they are waiting on a grant for that I believe, but again at The Village Table I think we are going to look to see whether we can be open a couple of hours a few days a week just to have coffee and maybe you could provide store-bought cookies so it’s not a matter of food prepared in a certified kitchen,” said Heeres. “Now that will take volunteers to staff it… you’d be open a couple of hours in the afternoon so people could drop in and have a free coffee, hang out and warm up.”
A cold snap in the winter could pose issues for this plan, but he hopes they would be able to extend the hours if necessary. He knows from experience there are no local motels which would provide shelter for people in need.
“As a church, we’ve had to put somebody up once and we had to bring them to Palmerston because the local (motels) would not do it,” he said. “So that thought is in the back of our minds. So you have a warming centre. People come and you close at 5 p.m. and you have to boot them out the door. It’s howling wind and it’s minus-20. You feel like a jerk for doing it but on the other hand, are you set up?”
Using The Village Table as an example, he pointed out the problems such as liability and staffing if people had to stay overnight.
“You need staffing who can be there all night and be awake,” said Heeres. “You can’t be sleeping. Strictly volunteers, that’s asking a lot.”
According to Heeres, the Voskamps would like to see The Village Table being used for a variety of programs. One that he recalled being discussed is Celebrate Recovery.
“It’s a fairly intense program for those who are recovering from addictions but also other stuff, mental health issues,” he said. “They tried to have one in town a few years ago but it takes a lot of work and a lot of volunteers so they are hoping to maybe bring this back and operate it out of that building, too.”
Heeres did not want to talk too much about programs which will be in the ministry because he is just one of many helpers who will be involved, but he said non-Christians should not worry about the word ‘ministry’, which he said is church talk for a program.
“The public says ‘government-run programs’, but to us, in a church, if we are going to do a warming centre we would call it a ministry,” he said. “I don’t think you have to be Christian to be able to work out of there and certainly there will be no ‘we’ll only help you if you are Christian.’ Absolutely not, there is no quiz before you get help. It’s just if you need help, fine.”
Heeres said he respects the model at It Takes A Village where they offer support to anyone without asking questions, but he does realize some other organizations have more administration to deal with and they require more information.
“You can be tough and say – well if they want food they just better obey the rules,” said Heeres. “Well, we all know what happens then. They just stay away then and find other ways, so the answer isn’t to say to the poor, to the homeless – if you don’t follow our rules then you can’t get any help… I know some people think you are just enabling them … and I’m thinking to myself, ‘you think they’re living high off the hog if they are on disability and getting $1,000 a month? You try to live off that.’ They should be getting twice that so don’t think they are taking advantage of the system. It’s just not the way it is. I think people who say that kind of stuff have never really been in the trenches.”
Heeres is open to people in need being involved in creating the programs which will help them.
“I would want equal representation from both sides because I have done enough foreign mission trips to know you can do a terrible lot of damage if you think you know what people need,” he said. “I take youth to Nicaragua. I’ve gone there seven or eight times now. You can’t go there and say ‘OK, you need this so we’re going to build it for you.’ That’s not how it works.” When they go on mission trips, they work with the YMCA in Nicaragua, which is different than the YMCA here.
“There it’s a community development organization,” said Heeres. “They go into a community and sit down with their council… and they come up with a vision and a plan for what they need… then we will go in and help them do what they need. So the same thing is necessary here. If we are going to ‘help the homeless’, we need to know what they need and I don’t know what they need… so definitely I think the people involved who you are ministering to need input on how the ministry is going to be done or else you can offer something and nobody will show up.”
Heeres realizes this might mean they would be working with people who have an addiction and mental health challenges and may not always be reliable.
“One of the first mission trips I went on was when the Mississippi River flooded,” he said. “We drove all night as a youth group… we were going to help some people clean up their place. We… showed up at this house at 10 a.m. and the people weren’t there. We’re all going – what ungrateful people, we drove all the way here – it’s all about us in our heads. They showed up at noon.
“The whole point of that being, and I’m going to get into Christianity here, Jesus Christ died for us and we didn’t deserve it but he did it anyway, so we’re just like them and we expect Jesus to love us so how about we return the favour and we love the unreliable and do stuff for them and don’t make them being reliable a precondition for us to do something for them because then you are going to be disappointed.”
When they are preparing for the foreign mission trips there is a day of orientation.
“What I instill in these kids is Jesus doesn’t need you to go to Nicaragua for him if you are not willing to do something in your town so you better be willing, when you come back, to be of service in your town. It’s easy to go to Nicaragua and be a hero and it’s a great trip and it’s fun and everybody thinks you are great but it’s a little different ministering to the guy in Listowel who needs some food. The whole point for Christians is if you are not willing to do something in your town with the downtrodden then you’ve got no right to claim you are ‘a great Christian.’”
Colin Burrowes, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Listowel Banner