The Extreme Weather Shelter operated by Gateway Church has offered over 160 individuals a dry place to rest this winter. So, is it making a difference? For some guests, like Larry (read his story HERE!) the experience has been life-changing. For others, there is no way of knowing what impact, if any, the shelter has made, other than a one-night reprieve from the cold, wet streets of Abbotsford. Is that enough?
The same could be said of the impact on the congregation. There is evidence of community and relationships developing; attitudes being challenged and sometimes transformed, and deeper conversations beginning about faith and justice, homelessness, and poverty. But there has also been opposition; people who worry that we are enabling the homeless. Others struggle with the fears and risks that come with opening their building to individuals who may be involved in dangerous and unpredictable activities like drug addiction, violence, and untreated mental illnesses. And some members are concerned that hosting the shelter will negatively impact other outreach efforts. Is it worth it?
The truth that many of the volunteers have discovered is that homelessness—for those who live it and for those who try to help—is a messy journey with no easy answers.
“It’s not just about Christian love and all of that,” says volunteer Dianne Mulder, in answer to the question of what advice to give to other churches considering hosting a shelter. Mulder and her husband, Al, decided to help out at the shelter to try to find their own answers about why people are homeless. They have learned that the answer is different for everyone, and that a dry place to sleep makes a different impact on each person. Some are more appreciative than others. “It’s not going to solve the problem; it’s just going to help in a small way. It’s brutal and it’s real and you are dealing with people who don’t think like you.”
Houweling believes the shelter is making a difference, not just to the homeless, but to the church as well.
Gord Houweling, who had a cup of coffee thrown in his face the morning after his first night volunteering at the shelter, shares a similar sentiment. “It is easy to preach ‘turn the other cheek’ but it is difficult to practice when there is absolutely nothing in it for you.”
But Houweling believes the shelter is making a difference, not just to the homeless, but to the church as well, explaining that his own view of the homeless was challenged when he realized he knew the family of one of the guests. “How can this ministry do anything but impact our congregation? Has it changed how we view the marginalized? I would say yes in that at the very least members are talking about it. For those members who have a difficult time accepting this ministry, it is because God is working to help them process how they feel about the marginalized.”
Church members Heather and Aubrey Postma decided to volunteer because they struggled with the hopelessness and frustration of knowing how to help with the enormous problem of homelessness. Both agree that it has been very eye-opening and has changed the way they understand and care about the people living in the homeless camps in their city.
As individuals we aren’t asked to solve all the problems, but we are called to do something to answer the Biblical call to care for the poor and needy.
“As individuals we aren’t asked to solve all the problems, but we are called to do something,” Heather shared, adding that she doesn’t see how anyone could argue against the Biblical call to care for the poor and needy in this way. “Hosting the shelter so that one person stays dry for one night and gets one good night’s sleep is reason enough to participate.”
A BIG thanks to Mrs. Monica Kronemeyer deRegt for writing this 3-part story for Diaconal Ministries Canada. Monica is a freelance writer and Academic Counselor at Abbotsford Christian School. She lives in Chilliwack, BC, with her husband and three children.
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Through their partnership with BC Housing, as well as with the assistance of several dedicated volunteers, the Extreme Weather Shelter at Gateway Church is here to stay. Each year, the Shelter runs from November 1 to March 31 each year. The criteria used to determine when the Shelter is open is the temperature and weather conditions: 0 degrees or colder (with or without windchill), a posted weather warning (of rain, snow, cold, etc.), and/or if snow is on the ground. If the shelter is opened on a Friday night, it will remain open for the entire weekend (until Monday morning) in order to accommodate the Shelter’s guests. There’s no easy way over the weekend to let guests know if it will be open or not, so leadership at the Shelter feel this is the kindest and simplest way to deal with that issue.
At the end of every season, Lead Pastor Marcel deRegt and Shelter staff take time to evaluate what worked well and what needs improvement for the following year so that they can continue meeting the needs of their guests. While there are members who wonder if the Shelter should be open continuously, from Nov. 1 to March 31, others aren’t sure this is necessary or sustainable, given the amount of volunteers it requires.
Please pray with us for the staff and volunteers of the Shelter as well as the congregation at Gateway Church as they continue to lean on God for wisdom and direction in their pursuit to show Christ’s love and mercy in serving the homeless in their surrounding community. Pray that grace and understanding abound, both within the givers and those who receive.
-Erin Knight, Communications Coordinator for Diaconal Ministries Canada