Working with the homeless and impoverished to find God (Cathy Stone)

Cathy StoneCathy Stone discusses working with the homeless and impoverished to find God.

As human beings and even as Christians, many of us have a tendency to fall 'in love' with our material stuff. One only has to pick up the Anglican edition of the Canadian Church Calendar for 2010 to view beautiful seasonal photographs of church buildings across Canada. The front of the calendar itself quotes Genesis 28.17: 'The house of God… the gate of heaven.'

Don't get me wrong. I can appreciate beautiful architecture and churches as much as the next person. But is the 'house of God' a building? Can God be kept in a box? We who encourage fresh expressions of church don't think so.

We know that Jesus attended synagogue, but we also read that the majority of his work was done outside the synagogue. He walked amongst the people: Jew and Gentile, men and women. He often kept company with those who the Pharisees considered 'sinful' people, prostitutes and tax collectors.

It was Jesus who said: 'Why worry about a speck in your friend's eye when you have a log in your own?… Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye.'

For myself, nothing in my life has been more humbling and gratifying than working with homeless and impoverished women at the Cameron House shelter in Peterborough, Ontario. We meet weekly to talk about God, life recovery skills, individual problems and hope. We study the Life Recovery Bible and work on a 12 step programme for victims of abuse and addictions. We pray. We pray because prayer brings us closer to God and can teach us perseverance.

Remember the hymn: 'They will know we are Christians by our love' – it doesn't say they will know we are Christians by our buildings

Many of the adult women in the group have suffered at the hands of dysfunctional, even abusive, parents and life partners who often gave them 'stones' and 'snakes'. As a group we are encouraged to rethink our negative concept of God, to one as a father who gives good gifts to his children. For these women who have been hurt so badly by life circumstance it is a revelation to discover there is a God who truly loves them. They did not find this God in a church building. They find him in the people who through God can offer them unconditional love.

They discover him in Scripture and prayer and discussion in a 'safe' place with people who love them unconditionally. Remember the hymn: 'They will know we are Christians by our love.' It doesn't say they will know we are Christians by our buildings. Finally, God did not say: 'Go and build a church and worship me!' God said: 'Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit…'

In our woman's group we have baptised three women, had one apartment blessing, and every Sunday we offer transport to anyone who would like to attend a service. Will this type of fresh expression see the church into the future? I don't know. All I know is that it is reflective of the work of Christ and he is our teacher, mentor and friend.

Cameron House

Cathy StoneRevd Cathy Stone is a deacon in the Diocese of Toronto and executive director of its Rural Outreach Committee (ROC). She describes how helping those on the edge of society has led to blessing for herself and the inherited church.

We have always worked closely with Cameron House, a shelter for women in Peterborough, Ontario. Cameron House staff answer the Rural Outreach Committee's crisis line at evenings, weekends and holidays and it is not uncommon for us to share cases and information.

During one debrief, a member of staff mentioned to me that it would be wonderful if I could "bring church to Cameron House." I asked permission from Bill McNabb, executive director of Brock Mission – which owns and operates the shelter. Trent Durham Bishop, Linda Nicholls also gave me the green light.

I first met a group of six to eight ladies at the facility two years ago and they all expressed a strong desire to learn more about Jesus and God. Although a few had attended church in the past, they really had no idea of why they were Christians. They acknowledged that they were burnt out, sad, and hoped that there was something "out there" in the way of spirituality that might help them.

We began with a basic Christianity course, which I adapted especially for our group, and we took time for prayer, worship, bible study and discussion. It then became clear that most (if not all) of the ladies had suffered from sexual, physical or emotional abuse as children, and also later as adults. Many had addictions to drugs and/or alcohol. They had families that they could not connect with or who didn't wish to connect with them. Others had been "hurt" by the Church and didn't trust the corporate church system or church people.

Cameron House with bibleWe worked our way through further courses and a Christian friend bought us 12 Life Recovery Bibles. By that time our group had grown to 10. The results have been wonderful and we have seen God at work in these lives again and again.

At first we would meet around the dining room table at Cameron House (not always perfect because other residents tended to walk in and out to use the fridge), but now we have our own beautiful room. It is our "God space." The house itself has changed too. Where it was once quite messy and dirty, we now see women helping each other to organise rooms and tidy things up. Instead of blank stares or frowns, I notice smiling faces when I drive up to the home of what has now become my second family.

One woman who was homeless and poverty-ridden when I met her in 2008 has now received funding to complete her Masters of Social Work; three of those who met with us have been baptised; another requested that her new apartment be blessed; still another revealed to me recently that she has stopped drinking and smoking and will be attending a recovery programme as well as continuing on with our group. It is not just the residents we help, but those who find shelter elsewhere continue to come back on Wednesday evenings to learn more about God's word and how it is relevant in our everyday lives. We share very personal concerns around the table and what is said in the room stays in the room. This has built a strong bond and trust with each other. We laugh, cry, pray, discuss theology, study the Bible and sing worship songs.

Cameron House laughingWhen I first told the women that I was an Anglican Deacon they were amazed. One Sunday, a lady asked me to take her to one of our traditional church services. During the drive there she told me that she was a crack addict and had only stopped using the drug two nights ago, but she still wanted to go to church. We had no sooner arrived than she needed to use the bathroom to vomit. I helped her up from her knees, washed her face and took her up to church, but she was just too sick to stay so I drove her home. Afterwards, when I returned to church for coffee, one parishioner told me of her own problem with alcohol and another spoke of an adult son with addictions. This lady's presence at church had helped others open up about their own struggles.

This fresh expression of church can help not only society's outcasts, but also society itself, by offering those who live on the edge a second chance to become healthy members of our communities and to bring to them the Good News of Jesus Christ in a safe environment.

The church family at Cameron House is a beautiful thing to witness and I feel blessed to be a part of their lives.