(Pictured Above: Larry, one of the shelter’s guests who has also started to regularly attend Gateway, sitting in the church gym.)
This month, guest blogger Monica deRegt will be writing a 3-part story on the Extreme Weather Shelter opened up by Gateway Church in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
Our theme for December has been “Helping Without Harming” and we hope this story inspires churches to trust God and follow Him into their communities, despite the risks and the unknowns, in order to be a light in this world.
When Gateway CRC (Abbotsford, BC) designed their new building over a decade ago, they knew they wanted it to be a facility that could be used by the broader community. They planned for a large auditorium with a suitable stage for concerts, a spacious banquet hall for rentals, and they kept the original gymnasium and classrooms that were part of the old school building, to be used by groups within and outside of the church. What they didn’t envision was receiving an urgent request on a cold December day in 2016 for additional space to accommodate homeless men and women living in their neighbourhood.
When Jesse Wegenast, director of 5 and 2 Ministries, a local organization that ministers to homeless people, approached Gateway, he was hesitant at first because he had been turned down by every other church he had asked up to that point. But, desperate to find space for 30 beds for people who needed to get out of the cold as soon as possible, and knowing Gateway was a large facility, he decided to take his chances.
Within a week, Gateway’s gym was transformed into an Extreme Weather Shelter that remained open for over 70 nights during a long, cold winter. 5 and 2 Ministries operated the shelter and provided the staff, along with support from the City of Abbotsford. Gateway provided the space, warm meals every night for the guests, along with custodial services and other needs as they arose. In 2017, Gateway took over and managed the shelter on their own, with guidance from the Extreme Weather Shelter Action Committee of Abbotsford, and funding from BC Housing.
So how did it all come together? It wasn’t without its challenges, some of which are still being ironed out as the church heads into the third winter hosting the shelter, shared Gateway’s Executive Pastor Marcel deRegt. Because this ministry arose out of an urgent need, none of the typical ministry planning and preparation took place.
“But how could we say ‘no?’” deRegt asks. “We are the church, this is what we are called to do as believers.”
“But how could we say ‘no?’ We are the church; this is what we are called to do as believers.”
So, they said yes and decided to figure it out as they went. The learning curve was steep as most Gateway members had very little experience with homeless people prior to opening the shelter. There was some fear and misgivings, a lot of eye-opening moments, as well as a few frustrations. But mostly there was a genuine desire to help even if everyone didn’t know exactly what to say or do. Many responded in the only way they knew how – with food. Empty crockpots stacked up beside the church mailboxes each morning were a testament to the dozens of meals that members would drop off each night. Some members volunteered to sit with the homeless people in the evenings. A group of people came together early on Christmas morning to share a pancake breakfast and Christmas gifts with the shelter guests.
When Gateway took over the management of the shelter in 2017, more planning and paperwork needed to happen. DeRegt and the rest of the staff and council worked closely with the local Salvation Army and BC Housing to sort out funding and other details such as bylaw changes, as well as hiring a coordinator to oversee the program and manage the volunteers.
Lasting relationships have been formed with some of the guests, and hearts and lives have been transformed within both the congregation and the shelter.
Last year, the shelter provided a dry bed and a warm meal for over 450 individuals. But more than that, lasting relationships have been formed with some of the guests, and hearts and lives have been transformed within both the congregation and the shelter.
Monica Kronemeyer deRegt is a freelance writer and Academic Counselor at Abbotsford Christian School. She lives in Chilliwack, BC, with her husband and three children.