Featured Image: Some socially distanced realtors (including Pastor John in the hat and glasses on the right) from his brokerage, Edge Realty Solutions, waiting at The Brew House to deliver meals to Fergus and Elora residents as part of the CW Meals to Go program. “This one makes me smile,” John shares, “as a bivocational realtor/planter since it is the intersection of all that I do.”

COVID-19 has completely upended what “normal” life was like for churches all over Canada.

When the nationwide lockdown happened in March, there were a lot of question marks. When no one’s allowed out in their communities, how does anyone interact with friends and neighbours? How can churches engage with their local communities? Deacons struggled with how to equip their churches for this new reality. 

John Vanderstoep, the pastor of The Bridge, a church plant in Fergus, Ontario, was asking these same questions.

“When the pandemic hit, we were suddenly unable to gather people together,” says Vanderstoep. When the church began in 2015, members were meeting out of Vanderstoep and his wife Carol’s home, with members typically taking turns hosting as well. As a church, they had found a unique way to engage with their local community — a program called “CW Community Meals.”

CW Community Meals — the “CW” stands for “Centre Wellington” — is a program where four churches partnered together to serve a weekly community meal to approximately 80 people living on economic and social margins. Each Friday night, one of the four churches would take a turn “hosting” the community meal in their building, with The Bridge using space from Melville United Church as they didn’t have a building of their own.

The program, which started approximately four years ago, was created to address a gap for a weekly affordable and accessible meal in the Centre Wellington community. Since it began, the organizers have noticed that while people have a financial need for a healthy meal, many of the attendees are also looking for more than that: they’re looking for community and human connection.

With church doors closing and physical gatherings becoming limited in the spring, the pandemic stopped the program from functioning as it usually would. Vanderstoep and his congregation were unsure how the program would move forward.

“As a church, we did some listening prayer together through Zoom,” says Vanderstoep. During the prayer, they read and meditated on the opening verses of Acts 6. “We prayed about what God might be calling us to do in terms of our entire church being deacons. We believe God told us a few things — focus on what you’re already doing and use existing organizations.”

While one door had closed, God was opening another.

Finding a New Way to Serve

“In God’s providence, around that time, World Renew and Diaconal Ministries Canada were hosting an online webinar to help churches think about how to respond to real needs in this unique time,” continued Vanderstoep.

The webinar that Vanderstoep and his wife, Carol, attended was on community engagement during Covid-19. In it they learned about the joint grant offered through a partnership between World Renew Canada and Diaconal Ministries Canada. 

Created as a response to COVID-19, small grants of up to $5,000 were being offered to deacons of local churches who had plans in place to partner with other ministries in their community to respond to a COVID-19 need but who lacked the resources.

The Bridge applied for — and received — the $5,000 grant and raised another $3,060 locally to form an $8,060 budget. They took CW Community Meals and made it into “CW Meals to Go,” where instead of people gathering together to eat, meals were delivered throughout the community.

“We knew we could do something alone as a church with those funds,” says John, “but we knew we could do even more if we shared our story locally.” The Bridge encouraged other churches, businesses and individuals to get involved in the project.

Clockwise, starting top left corner; Nancy V at the Red Door getting ready to deliver; a meal; the Red Door restaurant; Ilse V in her car ready to deliver meals; a recipient receiving her meal

They soon had partnered with three other churches, two local restaurants, a host of volunteers and a number of businesses — including Vanderstoep’s real estate brokerage, where he works as a broker in a co-vocational role alongside his other role as pastor. 

“What was really exciting to see about The Bridge’s work was how they looked into their own community to see what assets already existed,” says Ron Vandenbrink, National Director of Diaconal Ministries. “Inviting local restaurants (who were struggling to make ends meet) to be a part of this meal program is what Asset-Based Community Development is all about. The church can’t and shouldn’t do it all! Partnering with local businesses, organizations and groups moves us away from doing ministry in isolation. When we collaborate, we empower others and this has a more lasting impact. This is when transformation happens!”

As the pandemic wore on, volunteers delivered meals to a growing number of people who self-identified as needing help, making CW Meals to Go something far more than just a weekly meal — it was soon happening up to five days a week!

On three of the weekdays, volunteers prepared and delivered meals out of the commercial kitchen at St. James Anglican Church. On the other two weekdays, two locally-owned restaurants — the Red Door and the Brew House — were contracted to prepare the meals. 

“We did this for three reasons,” says Vanderstoep. “We wanted to make the load workable for our volunteers, provide higher quality meals to our recipients, and help two local businesses stay afloat financially.” 

Rather than the church swooping in to save the day, the gifts and skills already present in the local community were brought together to address the challenges people were facing. Because the Bridge took this approach to community development, it’s no wonder that the community’s response was overwhelmingly positive. Isolation was reduced among recipients and volunteers when isolation was (and still is) at an all-time high. Many people received meaningful and tangible help: for those eating the meals, a financial burden was eased, and for the restaurants preparing the meals, the staff were still able to make food! The businesses involved were glad to join in financially, and, by volunteering their time, employee morale increased.

The four churches that worked together — The Bridge (a Christian Reformed church plant) along with an Anglican, Pentecostal, and a Presbyterian church — is a beautiful illustration of God’s Kingdom here on earth.

Learning from Serving

Henry and Rene L, two members of The Bridge who served as Drivers, picking up meals on a Tuesday at The Red Door.  

Everyone involved in CW Meals to Go has learned a lot from their serving together. God has helped The Bridge identify new opportunities to engage with community members as COVID-19 continues its course. “Perhaps the biggest surprise was paying attention to our recipients and their needs,” says Vanderstoep. “We uncovered a number of needs, but the most significant one was of isolation in our community, especially among seniors.”

At the time of writing, the program is still running three days per week without the restaurants. If a “second wave” of the pandemic occurs, the restaurants may be contracted once again. 

“In the long term,” Vanderstoep says, “we look forward to this growing community of meal providers and recipients one day regularly sitting down to meals together. It’s a picture of heaven itself, where we will gather for the Great Banquet!” Until then, they won’t let Covid-19 stand in their way.


What About YOUR Church?

Need help getting started? Check out our “Introduction to Community Partnerships” handout, created for such a time as this! Or think about an existing partnership your church already has that has halted but that you’d like to continue even through these uncertain times. Contact us if you need more help!

Not sure if a grant is for you? Deacons, churches and organizations can still apply for World Renew Canada’s and Diaconal Ministries’ joint COVID-19 grant. Visit our website to see if your idea is a good fit! Individuals and churches are also encouraged to donate to the grant fund to keep this amazing work going!