Ongoing Care and Connection Despite Covid Helps London Ministry Thrive

[Pictured Above: A community meal, pre-Covid style!]

Written By: Mechele TeBrake & Erin Knight

Sanctuary London has always at its core been about creating relationships with people experiencing oppression and exclusion. Sanctuary was founded in 2011 to offer people who are often excluded a meaningful place in a healthy community and a sense of belonging. And hopefully, a place to call ‘home.’ Rather than simply duplicating the numerous social services offered elsewhere throughout the city and region, Sanctuary provides “a unique, healthy community – a safe place.” In essence, they are saying with their words and actions: ‘If you’re willing to share your life with us, we’ll share ours with you. We’ll encourage you when you mess up, help you find direction when you’re not sure which way to go, hold you when you’re hurting, and help you discover, strengthen and focus your gifts and abilities. We’re here for the long haul.’ [taken from their website]

Back in 2009, with the support of a NewGround Community Ministry Grant from Diaconal Ministries Canada, Sanctuary began as a weekly art group, a weekly meal and a weekly time of worship coordinated by a core group of 12 people and an extended community of 60 people. Over the last ten years, they have grown to a core group of 150 people and an extended community of 800! At the request and invitation of community members, Sanctuary expanded to offer sit-down meals twice a week, provide two 3-bedroom affordable housing units to community members, run a reading group and an LGBTQ+ support group, as well as manage a Gleaning Food Forest (a community garden growing fruits and vegetables that can be gleaned by anyone who has need of them in the community).

On top of all of this, Sanctuary has partnered with other municipal projects like hosting a mayoral candidates discussion about issues relevant to impoverished and oppressed folx* in London and been involved in studies on homelessness prevention, most recently a study through Queens’ and Western Universities on “Transitions from Homelessness Study”. Sanctuary has also been an active participant in London’s Winter Interim Solution to Homelessness (WISH) Coalition. 

Some chalk art done outside of Sanctuary London.

Above all, Sanctuary has been intentional about listening to and raising up those who are denied a voice elsewhere. They are intentional about being a community of mutual care and relationship, over being a service provider that hands stuff out to people “in need” and sending them on their way. Sanctuary aims to chart a course to be a community oriented around providing a space for people who have been told they do not matter to a place where they do matter and experience this in ways that are honest, joyful and liberating. This is a difficult thing to do and so the work done by Sanctuary has necessarily been slow, cautious, thoughtful and constantly open to modification.

Like many other organizations, COVID-19 challenged them in their ministry and challenged them to be open to modification, pretty much daily, if not weekly. 

Sanctuary was quickly deemed an “Essential Service” by their local health unit, which created a great opportunity to continue their ministry, however it meant a change in the way they did almost everything as a community. Overnight Covid changed the way Sanctuary interacted with each other. In many ways, they went from being intentionally and intensely relational to a service-driven, needs-based ministry that provided meals-to-go in disposable containers. They no longer had community members in the kitchen to help prepare meals and could no longer sit at tables eating their meals off “real” dishes in their usual family-style, please-pass-the-potatoes kind of way of serving each other. 

The way in which they prepared and served food wasn’t the only big shift for the Sanctuary community; they also had to be two metres apart from one another and wear masks at all times. What a huge adjustment! “It was awkward, and still is,” shares TeBrake. “Sanctuary is a community that is used to sharing space with each other. In a lot of ways, we had to relearn how to have conversations with each other” Staff and volunteers could no longer see faces – lit by beautiful smiles or down-trodden, beaten down exacerbation – and this reminded them just how important seeing someone’s whole face was. Staff and volunteers had to find other ways of ‘reading’ each other. Time spent together was also very limited so they had to learn to be efficient with their words to be able to really check-in and see how the other was doing.

In order to make many of the necessary adjustments in order to still love their community well, Sanctuary applied for a Covid-19 Grant from Diaconal Ministries and World Renew Canada. “This really helped and blessed us through uncertain times,” recalls Community Outreach Worker (and Diaconal Ministries’ Board Member) Mechele TeBrake. “We had to act fast to adhere to the Health Unit modifications and change how we were community and how we did things, so as not to miss a day in our schedule. Sanctuary made the necessary changes instantly, not knowing how we would cover the rising cost of groceries, not being able to shop on ‘just the sales’ any longer, and now adding the additional cost of containers for everything including drinks and packaging, but we did know that God was in this with us. We knew we had to find a way to continue our work especially when so many other places for people to access free meals had closed completely in London.”

Many people who come to the mealtime drop-ins comment on how the food is useful and helps them out, but the brief and meaningful connections with the Sanctuary community is the real reason people don’t mind waiting in the long lines in all kinds of weather. They know that at Sanctuary, they are welcomed and valued and treat others that way in return (“for the most part,” says TeBrake!).

Other than Sanctuary’s two meals a week, their other programs were not deemed essential so could not operate in their usual fashion. Worship had to be done over Zoom, remembering that some of their community does not have internet or a phone. Instead of programs in Talbot St Church where they use space, Sanctuary staff and volunteers increased their walks downtown to connect with their folx living rough on the streets, in parks or by the river. Sometimes they would even “accidentally” let people know where they will be in order to meet up with them. Instead of the art drop-in, members would chalk downtown on Dundas Street by the Library at the same time on the same day so people could come and join in, spreading a bit of cheer on the sidewalks. Sanctuary learned, and continues to learn, how to get and stay connected to people. It is a challenge for sure, but so worth it, TeBrake insists. Her and fellow staff know that isolation is one of the leading causes of people being street-involved, housing-deprived or homeless. 

Connection – a sense of belonging and assurance that we belong to each other – are key to thriving people and communities.

Covid has taught Sanctuary many lessons over the last year and a half, some new and some affirming. They have been taught and reminded of the importance of a life-giving community. Connection – a sense of belonging and assurance that we belong to each other – are key to thriving people and communities.

As life continues to open up more and more in Ontario, including London, Sanctuary anticipates their numbers for their mealtime drop-ins and other programs to keep increasing. “We are so grateful that Diaconal Ministries has believed in and encouraged our work at Sanctuary London over the years. With the help of them and World Renew and the Covid-19 Grant, it made it possible for us to continue to be community and explore ways to be home together, even in challenging times,” recalls Tebrake. “Or maybe I should say, especially in challenging times.”


*folx: FOLKS —used especially to explicitly signal the inclusion of groups commonly marginalized

Does your church have an idea for a healthy, sustainable and meaningful community ministry? Do you need help getting it off the ground?