Touching Hearts, Changing Lives

Classis Huron Deacons Gather for an Evening of Storytelling and Inspiration!

Written by: Wendy VanLeeuwen, Guest Writer

Featured Image: Mark Willcock of Indwell, leading the opening devotion time.

Hearts and lives are being impacted by the work of deacons in Classis Huron. About 40 people came together at St. Mark’s Place in Kitchener on the evening of April 18th to hear and celebrate how God is at work in and through diaconal ministry. The event was organized by the Classis Huron Diaconal Team and sponsored by Diaconal Ministries Canada.

Keynote speaker, Mark Willcock, from Indwell, the organization behind St. Mark’s Place, inspired attendees with an opening devotion connecting the work of deacons to the story of the Good Samaritan and Jesus’ mandate to be a good neighbour. The question, “Who is my neighbour?” is the foundation of Indwell’s work. “To be a good neighbour means that anyone who needs help is our neighbour,” he said. “Being a neighbour is hard, but by drawing on the power of the Holy Spirit, we can help people start a new chapter in their lives.”

St. Mark’s Place is the first of at least three Indwell supportive housing programs being developed in the Waterloo Region. It opened in March and offers 43 affordable apartment units along with 14 supportive staff who come alongside the residents to help them develop healthy daily routines. On average, residents at St. Mark’s Place were unhoused for 12 years before moving in. To qualify, they must sign a service plan which outlines the support that will be offered and received. Rent is geared to income, usually from the Ontario Disability Support Program. Tenants are each provided with a small, furnished apartment complete with living room, bedroom, bathroom, and fully stocked kitchen. In addition, they receive a healthy hot meal daily, and can join other residents in the communal areas for activities such as cooking lessons, basketball, darts, movie nights, as well as health and wellness programming with staff and community support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

Program Director, Leah Logan, who led one of the tours of the facility for the evening’s participants, said that they are very intentional about fostering a sense of community and belonging, and that residents support each other as well, lending understanding to each other as they work through mental health struggles and the significant adjustment to living in an apartment after a life on the street, where the whole focus of the day was in finding a meal and a place to sleep.

St. Mark’s is an ‘enhanced’ program, designed for people who require a higher level of support. Indwell is working on a second facility in Kitchener, Magnolia Apartments, which will offer service to residents ready for more independence, and a third facility will allow for even more independence and an eventual full transition back into typical community housing options.

When asked what his advice would be for deacons wanting to get involved in affordable housing and homelessness initiatives in their own communities, Willcock said that supportive housing initiatives work best when they are part of a community effort, and that the work of changing lives takes time. Indwell has been in operation as a Christian charity for more than 50 years, and has had a deep connection with the CRC for many of those years. They have developed supportive living facilities in many communities around Ontario, and have found that 92% of residents stay for at least a year. About 85% of the funding for St. Mark’s Place comes from federal, provincial, and municipal governments, with the remainder coming from churches and private donations. Area churches raised money for some of the renovations at St. Mark’s, and also stocked the apartment kitchens and provided welcome baskets, cleaning supplies, hygiene products, quilts, and prayer shawls.

Willcock ended by emphasizing Indwell’s core values of Dignity, Love, and Hope. These three principles were echoed in the presentations throughout the evening.

Sharing Stories of Community and Connection

Holly Dalton spoke on behalf of the Fishes and Loaves program at Trinity CRC, Goderich. This meal program is sponsored in part by Classis Huron, and has been running for 17 years. Trinity works with three other local churches and a number of community volunteers to prepare and distribute about 150 takeout meals each Tuesday. The program enjoys the support of community partners like a bakery and produce grower. Not only does the program provide important food security support, but just as importantly, volunteers are able to develop relationships with the people who come regularly, encouraging them and providing referrals for other supportive programming in the community and activities in local churches. The volunteers at Trinity feel blessed to serve in this way, and experience unity in Christ as they work together with other churches.

Anne Reinink and Shirley Rylaarsdam shared their experiences since restarting the Soup and More program in Clinton about a year and a half ago. The motto of the program is: “We get to serve Jesus” and they expressed that it is wonderful to serve the community and to see God’s hand at work in many ways, such as in the timely provision of grants and donations to cover the costs of the program. About ten volunteers prepare and serve lunch to 50-60 people per week, mainly seniors. Participants come not only for the food, but also for the social time and a sense of belonging they experience there.

Action CRC’s Coffee Trailer at a local festival

Ryan Buisman related that a similar desire to serve the community and be good neighbours underlies the Coffee Trailer ministry at Bethel CRC in Acton. The deacons there recognized an opportunity to provide coffee at cost to people attending community events. They purchased a small camping trailer in 2019, and after some delays, converted it by early 2022. Their first big event was at the local Fall Fair later that year. They have participated in a number of parades and events since then, and have found the program to be a blessing both to the church and to the wider community.

The final presenter of the evening, Dennis Joosse, related some of the experiences of the Refugee Team at Waterloo CRC. The church has been involved in refugee sponsorship for decades, trying to offer some help in a world where the problem of displaced people is only getting worse. There are approximately 36 million refugees worldwide, and 110 million internally displaced people. Many of these people live in camps, unable to return home. On average, Waterloo CRC sponsors a family a year, working with co-sponsors and helping refugees with the many adjustments that come with settling in Canada, including accessing financial support, schools, healthcare, transportation and more. In addition, the church receives many requests from new Canadians living in the low-income Sunnydale neighbourhood near the church; people who are desperate to sponsor and reunite with family members. Refugee Team members have developed selection policies to determine who they can best help with the myriad of forms and other details involved in sponsoring a family member. Sometimes they also work with World Renew to assist people in obtaining refugee status. This ministry is well-supported with financial pledges and volunteer time from congregation members. Dennis brought a young man named Arman with him. Arman, who is an engineering student, shared his family’s story of being sponsored by Waterloo CRC almost two years ago. They had suffered persecution in Iran after converting to Christianity, and experienced more mistreatment when they fled from Iran to Turkey. He spoke about how his family experienced love and kindness from their new church family, and about the strong bonds of friendship that have been formed.

Diaconal Ministries Canada board member and event organizer, Mary Blydorp, shared her delight in how the evening unfolded. “God’s people coming together to listen and learn and be encouraged brings such joy to me. Our evening was filled with stories of how God is at work in our churches and communities. These stories may well serve as springboards for other churches to discern where God is already at work in their community, and how to join in that mission.”

According to Diaconal Ministries’ Classis Huron Diaconal Coach, Fred Vandersterre, the evening provided excellent opportunities for deacons to share and learn together. “In my experience as a coach, deacons tend to learn far more from each other than from any trainer or teacher who is seen as the ‘specialist’ or ‘expert.’” He pointed out that serving our neighbours results in blessings for deacons and volunteers as well as those they are serving. “These programs should not come with hidden agendas; it is tempting to see church programs as a way to get people into the pews, (but) we are called to love our neighbours unconditionally, with no strings attached.”

Audience members expressed that they were encouraged and inspired by the presentations and appreciative of the opportunity to visit St. Mark’s Place. One participant commented that all of the presentations “illustrated real and wonderful Christian love for our neighbours, serving them and giving them hope.”

“I could tell that the participants were really engaged,” shared Mark Vanderwees, Regional Ministry Developer for Diaconal Ministries’ in Eastern Canada. “We heard great testimonies of how God is using local churches to be good neighbours! The deacons that came with me from CrossPoint CRC in Brampton were amazed that the Classis Huron churches were so engaged. People coming together from their own classis to share real, local stories of how they are engaging their communities is very compelling and I am glad we were able to inspire the many people that came out!”

Would your church or classis like to hold a time of inspiration and storytelling?

Contact your local Diaconal Coach or Diaconal Ministries today. We’d love to help you plan something in your region!

Leave a Comment