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Taking ministry to the streets: church isn't a vacuum, it exists within a neighbourhood, sitting beside other institutions. These ministries opened their doors and took their work into their community.

Congregations have an excellent example to follow when taking their ministries beyond church walls: Although Jesus did teach in synagogues, the majority of his preaching took place on the street, in the communities he was serving. It's still an effective way to spread the good news today. When Rev. Ramon Ramirez had his former church building in El Salvador seized in 1997 by his denomination (which accused numerous pastors and missionaries of being communists for helping the poor), the Baptist minister and his parishioners were out on the street. They began a ministry born in the aftermath of a civil war known for its death squads and terrorists. Those committed to social action took advantage of their new circumstances and began to work amongst the poor in El Salvador. Meeting at first in coffee shops, restaurants, and the homes and offices of those involved, Ramirez and his partners vowed to correct the social injustices they saw around them.

Today, they minister to 160 men in prison, help 200 children go to school, and support and educate 60 impoverished mothers. They also educate people on gender equality--hoping to end the injustices and discrimination women face in the Central American country.

In many ways, it's not a big step to the Anishinabe Fellowship Centre in Winnipeg. Bringing people off the street and into a Christian community is how the centre has expanded the idea of ministry. A Presbyterian drop-in centre sponsored by Presbyterian Sharing, it is used mostly by Native people. "I think it's a safe place to come, and the word is spreading," said Susan Currie, an outreach worker. "Mostly, it's a place just to be; where they don't feel threatened."

The regulars, nearly 100 people, are so thrilled with the centre that they have taken it upon themselves to help with the fundraising, bringing in $1,300 since last summer, including a group of homeless people who donated a crisp $20 bill. "They're taking it on as their own project" said Currie. "The sense of community is big right now. We need the room, so that nobody needs to be locked out."

Opening its own doors to help the less fortunate is what the Church of St. David is doing. David's Drop In operates out of the Halifax church's hall, offering a warm place to hang out, have coffee and baked goods, a bowl of soup and some good conversation. For people living on the streets or those who otherwise wouldn't have a warm place to rest, the centre is a welcomed initiative. Operating in conjunction with the Victorian Order of Nurses, there is also a clothing bank, occasional hair cuts, and a nurse who performs routine health care. Blood pressure and blood sugar levels are checked if needed, foot care is performed, and wounds are tended to. Between six and 30 people drop in each week.

"Some people may think that because they can't do a big thing, they can't do anything, and they overlook the creative ways they can take part," said Rev. Laurence DeWolfe, minister at St. David's. "There are all kinds of possibilities if you look for the connections you can make."

Approaching its first anniversary, the program is an example of a church doing what it can with the resources it has. "It's amazing the fruit that can arise by taking advantage of the things already in your congregation," said DeWolfe. "This kind of thing is possible."

It's this kind of thinking that led to the formation of Pinawa Christian Fellowship. Using minimal resources to minister to as many people as possible, the small church in the Presbytery of Winnipeg has members from Anglican, Mennonite, Presbyterian and United Church backgrounds. The congregation was "called together to be God's people".

For over four decades, it hasn't had a church building, but has rented office, educational and worship space as needed. "It makes so much sense," said Pinawa's current Presbyterian minister, Rev. Robert Murray. "All the frustration about keeping the roof up isn't part of the mix."

Abandoning traditional ideas in order to reach more people is a necessary endeavour for Ramirez in El Salvador. With 48 per cent of its 6.5 million people living below the poverty line, El Salvador is a nation struggling with crime, illiteracy and a sluggish economy. Left in a shambles when a 12-year civil war ended in 1992 that took 75,000 lives, the country whose name means "the Saviour" could use exactly that. Outraged by the state of his country even years after the war has ended, Ramirez shuns religion that is devoid of social action. "What God wants is love, compassion and justice," he said during an interview at church offices. "Keep on with the work of God that he has placed in your hands. Nothing should ever go backwards."

Rev. James Gordon of Amherstview, Ont. agrees. "Being the church is not to be inward-looking, but very outward-looking," said the minister at Trinity Presbyterian. This congregation looks out via two annual Santa Claus parades which are so well known by their communities that donations of food and money are placed on the float to benefit the Partners in Mission food bank. Each parade has raised as much as 6,000 pounds of food and $2,000.

This local ministry spins out into many other missions: In addition to sponsoring a child overseas, and donating time and money to crisis centres and other charitable organizations in the community, their newest outreach project has parishioners welcoming people who have just moved into the quickly-growing area. A member from the congregation knocks on the door holding a tin of Danish cookies with the church's name and address, and offering their warmest welcome. The strategy seems to be working, as some newcomers have wandered into Trinity to check it out.

It's a similar kind of open approach that Rev. Jane Swatridge uses in downtown Toronto. "It's a church for hearing and hospitality," said Swatridge of the Toronto ministry, fyi--for your inspiration. "It's for people who just aren't interested in organized religion."

It operates out of Swatridge's home, and welcomes those who want to connect with God, but don't know how. Often they've had negative experiences with the church, or have confusing ideas of what the church is about. They may be plagued by feelings of guilt, bitterness, anger or fear. "I'm like the first step," said Swatridge. "They're not ready for the church community. They're not sure if they'll be accepted. But I show them that we have a benevolent God and a forgiving God, and help them get past their problems. It's not so much for the poor in pocket, as for the poor in spirit."

Like the healing that can happen at fyi, Anishinabe also offers a place for redirection and renewal. The drop-in centre provides monthly food packages, blankets and towels, a computer lab, a children's after-school program, and counselling. But perhaps most importantly, relationships formed at the centre help build trust between the Native community and the church. "We feel like it's a God-directed thing," said Currie. "Healing has to take place, and they trust us. It feels like home here." Sundays offer a worship service that draws about 70 adults and 45 children.

At fyi, many people just want to talk. Youth on parole, married couples with relationship issues, homosexuals struggling with their identity, criminals behind bars, and people seeking God, all look to Swatridge for help. Alternative services are an integral part of her ministry. "I don't preach and there are no pews," she said. "It's interactive and there are lots of questions. In a normal service, you aren't exactly allowed to throw your hand up in the middle and say, 'What do you mean by that?' But you can do that here."

Not unlike the broken spirits in Canada that need a helping hand and a listening ear, the people of El Salvador also need to be healed. "The war affected us greatly. It was absolute hell," said Ramirez. "We need a great big work of restoration; to help people out of the traumas they received during the war, and help families that lost their loved ones."
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Author:MacLachlan, Amy
Publication:Presbyterian Record
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Mar 1, 2005
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