We began to read books about church planting and looked for different ways to approach ministry with poor urban dwellers. Those books, along with five years of professional work in Paris helping French church planters, equipped us for the work we’ve undertaken in Montreal.
We have launched a very different approach with the urban poor in our Quebec neighbourhood. Rather than talking about church planting, we describe our experiment as “a contribution to community development.”
We live and work in Hochelaga- Maisonneuve, better known as Homa. Our group is called Hochma. If you know Hebrew, you’ll recognize this as a play on the word for “practical wisdom.” We’ve learned that the poor seek practical wisdom, often above all else. Since Canada’s first census in 1871, Homa has been the poorest neighbourhood of any large section in a metropolitan area. According to Canadian urban geographer David Ley in Canadian Cities in Transition, Local Through Global Perspectives:
The deindustrialization of Montreal’s “city below the hill” has been particularly devastating. By 1986, the collapse of the economic base in the industrial southwest resulted in unemployment of over 20 percent and demographic flight, as the population fell by one-half from its 1961 level of 107,000. A similar economic catastrophe hit the francophone waterfront neighbourhoods east of downtown, and in each instance recreational and tourist initiatives have featured prominently in redevelopment plans.
The Lachine Canal, a former industrial thoroughfare running through the heart of the southwest, has been declared a national historic park, while in the east, new tourist and leisure amenities have been constructed around the Olympic stadium. Nonetheless, these initiatives have scarcely dented the most extensive concentration of deep poverty in any Canadian inner city.
The broader borough has a population of 128,440 people. (Greater Montreal has 3.5 million.) Our neighbourhood includes 48,735 of those. Even though the greater metro area is the third most densely populated area in North America, with 847 people per square kilometre(following New York City and Boston), Hochelaga has 5,472.
Ninety-five percent of the residents are francophone (compare this to the entire island of Montreal, which is only 66 percent francophone). Visible minorities comprise nine percent of the population. And by every social indicator, it’s a suffering area. Below are some comparisons.
A 2001 Family and Social Welfare profile of Hochelaga reported that the mortality rates for the most important causes of death – such as cancer – were higher than any other part of Montreal.
During the 1990s, Hochelaga was the scene for an intense territorial war between two biker groups – the Hell’s Angels and Rock Machine. It was a violent battle for control of the Canadian drug trade. With the death of an innocent 7-year-old boy and the introduction of a federal anti-drug law, the neighbourhood is less violent, but still very poor.
The church in Hochelaga
Residents of Homa are negative towards the institutional church. We had to rethink how to be the people of God with the urban poor.
Even using the expression “church planting” implies a certain paradigm – a meeting place, Sunday school, a way to worship, preaching, attendee figures. Modern Christians think of church planting in economic terms. In our neighbourhood this won’t work. We’ve changed our vocabulary to reflect our vision.
At Hochma, we’re using community development models and methods to contribute to the spiritual transformation of the neighbourhood. Our conversations with friends and neighbours start there. We seek to incarnate Jesus in our neighbourhood; we don’t simply seek to bring people to God.
The marginalization of religion and church in Montreal (also defined as “secularization”) requires us to take our devotion to Christ more seriously. Spiritual formation is about empowering Christians to live their faith in the world. True Christian spirituality cannot be divorced from the struggle for justice and care for the poor and oppressed.
The fundamental question we need to examine is how poverty affects worldview and how worldview can transform poverty. Poverty is a broad concept touching economic, social, physical, and spiritual realities; it affects peoples’ identity and vocation. But as Jayakumar Christian points out in his Fuller Theological Seminary PhD thesis, the causes of poverty can be traced to “inadequacies in worldview.”
A worldview can be a powerful instrument in perpetuating chronic poverty. Many Homa residents receive social aid (and have done so for generations) and have a deep mistrust towards all institutions. Residents harbour anger against the very organizations and systems that could help them, including government, police, and church.
For this reason, we never call Hochma an organization. Our mission statement, translated from French, reads: “We desire to establish an innovative community that pursues reconciliation, through Jesus Christ, with God, others, and ourselves in the neighbourhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve. We are a community rooted in discipleship and mission, oriented to the re-establishment of human dignity for the most marginalized of the neighbourhood.”
We started a weekly Bible study with people in our immediate neighbourhood; our focus is on the parables of Jesus and the spiritual practices of the Christian life. We have regular conversations in local coffee shops on the weekends. During last year’s Christmas season, 55 people came to a party we organized.
We also launched an economic development project that encourages neighbours to share their resources with each other – everything from lawn mowers to babysitters. With a Montreal-based Christian organization, we started a network with all Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations to explore ways the church can reconnect with its local milieu.
God’s heart beats for the poor. God’s people are his representatives called to proclaim, with love, the reconciliation that our culture often rejects because of its anti-institutional bias. We want to offer this reconciliation to our neighbours, through the practical wisdom of God in Jesus Christ.