Inner-city volunteering: don’t start from scratch

B.C. churches explore ways to help

What’s the most constant need in inner-city work? It’s not necessarily sandwiches. “It’s socks,” says Deb Lowell, a front-line Salvation Army worker. Speaking to B.C. Mennonite Brethren leaders at Columbia Bible College in Abbotsford, Feb. 23 and 24, Lowell said front-line work isn’t as simple as it may seem. One must temper compassion with knowledge – often learned the hard way.

Lowell was one of t he panel ists on homelessness and working with the disadvantaged. The presentation opened this year’s ChurchWorks training day for B.C. MB pastors, administrators, and lay leaders. “It’s a topic that needs exposure,” said B.C. conference administrator Marilyn Hiebert. “Many churches are looking at ways they can help.”

To be effective, leaders were told, volunteers need to cooperate and learn from each other. Mitch Burrows, pastor of Abbotsford Christian Assembly, said, “We used to use food vouchers and then moved to operating our own small food bank.” They found that people in need often just tried to cash the vouchers in.

Abbotsford police veteran Denys Scully said, “You try to study the innercity problem as a set of issues to solve. But you know you can’t eliminate the problem, you can only reduce it. The best successes come with cooperative effort.”

Scully described how homelessness, poverty, and substance abuse take over an area. Abbotsford’s “tipping point” was probably no different from most other towns and cities in Canada, said Scully. First, businesses and residents, who had once thrived in the core area, moved away to new neighbourhoods. That’s when the “illegitimate users” started fill the vacuum downtown. The empty stores, now cheap to rent, became the pawnshops and second-hand stores usually associated with rundown districts. Police agencies know the pattern well.

People who lived outside the area then came in to help the disadvantaged new residents, but some of them would inadvertently draw in more needy people, deepening the problem. “Handing out sandwiches attracts people to the area. We call it a movement predictor,” Scully said. “You can expect people to move in to where there is help.”

Lowell said it’s wonderful when a church wants to help, but it shouldn’t act on it s own. It c a n send in a busload of volunteers, she said, “but when the bus leaves, the area people stay,” and the neighbourhood is no better off. “You have to be good neig hbou rs. We who minister also have a responsibility to the businesses and residents of the area for the people left behind.”

Korky Neufeld of Abbotsford ’s Meeting Place said help comes not only on the front-line. Prevention is a major area of concern. “Work with the schools,” he said. “Have breakfast available – quietly – for needy kids. Sponsor high-risk children for summer school, as much to keep them away from bad influences in idle times as to educate them.”

“Sponsor kids to summer camp,” added Lowell. “You are only limited by your imagination!”

—Barrie McMaster

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