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The Word became flesh and moved into the patch

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At the Ontario MB convention last February, board of church extension (BOCE) director Terry Wiseman introduced an exceptional new venture called MoveIn and two university students living that vision in Lowertown, Ottawa. In October, MB Herald assistant editor Karla Braun travelled to Toronto to meet some of the ordinary young people who have accepted the call to live incarnationally in neighbourhoods they might otherwise avoid.

Two sets of bunkbeds crowd each of the three bedrooms in an East Toronto highrise apartment, dubbed “the DC” (discipleship centre) by the five guys who currently live there. Their living room is furnished Middle Eastern-style with beautiful Oriental rugs, cushions scavenged from the trash lockup outside, and a coffee table rejected from Grandma’s house. These young people have Moved In. And there’s room for more.

What are they up to?

“It isn’t a program or a project,” says Paul,* MoveIn’s founder. “It’s not some experience,
then you go back to your normal lives. MoveIn is our new lives.”

MoveIn is about prayer and obedience to the voice of God. It’s about more than just meeting your neighbours; it’s about reaching those who are getting missed.

MoveIn is officially supported by three denominations, the Mennonite Brethren, Vision Ministries, and Associated Gospel Church, and has close ties with mission organizations Frontiers and Operation Mobilisation, and with Toronto’s The Peoples Church. Most MoveIn-ers remain connected to their various churches of origin, and several Toronto-area agencies support MoveIn through the participation of their constituents, including Tyndale University College and Seminary, Sanctuary Ministries, and The Scott Mission.

Who came up with the idea?

Several individuals were already living in or planning to move to “less desirable” communities with the intent of developing relationships through natural encounters when Paul, a young church planter mentored by OM founder George Verwer and BOCE director Wiseman, brought them together. Inspired by time he spent with the 614 church plant team, Paul presented his vision of “a movement of prayer and presence into communities of immense need,” and MoveIn was born.

The definition of “immense need” is fluid, but MoveIn prioritizes communities whose members come from the least reached nations in the world. It also rewards lower-than-average household incomes, poverty of social services, and high population density. Researched and ranked neighbourhood profiles help MoveIners to be “strategic and organized,” Paul says, “rather than just full of youthful zeal.”

A mobilization conference at The Peoples Church in Toronto in May 2009 introduced hundreds to the challenge of following in Jesus’ footsteps by “moving into the neighbourhood” (John 1:14, The Message). Profiles of 32 neighbourhoods, or “patches,” called for willing Christians to take up the adventure. The only requirements: 1) you must actually relocate to a patch, 2) you must meet with a team at least once a week for prayer.

Officially launched less than a year ago and already grown from two teams to 14 in Toronto, with emerging teams in Ottawa, Brampton, and Hamilton, it sounds incongruous when MoveIn-ers say they’re “trying to stay small, not grow too fast.”

So, you just live there and pray?

“Prayer is the starting point as well as the ending point,” says a Flemingdon Park team member. It helps clarify focus as a group, builds friendships with team members, is a source of love and encouragement, but most importantly, is “the key to capturing God’s heart. When you pray, it’s clear what to do next.” MoveIn teams are encouraged to focus outward – looking past their own needs to those of the community and beyond, to social, political, and spiritual concerns outside Canada’s borders, particularly to the unreached in the 10/40 window.

“It’s not about us experiencing God; it’s about people who need God,” says Paul. He bemoans the inward focus found even in mission work today, and holds up prayer as MoveIn’s antidote to self-feeding intentional community and addiction to spiritual highs.

“I can attest the day after our prayer meeting is the most amazing day in the community,” says a Moss Park MoveIn-er.

The East Toronto team was praying for a young gang member the night he was shot – and miraculously escaped with minor injury. After the incident, some in the community said the young man deserved it, but concerted prayer helped the MoveIn-ers respond in unity, believing God saved the young man for a purpose.

“Family and friends think it’s crazy and dangerous,” says one MoveIn-er. But prayer changes parents, too, another believes.

“It’s a kingdom experiment, there’s no template,” says Dean, a career man and a leader in the “Flemo” (Flemingdon Park) multi-team network. MoveIn is contextualized down to particular buildings, and there are no rules to follow. There’s freedom to fail and no point to playing it safe. He says it’s exciting to see “nominal Christians wake up from slumber, open their eyes, and say ‘so this is what Christianity is supposed to be about’.”

What else do you do?

MoveIn-ers seize any opportunities presented. A soccer-loving Bible college student joins a self-organized soccer league of immigrant children and youth. A young mother goes for walks in the neighbourhood to meet other mothers. A smile in an elevator turns into an invitation to come over for tea. A cup of juice opens an avenue of conversation with a homeless man.

The physical act of relocating makes housewarming parties – inviting new neighbours, not old friends – natural opportunities to meet people and welcome them into the home. Yearly community gatherings, the last vestige of the “utopian” neighbourhoods several of the patch’s highrise complexes were meant to be, allow MoveIn-ers to meet people and learn about needs.

An architecture student of Irani parentage says his knowledge of Farsi is “literally door opening” with many Afghani immigrants in his highrise home. “You knock on doors, people are wary; they hear a bit of Farsi and the door swings wide open,” he says with humble excitement.

“The ethos of MoveIn is life,” says Dean. Eric from Flemo says MoveIn is about seeing lives transformed. “We’re not going to see converts through great conversation and handing out tracts,” he says, “unless they see something in us they want.”

But don’t you stick out?

Nearly all the MoveIn teams formed in Toronto thus far are interracial, but the adjectives middle-class, suburban, and white apply to many MoveIn-ers – setting them apart in neighbourhoods where upwards of 70 percent visible minority turns the tables on who actually dominates the numbers. In some cases, the obvious disparity is a conversation starter. In others, it’s cause for suspicion. MoveIn-ers have been pegged as police, undercover agents, or even drug dealers.

Asked point-blank how he deals with being a cocky white college student in a neighbourhood of immigrants and people on government assistance, a young man from “the DC” responds, “I can’t control how other people act, but I have to have a disposition, a heart, of humility.”

“We’re not better; we’re part of this [patch],” responds Isabelle from Flemo.

A youth pastor and urban mission worker recognized the value of having moved into the Flemo patch each time he stepped into the blood-stained elevator in the aftermath of a shooting. As a member of the community, not a social worker who would go home to a “safe” neighbourhood at the end of the day, he was now part of the “us” shaken by the violence.

But it’s not easy to stay focused. “You always have to reorganize your priorities toward family and friends,” says Michelle from the Moss Park patch. While MoveIn-ers are expected to keep their regular jobs and to remain involved in a church, they’re encouraged not to develop too many commitments that will eat into time available for spontaneous relationship building.

Why select patches and form teams?

With the numbers of Muslims in Canada set to double every 10 years, Christians must realize that engaging Muslims and Hindus in our neighbourhoods is the new norm in Canada. MoveIn is on the front lines, intentionally living among the poor, marginalized, disadvantaged, and the unreached.

“When things get intensely local, it can become myopic,” cautions Dean. MoveIn can be a launching pad for mission, particularly in Toronto patches, where a high percentage of residents originate in unreached nations. Cultural and language boundaries exist, but living next door (without leaving Canada) is a step toward removing the barriers of “us” and “them.”

MoveIn is “fundamentally a prayer movement – you listen to God and just do it.” But it’s not a care group; prayer is for the people next door, and communities around the world. MoveIn-ers trust the wisdom to speak the right words into unfamiliar cultural or socio-economic contexts, the creativity to engage with strangers, and the courage to obey God’s call will be available as they meet God in prayer.

So give me an example of a patch

Flemingdon Park – proposed by city planners in 1958 as an apartment city – is remarkable for its volume of people, at a density equal to 15,627 people per square kilometre compared with Toronto’s 866 per square kilometre average. But underneath the surface is a downward spiral of drugs, gangs, and poverty which resists all the efforts of governmental and non-profit agencies to turn the trend around, even as greater changes loom (including construction of a museum of Muslim art and an Islamic university on nearby industrial land). The city of Toronto and the United Way have identified it as one of 13 neighbourhoods facing the greatest need.

Politicians say everything humanly speaking is being done to turn Flemingdon Park around and shake their heads over why nothing’s working, says Dean. “There are fundamentally things going on here in the spiritual realm; only Christ can bring change. We pray that whatever happens here through the Spirit will not be written off as youthful activists.”

Flemingdon Park has several teams, due both to the patch’s size and participation. After the conference in May, the team ballooned from six “moved-in” individuals to more than 20 people, so three smaller teams were formed.

And examples of MoveIn-ers?

Flemo: Isabelle was just looking for a roommate in Toronto, not a life’s mission, when she emailed Paul because “he knows everyone.” She wasn’t interested in hearing his spiel about MoveIn, but gradually, “God convicted me that the only reason I wasn’t interested is that I wouldn’t have time for my friends.” She moved in more than a year ago.

“Our outlook in life is sending down roots,” say Stuart and Anne, a young family who purchased a townhouse in Flemo one year ago. “We’re here until the Lord calls us elsewhere,” says Stuart, and Anne adds, “wherever we go, this is what we should be doing.”

East Toronto: This team is unique in its intention to plant an MB church in the neighbourhood. To that end, they regularly engage in evangelistic activities like going door-to-door. “Old-school as it is, it’s possibly the only way to find the people who have no friends, in dire circumstances and no one knows, are extremely lonely, are very shy,” says Paul. They arrive at those doors with a Tim Horton’s gift card – a Canadian equivalent to a cup of cold water.

Moss Park: Three young women may seem an odd team for a neighbourhood plagued by male homelessness, but “you get called to a specific patch, and God equips you for that,” says Michelle.

Crescent Town: “It’s a shift in our living style, but it’s not a shift in what we were doing.” A couple on the other side of middle-age, Charles and Sharon don’t fit the typical MoveIn profile. But “we’re committed for a minimum of 10 years – unless God calls us elsewhere,” says Charles. “Even if there weren’t a movement, we would be doing it, but it’s nice that it’s not just us.”

What’s next?

Paul hopes the vision spreads, and that Christian young people across Canada will be inspired to join this targeted approach to intentional location and incarnational living. “We believe there are as many as 1,000 qualifiable patches in Canada,” says Paul.

In some 40 years of working with young people, J.R. Mott, founder of the Student Christian Movement, said he never regretted entrusting massive responsibilities to students. MoveIn is targeted at exactly those young people, who are still able to change the trajectory of their lives, to mould it to spending their lives on God’s heart for the nations, and for the marginalized.

“Step out in faith,” urges a teen member and life-long resident of Flemingdon Park. She has grown through her involvement in the prayer meetings from a shy girl to a confident young woman with a sense of purpose. “You might think you’re the only person,” she says, “but someone else might share the vision and feel too shy to act.”

God is constantly inviting us to be transformed, says MoveIn-er Dean. “The great secret of the kingdom is that that’s how we’re changed – when God uses us.”

Karla Braun

For more information, visit www.movein.to.

*All names have been changed at the request of participants, who wish to remain unrecognized.

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