Street Ministry in New Westminster, BC


Street Ministry in New Westminster, BC

I had always thought to myself that when I retired as a priest, I would work on the streets with the homeless and addicted. It is the type of work our Founder of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate did. It seems that these are the poorest of the poor that he would go to. I knew my niece and her family in Victoria had been cooking, visiting and feeding the folks there in tent city for a few years. They were an inspiration to me to get started!

Then Covid hit! After a couple of months, I thought to myself that if I waited for COVID-19 to be over to start street ministry, it would take a while! So, I went to the Dollar Tree, where everything was $1.25. At first, I paid for it all myself; now, donations have come in from St. Peter’s parish members. I bought essentials like toilet tissue and wet wipes and added chocolate bars, chips and cookies. I went to Walmart, got cheaper but tasty sliced beef, turkey meat, etc., and made big bun sandwiches. During the summer, I added cold drinks in juice boxes or took a thermos of cold beverages and poured them into paper cups. In the winter months, it was hot chocolate. Lately, my landlord’s mother donated a case of canned chicken soup, which is very popular in these cooler, rainy, and snowy Vancouver winter months: a cup of hot chicken soup!

At first, I wore gloves and a mask; the gloves were the first to go. I then cleaned my hands in the car with wet wipes and bleach.  After I passed everything out to them, I would use the excuse of saying grace before they ate. Only two men have walked away during these two and a half years, not wanting to be a part of it. We prayed as a group for them. Everyone is always so humble, bowing their heads as I ask them to give their hearts & sins to God. I remind them they are God’s sons and daughters; nothing life throws at them can change that!

I pray for peace in their hearts and minds over broken families left behind, which often brings a few tears. I pray that they be kept safe from any dangers on the street. Then I say that we are all God’s people, regardless of what church we may or may not have grown up in, and I give them absolution for their sins. It helps to wear a collar so they can recognize me as a priest. I tell them that they are as innocent as a newly baptized baby, at which they smile and laugh. I tell them that Jesus said he and the Father would come and live with us if we asked them! I explain that Jesus told us to use the word Abba when he taught the disciples the Our Father and that it means Dad or Daddy-God wants to be that close to us!

My prayers for them have evolved. I now pray that they have the peace and joy in their hearts that Jesus said He wanted us to have and that it be complete! I pray that it be so deep that nothing can change it or take it away from them. I always remind them that they are God’s sons and daughters. Sometimes, I talk about how Jesus said that He was preparing a place for us in heaven someday and that none of us would be forgotten. I speak about how Jesus came to this earth to make everyone equal so there would be justice and fairness for all. This always piques their interest.

I have grown over the years to learn to visit with them and talk about their living on the street. One of them once asked me where my church was. I told them I was retired; they were my church, God’s people, and my congregation. And they said to me that I was their priest. I hear this often! Some of them make fumbling efforts at the sign of the Cross & tell me they haven’t had communion for a long time! I cry inside.

I put a note in St. Peters parish, Oblate then, and with more donations, I got a volunteer named Gail. We slowly shared our stories and became God’s team! Gail comes and makes the sandwiches. Sometimes, we have a hot pancake breakfast for them with pancakes I make the day before. I also make sausages and bacon, and Gail makes the scrambled eggs when she arrives. We make six containers with plastic or wooden forks. We go out to the garage and put the six bags of essentials together from my car trunk. Then we go to downtown New West. As we get near them, we pray the Our Father and a hail Mary asking Abba and Jesus and Mary to help us find the needy people and help us be there for them in their needs.

I make a big meal at Christmas, Easter and Thanksgiving or just now and then. I reheat all the leftovers in six containers, putting them in an insulated bag to keep them hot. These are, of course, well received! I sometimes tell the street folks that I don’t think I am doing much and that my six meals don’t go far. They say they share and that I shouldn’t stop what I am doing!

There is a cul de sac where they hang out, under the SkyTrain by Gospel Union Mission. We go on Saturdays when Gospel Union, the Salvation Army, and the soup kitchens are closed.

We met a group in the summer with their loud ghetto blaster across from the SkyTrain. They had taken over a section of the street. We got to know them and gave them our bags of essentials, drinks and a pancake breakfast. There was one tough guy; I think he was their leader. He would always quietly walk away when we prayed. One day, he stayed, and after the prayers, he shook my hand and thanked me, asking me not to stop what I was doing! It seems that the truck parked there was his, and he was visiting these people and connecting with them. I think he used to live on the streets himself and was keeping in touch with them. Maybe he was their drug dealer? It doesn’t matter. Abba and Jesus helped me to get across to him!

In this group, there would often be a young man who would ask me to pray for him because he had the devil inside him. I thought right from the start that they were talking about their addiction to drugs. I would put my hand on their head and pray with them, making the sign of the Cross on their foreheads. The sense of touch is so important. I said the prayer of absolution of forgiveness of sins and then told them the devil was gone and that they were free. Their smiles said everything! I am not so naive that I think this cured their drug addictions-that would be God’s doing! I do know that for that day, they were happy once again!

I remember a kind elderly lady who would be talking out loud to herself. I believe she is one of the many mental health people who were put in halfway houses when the mental hospital closed. She was, as they say, “likely off her meds”. Yet when we approached her, she was as sane as anyone else.

One Saturday, when Gail was gone on one of her quilting retreats, I met six or seven ladies sitting in a circle under the SkyTrain. I had received a bag of ladies’ clothes from one of our retired Oblate houses. Deila had cleaned out her closet at home! I asked these ladies to carry the bag because it was too heavy for me and it was time to go shopping! They gleefully emptied the bag, trying on the clothes. I shared my bags of essentials and food with them. Then we prayed together. We often meet people under the SkyTrain in groups of two or more seeking shelter.

It has now become a custom that when one of our Oblates dies from our two retirement homes, I receive their clothes to give to the street people! How fitting this is for our Founder, St. Eugene, who made his mission and our mission to work with the poor and the rejects of church and society.

One time, I met an elderly Chinese couple living in a tent. They said they had come to Canada, could never get good jobs, and didn’t have a family. They just had each other, and they couldn’t pay the massive hike in their rent and wound up on the street. So much for our society and its inherent greed!

Last week, I met three more people living in a tent. They insisted that we hold each other while we prayed. I was humbled. Other times, only one will come out of their tent to receive the food and pray. I can only begin to imagine what they must be going through!

Last week, we also met a young man walking down the street. He was wearing a flowing pink scarf that got our attention. We introduced ourselves and told him we had a hot pancake breakfast for Him. He was surprised! I asked him what his name was, and he replied that it was ‘asshole’!  he said this several times.  He finally told us his real name, and I told him that he was a son of God and not an asshole. He began to cry. We prayed and talked with him for a while. I would think that he had been abused in whatever way for a long time. He left us still crying but with his head held high!

Recently, we were told by one of the guys on the street that a friend of his had died. He said that he died with a smile on his face, speaking about how we had fed him and prayed with him for the forgiveness of his sins and that he was now not afraid to die. What can one reply to that?

Dec./23 We met a couple who told us their tent had been slashed and broken into and his wallet stolen. We shared our hot ham scalloped potatoes meal with them and gave them two bags of our “essentials.” The lady was quick to tell us that they were not always homeless. But when the rents doubled (renovictions), though they could pay the rent, they had no money to pay utilities or food. She told us that one of their sons was killed in the same area where we were just a year ago. She mentioned this several times; it was still a raw wound. We prayed for him and their grieving. Another son is on the street, and the 3rd has a job and a place to stay. Do landlords who double their rent care about the results of their doubling rents?

We met one man under the SkyTrain who seemed to be repairing something. He was retrieving copper so he could sell it for a few dollars. He had some small bar he had likely picked up “or taken” from a construction company nearby. We shared our meal and a bag and prayed with him. He was open to telling some of his story. He was a gentle man-it seems everyone has a life before they wind up on the streets. Everyone’s time should be honoured. Gail prayed with him!

As usual, we went behind the old Army and Navy to give out the rest of our bags and meals. They have turned the basement floor, which used to be a sports department, into a shelter with cots. There were about 20 people. We had three meals and bags left. I gave the bags to one area where they were and took the remaining three meals over to the other group. One of the men pointed out the ones who were hungry and who should have the meals. They can teach us a thing or two about charity and sharing! I saw that they also shared their bags. They let us pray with them, Gail with some, and I with others. She is comfortable with them, and though I watch her for her safety, they seem to respect her after I introduce her as a volunteer. Again, in this group, some have become regulars, who know I am a retired priest with a volunteer doing this work. They are all very thankful, and I tell them we’ll be back again next week. So ends another Saturday of the Lord’s and Father St. Eugene’s Oblate Ministry!

I go home to my warm home and quilted bed while some sleep on the street and even freeze to death! What a blight on our society! I am thinking of writing a letter to our premier, who speaks of how he used to work with street people!

By Ron Rissling, OMI