I live in the inner city of Winnipeg. I have now for almost seven years. Living in the area there are certain sounds you get used to, one of them being the sounds of sirens. Last night, the heat and humidity were combining to make sleep a difficult task, when at around 3 o’clock I was furthered jolted awake by the sounds of sirens. I knew something serious must be happening because the sirens were a combination of police, fire and ambulance.
This morning I woke up to the news that the event the emergency services personnel were responding to was one of a series of stabbings that took place in Winnipeg last night. At around the same time I was made aware of the following blog post from Siloam Mission. While to some these events may seem unconnected, I believe that much of the answer to dealing with the violence talked about in the CTV story can be found in the post from Siloam Mission.
As much as anything else, the news of the stabbings should remind us that although, as has been reported on, and trumpeted in the news the last several days, we are seeing a resurgence in parts of our downtown, these resurgences are not in and of themselves going to solve the problems with violence, poverty, and homelessness in our city. New money, in and of itself will not drive fear out of the downtown and surrounding areas. I am not in any way trying to be anti-development here, I think the recent announcements regarding downtown Winnipeg are, in the overall, good for the city.
People often ask me if I am ever scared living downtown, and I say no. Are there times when I feel I need to be more cautious than others? Certainly. Being oblivious to the possibility that harm can come to me leaves me more open to harm than being aware of my surroundings, but the fact remains that when I am out in the neighbourhood after dark, I’m more likely to run into parents out trying to soothe a crying child than I am a bunch of hoodlums trying to jump me.
Which brings me back to Sue Haney’s story about working at Siloam Mission. The key for her to overcoming her fear, was simply to come down and be involved. It was through this that she was able to get to know the patrons of Siloam Mission as people and not simply as people in need of our help, people to be targeted by programs and events. The simplest way to do this is take the time to venture into these neighbourhoods that are the objects of our fear. This doesn’t mean that everyone should needs to head down to the West or North Ends of the city for a midnight stroll. Perhaps start by going for lunch at one of the many fine Vietnamese restaurants that populate the area between Memorial and Arlington, or finding some of the traditional Ukrainian restaurants that populate the city’s North End. Perhaps, the next time you’re down in the Exchange area, you can head northwest into the Centennial neighbourhood, and try a simple exercise such as smiling and saying hello to the people you pass on the street. Not everyone will smile and say hello back, but I think you’ll be surprised at how many do.
Now, as a member of the Church, capitalized because I’m referring to all those who make up the body of Christ regardless of denominational affiliation, I have to say that we who call ourselves Christians have for many years done a very poor job of this. Yes, there have always been those who have been willing to make sacrifices necessary to live and work in the inner city, but by and large over the last few decades as the neighbourhoods they were in fell into decline the churches have fled the inner city for the comforts of suburban life with its promise of air-condtioned gymnasiums and spacious parking lots.
Fortunately, while many churches still pursue this vision of being the body of Christ, increasingly churches are starting to once again look towards caring for the least among them. Churches such as Grant Memorial Baptist, Winnipeg Evangelical Free, St Aidan, are all supporting people who are moving back into the inner city. These aren’t simply people offering a “join our church and will help you” kind of ethic, but people who, in many cases are sending their kids to the local public school, who are involved in the local neighbourhood associations, and community clubs. In short, they are people who are becoming part of the community.
Of course this doesn’t include the many who are part of churches that are already part of the inner city. Some of these are large, but many of them are smaller groups trying to live out a life and care and compassion without having the resources available to carry out large, exciting programs. People who realize that the call to discipleship is defined not by success measured in the number of people in the church but by success measured in commitment to the well-being, physical, economic, mental, and spiritual of the people living around you.(This measure of success might also work better for churches engaging the world around them in the suburban context).
This isn’t the only positive sign among churches. For several years, a group of churches in Winnipeg has gotten together for what is known as Love Winnipeg. Love Winnipeg is designed to allow churches to perform random acts of kindness for the people of Winnipeg. Among the various parts of the Love Winnipeg activities is its Love the Core, a week of events in various parts of Winnipeg’s inner city. This is good as far as it goes, but the problem is it doesn’t go far enough. As the stabbings in Winnipeg indicate, the problems in Winnipeg’s inner city aren’t limited to a couple of weeks in June. Love Winnipeg has done well in establishing credibility for the churches as organizations and groups that are concerned about more than building up their own numbers, but there is more that can be done.
As I stated earlier, there are already many churches that are working in the inner city, and have been for decades. I invite the churches of Love Winnipeg, some of whom have already connected with the inner city churches in long-term partnerships, to rethink their approach to loving the city, particularly the inner city. Instead of events focused over a month, I challenge these churches to get involved in partnerships that are measured in years. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, but when wheels are joined together, they can become a vehicle capable of driving change.
Part of this will only be accomplished as member of congregations are willing to address their fears. It’s a lot easier to be fearless when you enter an area in the company of twenty or thirty other like-minded people, it’s less so when you are working with only one of two others and are immersed in a crowd of twenty or thirty. Yet we also need to remember the words of 1 John 4:18, “Perfect love casts out fear.”
This may seem like a rather simple response to the violence in our city, but we must remember that most complicated problems consist of a variety of simple problems, and each time we remove one of those, we come closer and closer to unraveling the complex ones. Plus, the partnerships I’m referring to are not merely about setting up another drop in center. They could be partnerships aimed at providing affordable, safe housing. Partnerships could be designed to create work apprenticeship programs. Programs such as the “Just Growing” program sponsored by A Rocha and run out St. Margaret’s could be expanded.
Nor, if you are reading this and thinking to yourself, well I am not part of a church and have no real desire to be, does that mean you can’t help build safer neighbourhoods. Organizations like the Spence and Daniel McIntyre Neighbourhood Associations, to use the examples closest to where I live, are doing their best with limited resources to help transform their neighourhoods, and could use the resources of a few extra volunteers, or people willing to advocate on behalf of their neighbourhoods as much as the churches need such help.
While there are many underlying issues that need to be addressed, the fact the remains when people meet people as people and not as them or the others, big steps will be taken to end the violence in our neighbourhoods.