My days are long and so lonesome. My nights are cold and sleepless…. I’m starting to give up on everything… In all my years of relationships, abusiveness is all I’ve really known… Tell me please what do I do? What do I do to have true love? How does one feel no hurt? One day I might finally know what it’s really like to have been loved.
This note came in to Street Hope as an anonymous prayer request. And although it might represent a common despair for many of the people who come through their doors, it’s also a common miracle for people to discover Christ’s love through their ministry.
I originally spoke to Greg Elford, pastor of New Heights Church, in April about the Street Hope. It is a vital outreach which feeds and cares for the homeless and needy in Mission, BC and has been running for nine years now. Greg told me Street Hope “had a simple start – just a way to love your neighbour. It naturally kept growing.”
Greg put me in touch with Shelagh Nielsen, the Co-ordinator of Street Hope, who runs the ministry in Mission and is supported by New Heights Community Church.
When I asked Shelagh to describe the program, she first wanted to make clear the values of the program, which she reiterated throughout our interview.
As Christians, we want to ease emotional pain where we find it to the best of our ability. Relationship with Christ is the healing that everybody needs. Street Hope is open for everyone who is lonely, depressed, has mental health issues, are addicts, homeless. We work under the premise that we are a family. We build family-type relationships and help people connect with their own families.
Shelagh said “We believe family happens best at meals.” Street Hope offers a free breakfast six days a week, and dinner on Tuesdays and Saturdays.
- Help people get into rehab
- Help people transition from rehab to “real life”
- Fundraise, gather donations
- Offer one-on-one counselling
- Provide emergency food banks
- Host extreme weather shelter
- Host small group with New Heights, “Street Church”
- Write letters to those in prison
- Prison visits
- Hospital visits–
–Shelagh continued to list several other ways that they reach out. I interrupted her to ask, “How can one ministry manage to do all these things?” it didn’t sound like the simple ministry Pastor Greg spoke of. She said the constant is the breakfast and dinners, that’s where you build relationships. But out of those relationships, you learn the individual needs of each person. You meet the different needs of the individual as they arise.
Shelagh described the space where they meet. “It used to be an old Greyhound/taxi dispatch back in the 30’s. The space needs renovation. The cement floor has cracks, doesn’t have a proper kitchen, can’t handle a stove, holes in ceiling… Tape up the drafts and it’s home!”
I asked about the obstacles she encounters and whether she finds them discouraging. “There are little bumps in the road. We are very adaptable. If one thing doesn’t work, another does. This ministry is run strictly by faith. If we need something somehow it works out. We are thankful for our spiritual partners, New Heights, who have given us this building.”
Shelagh herself has had a rough past. In our brief conversation, she told me plainly that she was abandoned by her mother at a young age, was the victim from abuse and rape in her childhood, has family members dealing with addictions, a son with Tourette’s Syndrome, and she was diagnosed and has been living with Multiple Sclerosis since in 1982.
Shelagh told me that although she accepted the Lord at the age of 12, it took her a long time to understand God’s love for her. She never felt worthy. She came to understand freedom in Christ through forgiveness of others and herself. This is now something she finds joy and fulfillment in passing on to the clients at the shelter. “We’re all imperfect. We’re helping them find forgiveness and truth about what forgiveness is. The first step is to go to God. ‘Please forgive me for choosing to hang onto bitterness. Forgive me for not wanting to let go. Forgive me for not trusting in your justice and mercy.’”
Shelagh’s own pain and her past give her credibility with the people she serves, but Shelagh doesn’t do it alone and has some unlikely helpers, including one woman by the name of Anne who felt strongly the call of God on her life to serve the homeless.
Pastor Greg talked about Anne as “a sweet woman who did a brave thing” and Shelagh referred to her throughout our conversation as her “God-sent partner.” Anne had lived a comfortable life, but felt a calling to reach out to the homeless. She prayed about it and then took a faith-filled ride in her car and found herself at Community Services in Mission asking if they have any place that needs extra help. Shelagh happened to be behind her and immediately recruited her for the job. They’ve been serving together for years. Anne doesn’t come from the street and doesn’t have a history like Shelagh and yet she feels it’s a place where she belongs.
There are many others to help out. There are regular volunteers who show up to serve the meals, there are those who donate food or furniture or money. There are people who pray. There are regular contributors and there are one-time donors, but always God’s meets needs and just in time.
What about the clientele? Do they feel like this is an effective ministry? If numbers don’t prove it (Shelagh said they can serve anywhere from 25-100 in a given day), the following testimonials give us a glimpse of the impact of the ministry of Street Hope, written by those who have been served by them (and I had to pick out of several testimonials simply because there isn’t enough space!).
[Hope Central] is a welcoming place of fellowship and support. Shelagh always has her phone available for those who need to call for medical, housing or employment or appointments. It is a place where you can warm up in the cold season. You are welcome to lay your head to rest to catch up on sleep; especially important for those without housing. The most important thing that happens here is its met one of our basic needs, food! I am very grateful to God and to Shelagh for Hope Central. [sic]– Tim
I am heading across Canada because I’m running away from the chaos my life just was. All I did was get high. Today is my first day sober. Please pray for my soul. God knows I need it. – Anonymous
I am pleased to say I am 19 months clean and sober and a big part of that has been the warmth and support I have received at Street Hope… Thank you from the bottom of my heart. – Keith
I find [Street Hope] is much more than a drop in centre for me, its a place [where] one can find God’s love and grace. [sic] – Tim
Me, Lisa and Chris had not eaten for 3 days when you sent us the food because we’d been refused at the mishion… I truly considered suicide, but God led us to you and I pray and thank him every day. God bless you. [sic] – Stella
I asked Shelagh, on behalf of those who might be inspired by Street Hope, what if we were to start a similar ministry in our area? Shelagh gave these suggestions:
- Trust God and let him lead. “He’s the one doing all of this. If you try to take control yourself, if something feels uncomfortable, God is telling you it’s a no.”
- Find out where the holes are. “Find out what other organizations are doing and fill in the gaps. This is not a competition. Everyone can help each other out. Ask, what can I do to build it and make it better?”
- Building relationships is key. “Do this by offering acceptance and do it lovingly.” There are certain ground rules Shelagh has implemented, such as “If it has to be said, there’s a nice way to say it. If there isn’t a nice way to say it, then it doesn’t need to be said. Everybody knows what a difference a smile can make. Everybody has bad days when everybody’s being gnarly to us. Someone can come along and give us a smile and it makes a world of difference for the whole day.”
- Know the culture you’re working with. Shelagh and her crew serve First Nations people and have learned that certain groups do not want to make eye contact. It is difficult to have a conversation, even though they want to talk. They’ve discovered that they can have conversations while putting together a puzzle because it takes away the tension. Shelagh has lots of stories about taking time to learn the small things about the culture she’s serving, which makes all the difference in building relationships.
Even as I write about Street Hope, I am aware that my words cannot do justice to the amazing ministry that is happening there. I was deeply moved by Shelagh’s willingness to serve others, despite all the obstacles she faces. There is undeniable evidence of God’s grace in her life and those around her testify to it. I was inspired by the dedication of the volunteers and the testimonies of those who have been served. I was personally challenged to simply show the love of Jesus to those who cross my path each day. I may never know where it leads.