by Sam Watts
From the tribe of Issachar, there were 200 leaders of the tribe with their relatives. All these men understood the signs of the times and knew the best course for Israel to take.
—1 Chronicles 12:32 (NLT)
It’s usually not a good idea to highlight an obscure reference from the Old Testament and ask readers to draw a parallel to North America in the 21st century. The point of using this passage is to highlight the principle that our course of action will be better informed when we have a clear understanding of the signs of the times. This kind of understanding is not rooted in nostalgia or a rose-colored view of the past. It isn’t about wishful thinking for the future. It’s anchored in reality.
The leaders of Issachar were not in control of the times, but they appear to have had a strong sense of how to respond to the realities they faced. In the U.S. and Canada, we can’t expect to enjoy a favorable operating environment. An unfavorable situation frequently provides new opportunities that could never be envisioned without a reversal or a crisis.
Those who work in rehabilitation or recovery settings sometimes have to urge program participants to recognize the realities they face. If we are genuinely interested in serving the disadvantaged and vulnerable, we must recognize changing times, changing landscapes, and changing ecosystems. When we do this, we can identify wise ways of responding. This will allow us to take the best course and, as a result, our ministries will thrive.
It’s not necessarily a major calamity if we encounter changes in politics or policy that we perceive as unfavorable. This shouldn’t shock or dismay us. In some North American settings, the organizations that we represent may have very little influence in public policy. Canadians have discovered that this is not cataclysmic. The prevailing currents will change from time to time, and we have discovered that there are advantages to be found in the face of any kind of adversity.
If, like the leaders of Issachar, we are seeking to understand the times, we will invest our energy intelligently and develop ways to navigate through. But if we misunderstand the times, we will spend time and energy on the wrong things, and our ability to serve those who need us will be diminished.
Canadian ministries have been operating in a secular environment for many years. As a general statement, religion in Canada is considered a private matter and, in many areas of the country, anything that looks like proselytizing in the public space is off-limits. Importantly, the overall political and social environment in Canada is considerably different from province to province, just as it is from region to region in the U.S. Yet many long-standing, faith-influenced, Canadian missions are thriving.
On the West coast in Vancouver, Union Gospel Mission has grown to become one of the largest and most respected organizations in British Columbia. In the East, in French-speaking Montreal, Welcome Hall Mission/Mission Bon Accueil is a leader in both food security and housing. It has become the city’s reference point for community services while developing a number of service-delivery partnerships with the local hospital network to offer mental health and rehabilitation services to vulnerable people. These are only two of many examples; they’re not limited to larger organizations.
Canadian ministries have been operating in a secular environment for many years. As a general statement, religion in Canada is considered a private matter and, in many areas of the country, anything that looks like proselytizing in the public space is off-limits.
Canadians don’t have a single service model or approach to mission. Like the almost-300 American members of Citygate Network, the 12 Canadian members are quite diverse. Some missions function as a church home for the unchurched, others as independent parachurch ministries, and others as faith-influenced, urban health-care organizations. Most are active in addressing homelessness, hunger, poverty, and other complex social issues.
Homelessness has persisted in many Canadian cities despite efforts to address it and the existence of a well-developed safety net that addresses the needs of the disadvantaged. Statistics Canada data indicates that the number of Canadians living in poverty shrunk from 4.2 million in 2015 to 3.2 mil.lion in 2018. There’s room for debate with regard to how poverty is measured, but it’s clear that—given the relative wealth of the country—too many Canadians live below the defined poverty line. By comparison, the U.S. has seen a similar decline in poverty during the same time period; however, the poverty rate is about one percent higher than Canada’s, using similar methods of measurement.
What do Canadians do differently? For one, most Canadians steer clear of divisive debates on issues that are not directly related to the services they are providing. This means that they don’t feel the need to put a stake in the ground every time an issue emerges that touches their beliefs. Another thing that they do is actively affirm those in positions of authority. A Canadian CEO may not subscribe to the platform of a specific politician, but it’s im.portant to acknowledge that politicians who hold elected office have a responsibility to frame policy for the delivery of services to the disadvantaged.
The best approach, rather than fight with them, is to identify how to operate in harmony with them—regardless of the contexts they provide. Canadians typically believe that they influence government policy makers best when they align themselves with outcomes, rather than argue about methodologies.
If a more in-depth analysis were conducted, the principal common thread in Canada is that the members of Citygate Network are perceived as innovators in their respective communities. Canadian urban ministries seem to be unafraid to break out of the typical mold of providing meals or emergency shelter. Given the relatively small population of the country and the diversity of its regions, Canadians study best practices globally and find ways to adapt them locally. Almost every CEO of a Canadian mission has travelled abroad and studied a variety of service models in cities around the world. This is increasingly important, particularly in the context of the global pandemic that will likely impact how needs of disadvantaged people will be addressed. Historical practices may be subject to significant changes as a post-pandemic reality emerges.
An innovation, or innovative practice, is not necessarily a new service or program. It could be a minor difference in the approach to a challenge that captures a community’s attention. Innovation comes from fostering an environment where it’s okay to question long-held assumptions. An innovative approach could include the time-consuming and complex process of forming long-term partnerships with medical service providers, or it can be as simple as shifting internal resources to quickly respond to an emerging need. Innovators are not merely doing unusual things or running pilot projects; innovative missions tend to exude curiosity and creativity. Some would contend that innovation is developed at a molecular level or embedded into an organization’s DNA.
Most Canadians steer clear of divisive debates on issues that are not directly related to the services they are providing. This means that they don’t feel the need to put a stake in the ground every time an issue emerges that touches their beliefs.
Winnipeg’s Union Gospel Mission (UGM Winnipeg) typically provides around 1,000 sponsorships each year so children can attend summer camp. On its own, sending kids to camp is a mainstream activity that many missions pursue. However, Winnipeg has a large, economically disadvantaged, urban, indigenous population, and the majority of the children that UGM Winnipeg reaches are from that community. According to the Homeless Hub, 50 percent of the people experiencing homelessness in Winnipeg are indigenous. Poverty and incarceration rates are disproportionate. The efforts of UGM Winnipeg are aimed at changing the trajectory of young lives.
If a more in-depth analysis were conducted, the principal common thread in Canada is that the members of Citygate Network are perceived as innovators in their respective communities.
Just north of Toronto in Brampton, Regeneration Outreach Community began as a “living room for those without a living room.” Regeneration has never offered overnight emergency shelter but has focused its energy on helping people in that community regain their dignity and independence.
This model of service bypasses the more traditional “shelter and soup kitchen” system that has caused emergency facilities in some North American cities to become final destinations, rather than pit stops on a path toward wholeness.
Edmonton’s Hope Mission, is the largest provider of meals and shelter to people experiencing homelessness in this city of more than one million people. The team also works with a network of partners to operate a fleet of converted ambulances as crisis-diversion units, to reduce the first-response pressures that police and firefighters face regularly. This service ensures that non-emergency situations are addressed quickly, and it complements the mission’s 24/7 shelter services.
Innovators are not merely doing unusual things or running pilot projects; innovative missions tend to exude curiosity and creativity. Some would contend that innovation is developed at a molecular level or embedded in an organization’s DNA.
In Toronto, The Scott Mission demonstrated its flexibility in 2020 by pivoting in the management of its youth ministries. The dynamic team of youth counselors were able to mentor and support students by developing online programs such as budgeting, cooking, music lessons, and Bible study. They wanted each young person to feel cared for during the pandemic, even if gatherings and events were not possible.
In Halifax, at Michelle Porter’s fast-growing Souls Harbour RESCUE Mission, the team is working on a partnership with the government that could launch two different projects to provide supportive housing for women in need. It also plans to launch an online option for its thrift store.
Montreal, Canada’s second largest metropolis, has been the home of Welcome Hall Mission since 1892. It’s the largest community-based organization serving the disadvantaged in that city. The mission was a pioneer in combining forces with three other local organizations to launch and manage the largest supportive housing program in Canada—and it has an 89 percent success rate for maintaining people in housing. In 2017 it transformed its food bank by opening two innovative grocery stores with free, fresh, healthy food and a dignified grocery shopping experience for more than 3,000 people weekly.
In Vancouver, Union Gospel Mission’s (UGM Vancouver) headquarters is located in the middle of one of the most challenging areas in Canada— the Lower East Side. More than 160 fatal drug overdoses occurred in the neighborhood in 2019. UGM Vancouver is responding to the needs on its doorstep with a wide variety of innovative services. Recognizing that women with children had specific unmet needs, UGM Vancouver is in the process of building a new seven-story Women and Families Centre for women and children to heal, stabilize, and become equipped for long-term recovery.
Canadians have big dreams. They aim to transform their communities. They don’t rely on having a favorable political climate because they have learned how to cultivate government and community support by being excellent in their clinical practices.
In the picturesque Okanagan Valley, Kelowna Gospel Mission Society aims to put an end to homelessness in that community of 142,000 people, and it is actively partnering with other service providers to do so. Executive Director Carmen Rempel says, “We rigorously hold ourselves accountable to big dreams and ambitious goals. By the grace of God, we go.”
Carmen’s words are a fitting conclusion to this very brief overview of Citygate Network’s Northern Lights district. Canadians have big dreams. They aim to transform their communities. They don’t rely on having a favorable political climate because they have learned how to cultivate government and community support by being excellent in their clinical practices. In fact, most Canadian missions would say that they have an obligation to be the very best at what they do. Their environments may be different compared to most parts of the U.S. or many European countries, but they’re learning to adjust their sails to catch whatever wind is blowing.
In the end, don’t we all want to be people who, like the leaders of Issachar, understand the signs of the times so that we continue to actively seek the welfare of the cities (Jeremiah 29:7) where God has placed us?
Sam is CEO/executive director of Mission Bon Accueil/Welcome Hall Mission in Montreal, Quebec—one of the largest organizations of its kind in Canada. For 14 years he was an independent performance improvement consultant for large and medium-sized enterprises. He’s also an author and speaker, and a member of the Citygate Network board.
Take a virtual tour of Welcome Hall Mission at citygatenetwork.org/virtualtour.
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This article originally appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of INSTIGATE magazine. © Citygate Network, All rights reserved. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org for additional permissions.