The amount of people experiencing homelessness in Moncton, NB has grown, giving a downtown church the opportunity to 'love thy neighbour'.
From August 28 until September 5, St. George's Anglican Church in Moncton, NB, hosted a group of people experiencing homelessness on their side lawn, while working with local centres to connect people with resources.
After much prayer and thought, the church had 14 people sign a letter stating they would respect the property while on it. They ended up with 15-20 people for the week, and even then, some people stayed for an additional day and a half.
A priest and rector at St. George's, Rev. Chris Vanbuskirk, was apart of the decision-making process when the need first arose.
"St. George's is in downtown Moncton. In the last few years, the homeless population has increased. There are a lot of services in some respects, in others not. We have a lot of folks who've begun to come in from other Maritime cities," he says.
"We've always had a lot of activity in the back of our property and a lot of things going on at night. This spring was fairly difficult and we ended up, reluctantly, calling the police a number of times. After that, we had a little bit of a reprieve and then we had three people move into the back area."
Rev. Vanbuskirk mentions that there was no damage to property with the people who situated themselves in the back of the church.
"They were very respectful. We have a vegetable garden on the side lawn and they were helping water that. They picked up their garbage."
After a week went by, more people had joined the few that were there, until they fully blocked the back lane. It was also confirmed that one of the women was six months pregnant. That's when Rev. Vanbuskirk made a decision.
"I went home, thought about it, prayed about it, and talked to my wife about it. We talked as a staff and the next day we asked them to sign a paper to register."
Instead of simply asking the people to leave, the church allowed the group to stay for a week, moving their tents and belongings to the lawn beside the church, away from the back.
He says, "We said to ourselves, we think we need to listen more about what's really going on here. It seemed too easy to simply move these people along."
The paper agreement included simple common courtesies like 'Please be respectful', 'pick up your garbage', etc.
It also stated that anyone signing it was free to use the church's washroom, shower, and telephone from 9:00 am until 12:00 pm every day, as well as do laundry. The last point says, "We would be glad to talk, listen or provide whatever help we can to assist you in your search for housing or in obtaining identification."
In total he had 14 people sign the agreement and move their belongings.
"As the week went on, it was clear that drugs are a big issue for this group. That doesn't mean that the whole homeless population struggles with this, but it was true for this particular group."
Rev. Vanbuskirk says it was crystal methamphetamine.
As to the church's response of hosting people on their side lawn, he says, "This did kind of put the homeless situation front and centre, although you don't have to look far to see folks sleeping everywhere. There were some complaints lodged."
Over the week, the church connected with local resource centres to offer care.
"Various resource groups came in. That was good for the folks here. Over COVID we hadn't been communicating as we usually do. By the grace of God it helped reignite some communication between helping agencies."
Before sending people off on the last day of the agreement, the church cooked and shared breakfast with everyone.
"On the last day, we had bacon and eggs. We had a nurse from our Parish here, we had the YMCA reconnect staff here and a lot of donations that had been dropped off."
While the church asked people to move on from their property, it wasn't the end of their relationship.
"We told them we want to stay in touch, please come back, come anytime. You know phone, shower, laundry, bathroom and some of them have."
Rev. Vanbuskirk believes this is an ongoing issue that needs addressing.
"I don't think anything is just up to the government. We all need to wrestle with this. I think the church has a real opportunity to engage on that level."
St. George's church is hosting an upcoming meeting for any members who want to engage in a ministry of presence with those facing tough issues like drug addiction or homelessness.
"When Jesus said, 'Love your neighbour', He didn't define love and He didn't define neighbour. Our reference points are the Good Samaritan and the whole love thing, we have got to go to the cross."