Together at a Distance

St. Matthew’s Maryland Community Ministry, a part of 1JustCity, builds community in partnership with individuals and families in the West End of Winnipeg. Every day we welcome people who are hurting and who are often hurting alone. We serve people experiencing homelessness or unsuitable housing, people with mental health issues and/or addictions, people who face racism and oppression, people living in social isolation, and more. All are welcome here. 

I’ve been serving here for the past five years, and in that time, I’ve seen how the programs we offer – food supports, drop-in lunch, art programs, family groups, and so much more – are not really about what they may appear to be on the surface. There is no question in my mind that, though the physical supports accessed through our programs are valuable, it is the spiritual support found therein that is the real treasure. 

Indeed, the true value of our work can be found in the construction of a community of love and support. People come to our door when they are hungry, but they stay because they find meaning. Our programs bring people together and help them to develop identities that are rooted in more than poverty and addiction. We are proud to have been facilitating this kind of transformation in our community for nearly 50 years. 

But COVID-19 has robbed us of this work – the soul of our ministry and the heart of a community. 

When COVID first hit in mid-March, there was no thought of closing our doors entirely. But we knew that things needed to change. We suspended all of our programs and asked our team of amazing volunteers to stay home and stay safe. Our staff gave up on their usual jobs and became full-time sandwich-makers and lunch sack fillers! 

Our ministry became laser-focused on providing food support, which we knew was one thing we could continue without putting our community and our staff at undue risk of contracting COVID. Instead of running our community-building programs, we passed out bagged lunches and food hampers from the door of our building. Demand for this support skyrocketed quickly and we began seeing line-ups around the block daily. The urgency of this need, coupled with the long lines (not to mention all the PPE we were wearing!) made it very difficult to connect with people in the way we are accustomed to. Instead of building community, we were operating a food line. It was important work, but it hurt to lose that deeper connection with our community. 

Without a question, our community felt that loss as well. People would linger at the door after being handed their food and try to start a conversation with us about what was going on in their lives—we would have to cut them short because of the hundred people in line behind them. Outside of our doors, we had to encourage people to stay on their social distancing markers. Don’t get too close to one another! We saw the community we had worked so hard to build being fractured before our eyes. 

One sign of great hope though was the strength and generosity with which our community bore these difficult changes. People didn’t lash out or get angry as things continued to change constantly; they demonstrated great understanding and treated each other with kindness and our staff with gentleness. To us, this was a powerful affirmation that our work truly makes a difference in this community. 

Regardless, what we’ve seen is a transition from a strong and vibrant community that gathers daily to support and love one another, to a community that lines up on the street and waits for to spend two minutes at the door to receive their lunch bag. People are lonely. They ask us every day “when will things go back to normal?” Of course, we can’t answer that. We say “soon, we hope.” People show up to our door needing one-on-one support for the myriad of traumas and pains that they are experiencing that aren’t related to COVID, and we just don’t have the time to engage with them in the way we have in the past. They have no one else to talk to… 

Still, as COVID has stretched on, the creative power of the Spirit has moved in our hearts and minds and shown us ways to keep connected. In the summer months, when case numbers were low in Manitoba, we were able to host many community BBQs and resume some of our regular programmings on a small scale. Folks were able to gather (socially distanced of course) and reconnect for a little while. At the end of the summer, we even hosted a powwow in a local park!

It was one of the few powwows that happened all summer long in Winnipeg, and it was such a joy to be able to gather and celebrate together. 

As fall came and COVID numbers rose quickly, we had to lock things down a little more again. But we have now established a winter warming fire outside of our building where we can gather, at least a few people at a time, to check-in and offer support. This too has been a joy, and it has felt really good to help people come together once again. 

At this time, we are very limited in what we can offer. We continue to pass out hundreds of lunches and food hampers weekly, we have our warming fire, and we welcome a few people at a time inside our doors if they have nowhere else to go to keep warm. (At the time of writing it is -23℃ outside!) We still see loneliness, but we also see strength and determination. Though we all feel pain over the loss of connection and the loss of the soul of this ministry, our community is holding strong and will resiliently carry on until things can go back to normal. We will continue to come together in the knowledge that during this difficult time, the community that we have all worked so hard to establish did not fall apart.

Josh Ward is the Community Minister at St. Matthews Maryland Community Ministry – a part of 1JustCity. 

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