Street Outreach Encounter

Allow me to divert from my traditional ‘blog’, and share an account from one of our Street Outreach teams:

Scene 1:  Rideau Street McDonalds.  We had not seen Amy for about 18 months, but there she was!  We learned she has been in Montreal since we last met, but was just back on the streets in Ottawa.  It was great to see her again, and she felt the same.

Out from the shadows emerges ‘Nain’ who struts over in a territorial, macho, ‘turf’, teenage alpha male style.  In no uncertain terms, Nain let me know who he was and who Amy was relative to him.  His nose almost touched mine as he ranted that he was a ‘real’ street guy and an Arian ‘brother’.  Not threatening really, but certainly intentional.

We talked: how we knew Amy, what OIM was, how things were going with them, and we actually got to know each other.

Scene 2: Outreach in the Market Late night Monday outreach we found Amy and Nain tucked into a door stoop, under a sleeping bag, in the Market area. Nain remembered our first encounter and was actually happy to see us.

We spent the next ½ hour with our new friends.  This time things were different.  Gone was the harsh cold superficial exterior of the teenage alpha male.  Instead we saw two young people who missed out on most childhood things because of abuse and violence in the home.  They became like kids again as they shared their childhood stories, stories that were enough to move the strongest of characters to tears.  At one point Nain made the statement “I was raised on hatred; I don’t really want to be this way”.

It was now after midnight and we had to move along: both for our outreach and so the two young people would remain ‘hidden’ in the door stoop. 

I guess it was the father in me, that made me lift their sleeping bag, give it a shake and put it back over them in the cold doorway.  I was careful to tuck in all the edges, just as I would do to my own children.

One of the most difficult things I have ever done was walk away and try to rationalize how we could leave two ‘kids’ to sleep in a doorway outside in the cold.

Scene 3:  The next Thursday night we come across Nain, Amy and a few more street friends on Rideau. We strike up a conversation ranging from the weather change to hockey, etc, and in the midst of our ‘chat’, Nain looks directly at us and says, “Thank you for tucking us in the other night”.

Our macho, teenage alpha male, Aryan ‘brother’ had been transformed into someone, who just like us, who was able to enjoy a small piece of love and understanding under a sleeping bag in a doorway on a cold Ottawa winter night. 

Reminders: 1. ‘Things on the street are not always as they initially appear, and more importantly, 2. We are genuinely humbled that we could have such a special moment and developing relationship with some young friends.  That’s what makes volunteering such a great experience.   Gregg.

Random Act of Kindness Multiplies Itself BIG time!

The Backgrounder:  OIM sponsors the 8:00 am and 5:00 pm news on a local radio station, CHRI 99.1 fm.  For one of our 60 second spots, I interviewed a young lady (we’ll call her Rachel) from our Passion for Youth art program.  In this interview, she commented on how much she enjoyed participating in the program, so much so that she says that she dosen’t even think of drugs while she is  involved in the program.  This is quite remarkable, really!

The Story:  So Rachel came to our office to get some stuff and stays a moment for a visit.  She told me this story:

Part 1:  She was panhandling on the street when a kind lady offered to buy her some supper.  She agreed and the two of them had an enjoyable time together.  She felt special because a.) she was noticed, b.) the time over a meal brought a sense of dignity, and c.) somebody actually cared.

Part 2: Two days later, this same lady comes by and Rachel is at the same spot, panhandling.  She stops and chats, one of the first questions she asked was: “Was that you that I heard on the radio?  I recognize your voice.  That was great!”

Rachel’s face beamed with joy as she answered in the affirmative. Imagine, someone recognized her!!

This is huge!  We might get a kick of being on the radio, but for Rachel, this is so much bigger.  In her part in this little story, she was recognized not just a panhandler, or even as a person who might be ‘down and out’ for the time being.  She was someone who was recognized for making a larger, positive contribution to a good cause!  Mabye even informing and influencing the way that radio listeners think about people caught in the web of poverty and homelessness.

She was radiant as she recounted this story.

It might be hard to imagine just how much of an impact this would be for someone who calls the streets their home.  Think of it for a moment:  24/7 you are struggling to survive, just trying to make it to the next day; the past continually comes before your mind: harsh words (“You are such a loser! You’ll never amount to anything!  You are worthless trash!); every imaginable form of abuse (from abusive parents and relatives, residential school system, etc); multiple foster homes; struggling to survive, and well… you fill in the gaps.

THEN someone comes up to you in the midst of your despair and darkened world and brings a burning magnesium light of hope and glory, and says, “Hey, was that you I heard on the radio?  I recognized your voice.  That was great!”

You never can know the full impact of such positive words and affirmation.  It just might be enough to change someone’s life!

Book Reviews

Chasing the Dragon by Jackie Pullinger with Andrew Quicke

Book reviewed by Ken MacLaren

chasing-the-dragonWhen Jackie Pullinger entered Hong Kong’s forgotten slum, the Walled City in the late sixties, it was Triad territory. This feared territory was known for smuggling, heroin, opium, prostitution, pornography, extortion and fear.

Here is the story of a woman, and those who joined her, who put their trust in the Lord and got down to the nitty-gritty of loving people Jesus’ way – through patience, teaching, understanding and forgiving.

The results were phenomenal! The Holy Spirit began pouring out its gifts on those seeking Christ. Suddenly, opium addicts hopelessly caught up in their vice, with no hope of escape, were freed painlessly from their addictions through praying in the Spirit. These manifestations were not limited to a few either, but poured upon the many that came and heard about how the Holy Spirit could free them from the “dragon”.

Powerful manifestations of God’s presence are told in a compelling fashion. Jackie Pullinger’s story of God’s work in the now vanquished Walled City is an example of how putting the love of Christ into action brings forth the outpouring of the Spirit, and the powerful transformation that comes through the gospel message.

A Simple Path (1995) by Mother Theresa

Book reviewed by Rudy Pohl

motherTeresaSimplePathFrom the first pages until the last, I was deeply touched by this little book by Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Here at Ottawa Innercity Ministries, Mother Teresa holds a special place in all our hearts, not only because of her amazing work among India’s poorest of the poor, but also because of her direct influence on OIM’s Director, Susan Brandt, years ago.

In 1988, while working as a public health nurse, Susan sensed a call from God to launch an outreach ministry to the discarded souls who inhabit the streets and shelters of downtown Ottawa. She had just read Something Beautiful for God, an account of how Mother Teresa of Calcutta had founded the Missionaries of Charity and ministered to thousands sick, dying and orphaned outcasts living in one of India’s most impoverished cities.

On an impulse Susan wrote to the woman who had become a world-wide symbol of Christian charity to confide her own budding sense of mission. Susan never expected to get a reply, but six months later a letter arrived with a Calcutta postmark. The brief hand-written note said:
“Dear Susan, thank you very much for letter. Do all for Jesus, with Jesus and to Jesus. God loves you very much and will reward your generous desire of giving of yourself to His poor.”
“It was signed “M Teresa MC.”

That was all the confirmation Susan needed. By June 1988 she had secured sufficient start-up funds from a coalition of local churches to start Ottawa Innercity Ministries together with friend and co-worker Katrine Coward.

In considering what I should write in review of this book, I felt that the words found on the inside book jacket and on the rear cover presented this book far better than I ever could, and so I decided to quote directly from these.

From the inside jacket and rear cover of “Mother Teresa: A simple Path”…

Known around the globe for her indefatigable work on behalf of the poor, the sick and the dying, Mother Teresa has devoted her life to giving hope to the hopeless in more than one hundred and twenty countries. She inspires us all to find a way to translate our spiritual beliefs into action in the world. How has one woman accomplished so much? And what are the guiding principles that have enabled this humble nun to so profoundly affect the lives of millions?

Now in her own words, Mother Teresa shares the thoughts and experiences that have led her to do her extraordinary charitable work. A candid look at her everyday life—at the very simplicity and self-sacrifice that give her the strength to move mountains—A Simple Path gives voice to the remarkable spirit who has dedicated her life to the poorest among us.

Just as important as her beliefs is how they are put into action in the world, and A Simple Path also tells the story of the founding of the Missionaries of Charity, their purpose and practice, and the results of their tireless work. Through faith, surrender, and prayer, the missionaries live to serve others; they have improved the lives of countless souls and given dignity to the dying. Their mission has also produced a ripple effect, spreading human compassion to communities where there is need.

Through these examples, as well as the uplifting words and guiding prayers of Mother Teresa and those who work with her, everyone can learn how to walk the simple path that Mother Teresa has laid out for us, to help create a truly kinder world for the future.

A Simple Path is a unique spiritual guide for Catholics and non-Catholics alike: full of wisdom and hope from the one person who has given us the greatest model of love in action in our time.

Born in 1910 in the former Yugoslavia, Mother Teresa went to Loreto Abbey, Rathfarnham, Dublin, in 1928 and from there to India where she began her novitiate. She taught geography in St. Mary’s High School in Calcutta from 1929 to 1948 before becoming especially interested in the poorest of the poor. She started her own order, the Missionaries of Charity, in 1950. She has won many awards, including the Nobel Peace Prize, and has founded hundreds of homes throughout the world.

* * * * * * *

“We have all been created for greater things—to love and to be loved. Love is love—to love a person without any conditions, without any expectations. Works of love are works of peace and purity. Works of love are always a means of becoming closer to God, so the more we help each other, the more we really love God better by loving each other. Jesus very clearly said: ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ Love in action is what gives us grace. We pray and, if we are able to love with a whole heart, then we will see the need. Those who are unwanted, unloved, and uncared for become just a throwaway society—that’s why we must really make everybody feel wanted.”

“There is something else to remember—that this kind of love begins at home. We cannot give to the outside what we don’t have on the inside. This very important. If I can’t see God’s love in my brother and sister then how can I see that love in somebody else? Everybody has got some good. Some hide it, some neglect it, but it is there.”
—Mother Teresa


John Healy’s The Grass Arena

A book review by Jelica Zdero

The Grass Arena – first published in 1988 and later by Penguin Modern Classics in 2008 – is one of those rare books that sticks with you long after it is read. John Healy’s autobiography about his fifteen years as a homeless alcoholic in London during the sixties and seventies is so brutal, so shocking, so sad and yet so compelling that we, the readers, gradually begin to care deeply about this man’s journey towards improbable sobriety through the game of chess. Already considered a modern classic, The Grass Arena is more than a book. It is a testimony of a salvaged life.

Born to poor Irish Catholic immigrants in London in 1943, Healy had a tumultuous childhood. When his religious father was not beating him, the schoolchildren in the playground were. Even his playmates’ parents insulted his immigrant origins. These circumstances caused him, as Healy puts it, to be “timid” to speak “in open company.” Introduced to alcohol by an older boy, Healy found it helped release the “tension.”After leaving school at the age of 14 and becoming an accomplished sparring partner at a boxing gym at 16, Healy continued to drink. He was eventually fired for being intoxicated in the ring though later he became a boxing champion in the Army.  His new life in the military was not enough to stop his drinking, though, and he was dishonourably discharged. With nowhere to go and his addiction full blown, Healy began befriending the “winos” in the parks and streets of London where, for the next fifteen years, he led a life of idleness, thieving, and panhandling all for the sake of the drink.

It was while in prison that Healy’s life took a dramatic turn. A fellow-inmate introduced him to the game of chess and Healy discovered he had a natural talent. Soon after his return to the outside world, he continued to play, even becoming a chess champion and receiving grants to play, all of which garnered him media attention. More importantly, for the first time in his adult life, Healy stopped drinking. “Yes, it happened just like that,” Healy writes, “no dribs or drabs. Chess is a jealous lover. Will tolerate no other.”  Although Healy’s sudden turnaround does not come without personal and social challenges, his victory is no less triumphant.

The Grass Arena is an exceptionally gratifying read. Healy is a highly sympathetic ‘character’ whose story-telling, while grim and sometimes disturbing, never indulges in self-pity nor denial of his criminal past. His spare writing style leaves little room for such digressions, putting the onus on readers to make up their own minds. And, it appears, we do. Like detectives, we piece together his motivations and wonder at his choices, yet all the while sympathizing with him as only flawed individuals can do. Perhaps most revealing is Healy’s description of his gradual, almost imperceptible descent into a chronic, single-minded alcoholism that appeared so bleak, so relentless, that it seemed almost impossible to break. Healy’s unlikely redemption found in, of all things, the game of chess is thus truly remarkable.

The Grass Arena is not a book that a reader will soon forget. In fact, Healy’s life has been the subject of numerous articles, a movie (1992), and documentaries, including “Barbaric Genius,” just released to great reviews in the UK in May (2012). Few good books survive their generation in their impact and influence in society. This is, indeed, one of those books.

Recommended Authors

  1. Jean Vanier (Founder of L’Arche)
  2. Henri Nouwen
  3. Mother Teresa
  4. Pat Caponni (Canadian homelessness, poverty, mental illness)
  5. Barbara Murphy (Canadian, Ottawa, homelessness, poverty, mental illness)
  6. Ray Baake
  7. Anthony de Mello
  8. Philip Yancey
  9. Greg Paul
  10. Tim Huff
  11. Jackie Pullinger
  12. Tony Campolo
  13. Shane Claiborne
  14. Michael Frost
  15. Alan Hirsch
  16. Brian McLaren
  17. Sue Mosteller
  18. Ronald J. Sider
  19. Mother Teresa
  20. Dave Toycen
  21. Jim Wallis

Recommended Books

God in the Alley

God in the Alley (2004) by Greg Paul

God in the Alley is a well written documentation of street life in Toronto as well as an expose which applies to any city. The varied accounts of stories of some street friends are interspersed with penetrating insights into the hearts of people, combined with a Biblical dimension that speaks to every heart. Keep this close, because you will want to read and re-read it again.

Twenty Piece Shuffle

Twenty Piece Shuffle (2008) by Greg Paul

Unlike society’s extreme contrasts, in God’s economy the comfortable and cast-off live side-by-side, recognizing their need for each other, says Paul. Through stories and spiritual reflections born of years of street ministry, he invites “rich” Christians yearning to live the gospel to truly connect with the ragged and downtrodden—and witness the life-transforming miracles that occur!

The God of Intimacy and Action

The God of Intimacy and Action: Reconnecting Ancient Spiritual Practices, Evangelism and Justice (2007) by Tony Campolo and Mary Albert Darling

In The God of Intimacy and Action, Campolo and Darling attempt to mend the brokenness that exists between spirituality and justice, prayer and protest, loving God and your neighbor. The Church needs teachers like Campolo and Darling who promote a holistic Christianity in which befriending the poor is an act of prayer and prayer an act of justice.

Bent Hope

Bent Hope (2008) by Tim Huff

Bent Hope was born out of Huff’s first twenty years of extensive work among homeless and street-involved youth and adults, in one of North America’s largest urban centers —Toronto. Bent Hope is a collection of narratives birthed beneath crumbling bridges and in the hidden alcoves of darkened alleyways after midnight. These gripping true-life stories surface from the corridors of fear, hurt and uncertainty—and supernaturally transform them into fascinating places of intimacy and godly anticipation.

Taking it to the Streets

Taking it to the Streets (2003) by J. Nathan Corbitt and Vivian Nix-Early

Taking it to the Streets provides church and mission leaders, youth ministers, and students with a historical perspective and theology for understanding the transforming power of the arts, a vocabulary for discussing them outside the sanctuary, and creative methods for bringing faith to action in the streets of society.

The Road to Daybreak

The Road to Daybreak: A Spiritual Journey (1988) by Henri Nouwen

Henri Nouwen left the fame and influence he had acquired in academic life at some of America’s most reputable universities to serve as pastor and care-giver in a L’Arche home for the profoundly mentally disabled in Toronto. The Road to Daybreak is his personal journal over the one-year period leading up to this decision.

The Wounded Healer

The Wounded Healer (1979) by Henri Nouwen

What does it mean to be a minister in contemporary society where men and women who want to be of service find the familiar ways crumbling and themselves stripped of their traditional protections? Nouwen addresses the question: “After all my attempts to articulate the predicament of contemporary humanity, the necessity to articulate the predicament of the ministers themselves became most important. For ministers are called to recognize the sufferings of their time in their own hearts and to make that recognition the starting point of their service.” In four parts: Ministry in a Dislocated World/Ministry for a Rootless Generation/Ministry to a Hopeless Individual/Ministry by a Lonely Minister.

Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger

Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Affluence to Generosity, New Edition (2005) by Ronald J. Sider

After the first edition of this book appeared in 1978, theology professor Ronald J. Sider decided to re-examine the issues in the twenty-first century. Finding that Conservatives blame morally reprehensible individual choices, and Liberals blame constrictive social and economic policy, Dr. Sider agrees with both sides. In this new look at an age-old problem, he offers not only a detailed explanation of the causes, but also a comprehensive series of practical solutions, in the hopes that Christians like him will choose to make a difference.

The Irresistible Revolution

The Irresistible Revolution (2006) by Shane Claiborne

A former Tennessee Methodist and born-again, high school prom king, the 30-year-old Claiborne is a founding member of a radical faith community called ‘the Simple Way’ that is located in a destitute neighborhood of Philadelphia. It is a house of young believers who live among the poor and homeless and who attempt to live like Christ and the earliest converts to Christianity, disregarding social status and material comforts. Claiborne’s work is a challenge to the Church to rethink the meaning of community, conversion, and Christianity.

Everything Must Change

Everything Must Change: Jesus, Global Crises and a Revolution of Hope (2007) by Brian McLaren

Author and Emergent church leader Brian McLaren argues that while the modern church specializes in dealing with ‘spiritual’ needs, it often overlooks the physical and social needs and, thus, fails to address the dominant societal realities of the age: poverty, dysfunction, and global injustice. This provocative work is a challenge to the modern church to think holistically, integrally and in a way that can offer mercy and justice to individuals, societies, and the world.


Affluenza (2001) by John deGraaf, David Wann and Thomas Naylor

Affluenza is a curable disease. This book is the follow-up to the PBS documentaries “Affluenza” and “Escape from Affluenza” which examined the rampant over-consumerism that has overtaken this age.

The Power of Generosity

The Power of Generosity: How to Transform Yourself and Your World (2004) by Dave Toycen

In this volume, Dave Toycen, the president and CEO of World Vision Canada, provides a practical guide to developing a spiritual generosity. He provides thoughtful answers and encouragement to all those looking for ways to be more giving in their lives.

On the Street

On The Street: How We Created Homelessness (2000) by Barbara Murphy

This book is a scholarly treatment of the problem homelessness in Canada. Murphy, an expert in the field, provides much needed statistical information and insight in this balanced, well-reasoned and compassionate presentation.

Upstairs in the Crazy House

Upstairs in the Crazy House (1992) by Pat Caponni

Acclaimed author and social activist Pat Caponni writes of her time spent in a privately-run group home for mentally ill people in Toronto and the effects of Canada closing mental institutions and off-loading the responsibilities to local communities. A real eye-opener.

Dispatches from the Poverty Line

Dispatches from the Poverty Line (1997) by Pat Caponni

Pat Caponni gives us a detailed day-by-day account of her life and rapid descent into poverty as an unemployed person living in Toronto during the early years of the radical policies of the Mike Harris Conservative government.