Revealing the unseen with a ministry of presence

As part of my student formation at Montreal Dio, I spent the last week volunteering at the Mile End Mission.  Located on the busy corner of Bernard and St-Urbain, I had walked past the Mission many times, but never ventured inside.  Pushing open the door and shaking off the snow from my boots, I entered into a bustling community hub inside. 

            A group was fervently searching the friperie for the latest fashion arrivals, while others enjoyed warm coffee on a cold day.  Conversations were happening in English, French, Spanish, Greek, Portuguese, and other languages I couldn’t pick out; there was laughing and lively discussion, even dancing the Twist as Chubbie Checker’s soulful voice sang out over the radio.  It felt more like I was entering into a popular Mile End coffee shop or club (which of course it kind-of is, as I soon came to learn).

            The Mission has existed since the 1980s, when it originally operated out of the basement of the Anglican Church of the Ascension on Avenue Parc.  Today, the Mission is made up of well over 500 members living in the Mile End/Plateau/Parc-Ex neighbourhood area.  Over 15,000 hot meals and 10,000 grocery bags are distributed by the Mission each year.  But, the Mission is more than that.  The Mission hosts a weekly legal clinic, helps provide twice-a-year dental services, and offers referral and accompaniment to support services, including counselling and medical care.  But, the Mission is still more than that.  The Mission hosts weekly yoga classes, community art, community dinners and special outings, even a hot shower for members without housing.  But, the Mission is more than all of its outreach and social services!

            When I asked people what the Mission means to them, they said things like: “family,” “community,” “friends,” “home,” “support,” “love,” “a reason to get out of bed each day,” “a place to go when there is no where else to go.”  The Mission is an important community hub, providing structure, purpose, and meaning for its members.  

            Most of my time at the Mission was spent in a prayerful ministry of presence: I helped out wherever I could, greeted members and shared stories, we ate together, told jokes, even played a rowdy game of Trivial Pursuit.  On my last day we did a collaborative community art project centred on the theme of poverty. 

            Some shared stories from their childhood — of not having money for electricity, of working in Montreal factories, not being able to afford new shoes, of dropping out of school to help support the family — stories that put real, human faces to an otherwise sterile word, “poverty.”  Others made a collage using images and words that spoke to us about the experience of poverty.  The images selected were grotesque, with relatable words: “painful,” “ugly,” “shameful,” “broken,” “wretched,” “not human,” “hidden,” “not my problem,” “forgotten about,” “ignored,” “unseen.”

            In Baptism, we make the promise to “seek and serve Christ in all people, loving your neighbour as yourself.”  It is not an easy call, and one all to easily forgotten.  How many times have I hurriedly ignored someone on the street asking for money?  How often have I failed to truly and really see the person sitting on the roadside in the cold — to see Christ in them?  I’m not alone in this. 

            Saying “yes” in Baptism isn’t a magical formula to making the world a better place.  Seeking and serving Christ in all people, loving your neighbour as yourself is hard, ongoing, day-by-day, step-by-step work.  As Christians, we are committed to striving for the realization of the will of God in all realms of life. 

            The Mile End is a place where people — all people, from a variety of wonderful, unique backgrounds and stories — are welcomed and nurtured.  It is a community where people are really and truly seen, where Christ is seen in them.  I am thankful for the time I spent in the Mile End Mission, as it provided an environment for me to come-up against my own unfair prejudices, and to be constantly re-reminded of my Baptismal calling as a follower of Jesus.  Next time you’re in the Mile End, I encourage you to visit the Mission, and experience a vibrant community where the real work of the Kingdom is lived out daily. 

Tyson Røsberg is a Master of Divinity student in 2019 graduating class at Montreal Dio. 

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