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Working through the COVID-19 Lockdown

November 17, 2021

Sanctuary London has always, at its core, been about creating relationships with people experiencing oppression and exclusion. Based in London, Ont., Sanctuary was founded in 2011 to offer such people a meaningful place and a sense of belonging in a healthy community. And, hopefully, a place to call “home.”

Rather than simply duplicating the numerous social services offered elsewhere throughout the city and region, Sanctuary provides “a unique, healthy community – a safe place.”

In essence, they are saying with their words and actions: “If you’re willing to share your life with us, we’ll share ours with you. We’ll encourage you when you mess up, help you find direction when you’re not sure which way to go, hold you when you’re hurting, and help you discover, strengthen, and focus your gifts and abilities. We’re here for the long haul.” [from their website]

Back in 2009, with the support of a NewGround Community Ministry Grant from Diaconal Ministries Canada, Sanctuary began as a weekly art group, a weekly communal meal, and a weekly time of worship coordinated by a core group of 12 people and an extended community of 60 people. Over the next ten years, they grew to a core group of 150 people and an extended community of 800.

At the request and invitation of community members, Sanctuary expanded to offer sit-down meals twice a week, provide two three-bedroom affordable housing units for community members, run a reading group, and manage a Gleaning Food Forest (a community garden growing fruits and vegetables that can be gleaned by anyone in the community who has need of them).

On top of all of this, Sanctuary partnered with other municipal projects such as hosting a mayoral candidates discussion about issues relevant to impoverished and oppressed people in London. Sanctuary also got involved in studies on homelessness prevention, as in a recent study through Queen’s and Western Universities on “Transitions from Homelessness.” In addition, Sanctuary has been an active participant in London’s Winter Interim Solution to Homelessness (WISH) Coalition.

Above all, Sanctuary has been intentional about listening to and raising up people who are denied a voice elsewhere.

Sanctuary aims to chart a course to being community oriented in terms of providing a space for people who have been told they do not matter, showing them that they do matter, and helping them to experience this in ways that are honest, joyful, and liberating. This is a difficult thing to do, so the work has necessarily been slow, cautious, thoughtful, and constantly open to modification.

Early on during the COVID-19 pandemic, Sanctuary was quickly deemed an “essential service” by their local health unit. That created a great opportunity to continue their work in ministry, though it meant a change in the way they did almost everything as a community.

As in most communities, the pandemic quickly changed the way Sanctuary participants interacted with each other. In many ways, they went from being intentionally and intensely relational to being a service-driven, needs-based ministry that provided meals-to-go in disposable containers.

They no longer had community members in the kitchen to help prepare meals, and they could no longer sit at tables eating their meals from “real” dishes in their usual family-style, please-pass-the-potatoes kind of way.

In addition, they had to be two meters apart from one another and wear masks at all times.

“It was awkward, and still is,” said Mechele TeBrake, a community outreach worker and Diaconal Ministries’ board member. “Sanctuary is a community that is used to sharing space with each other. In a lot of ways, we had to relearn how to have conversations with each other.”

Staff and volunteers could no longer see faces – lit by beautiful smiles or downcast by exacerbation – and this reminded them just how important seeing someone’s face is.

Staff and volunteers had to find other ways of “reading” each other. Time spent together was also very limited, so they had to learn to be efficient with their words to be able to really check-in and see how people were doing.

In order to make many of the necessary adjustments and still love their community well, Sanctuary applied for a COVID-19 Grant from Diaconal Ministries and World Renew-Canada.

“This really helped and blessed us through uncertain times,” recalled TeBrake.

“We had to act fast to adhere to the Health Unit modifications and change how we were [interacting and operating], so as not to miss a day in our schedule.

“Sanctuary made the necessary changes instantly, not knowing how we would cover the rising cost of groceries, not being able to shop on ‘just the sales’ any longer, and now adding the additional cost of containers for everything including drinks and packaging. But we did know that God was in this with us. We knew we had to find a way to continue our work, especially when so many other places for people to access free meals had closed completely in London.”

Many people who come to the mealtime drop-ins comment on how the food is useful and helps them out, but the brief and meaningful connections with the Sanctuary community are the real reason people don’t mind waiting in long lines in all kinds of weather. They know that at Sanctuary, they are welcomed and valued and treat others that way in return – “for the most part,” said TeBrake.

Sanctuary’s other programs were not deemed essential, however, so they could not operate in their usual fashion. Worship had to be done via Zoom, recognizing that some of the community members did not have internet or a phone.

Instead of conducting programs in Talbot St. Church, where they earlier had space available, Sanctuary staff and volunteers increased their walks downtown to connect with community folks living rough on the streets, in parks, or by the river. Sometimes the staff would even chalk messages downtown on Dundas Street by the library to let people know they could come and join in, spreading a bit of cheer on the sidewalks.

Sanctuary continues to learn how to connect with people. TeBrake noted that the staff are always mindful that isolation is one of the leading causes of people being street-involved, housing-deprived, or homeless. Connection – providing a sense of belonging and assurance that we belong to each other – are key to thriving people and communities, she said.

As community life continues to open up more and more in Ontario, including London, Sanctuary anticipates their numbers for their mealtime drop-ins and other programs to keep increasing.

 “We are so grateful that Diaconal Ministries has believed in and encouraged our work at Sanctuary London over the years. With the help of them and World Renew and the COVID-19 Grant, it was possible for us to continue to be community and explore ways to be home together, even in challenging times,” said Tebrake – “or maybe I should say, ‘especially in challenging times.’”