Jessica Brand clearly remembers the early days of New Hope Christian Reformed Church in East Hamilton, Ont. She was among those who began meeting on Sunday nights in 2005 in living rooms in East Hamilton.
At that point they had no idea what awaited. It was a time of high energy and even higher hopes.
Brand said she and a few other members of First CRC in Hamilton made the trip across town on Sundays because they felt called by the Holy Spirit to begin doing ministry in the East Hamilton area known as Crown Point, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city with a large percentage of single-parent families, a high number of people with disabilities, and a lack of affordable housing.
“We knew this was an area with a large number of people who were marginalized,” said Brand. “We wanted to seek out and develop relationships” with people in that community.
In 2008, the church formally launched, using a traditional church model including paid staff, with pastor and church planter Tim Sheridan and others such as Brand, to help lead ministries. Grants from Christian Reformed Home Missions (now Resonate Global Mission) and the Sea-to-Sea cross-continental bike tour helped to cover salaries for a time.
“We tried to develop a parish model in which members lived within walking distance, or biking distance, to the church,” said Brand. “We wanted our worship community to extend beyond Sundays into all aspects of life.”
Early on, the church met in various places, including a storefront on Main Street and the basement of Delta United Church. One of the first local ministry activities that New Hope got behind was supporting the creation of a neighborhood association for the Crown Point community. Another important outreach ministry has been New Hope Bikes, a shop that refurbishes and sells bikes at affordable prices.
Then in 2010 the church faced a financial crisis as outside financial support dropped, forcing New Hope to look hard at its future.
“We reached a point when we had to ask if we should continue as a church,” said Neven, who is now executive director of Indwell, a local affordable housing organization with which New Hope has close ties.
Church leaders discussed the difficult circumstances they faced and decided that shutting down seemed to be the best option.
“But,” said Neven, who with his wife Maria have been long-standing members of New Hope, “when we told the congregation about this, one person said you [church leaders] have the sending church to go back to - but what about us [new members]?"
To stay open, they opted to try a volunteer model of church organization in which no one would receive a salary. “After that, the definition of church started to change for us,” said Neven. “We found ourselves being changed by our faith and being shaped by the Spirit in ways that hadn’t happened before.”
In 2011, Indwell began playing a role in the ongoing evolution of New Hope. New Hope moved into the faith-based affordable housing organization’s offices in the newly renovated Perkins Centre at 1429 Main Street East.
Originally a tavern, that building had fallen on hard times along with the local neighborhood. It had been shut down and reopened many times and had been the site of many crimes.
But then Indwell, founded in 2004 by a Hamilton couple who had been using their home to house persons dealing with mental-illness challenges, purchased and renovated the building, said Neven.
“Our church needed a place to worship, and they needed rental income — so we began meeting there,” he said. Along the way, Neven began working for Indwell.
Today, Indwell has opened hundreds of affordable housing units in former churches, taverns, and other buildings across Hamilton and elsewhere for persons living with various disabilities.
"The demand is very high," said Neven. "Every time we open up a new apartment, we have about 10 people inquire for it."
Many of those living in the affordable housing units, Neven said in a Hamilton Spectator interview, “have experienced homelessness. It's a home, and it's a fresh start. More than that, [the housing provides] . . . community and hopefully a sense of belonging."
Ontario Health Minister Helena Jaczek said her office has given funding to Indwell because of the need for this housing and because of Indwell’s track record.
"Indwell has demonstrated what a home can mean for someone who is really marginalized, struggling with mental health and maybe addiction issues as well," Jaczek told the Hamilton Spectator. “They have demonstrated real success when people have a place of their own with the supports they need. . . . That kind of security of having a roof over their head is going to mean so much."
Indwell is a good example of a nonchurch group partnering with churches to offer much-needed services, said Neven.
“Indwell works with a number of churches, but there is a very distinct difference between a nonprofit church and a charity,” he said. “You can learn and wrestle with the nuances of the gospel in a church setting.”
Almost all of their projects arise in partnership with a local church. “While churches do so much better when they are connected with the larger community,” churches do not generally have expertise in developing housing, said Neven. “With Indwell, you get the best of both worlds.”
Meeting in the Perkins Centre, New Hope has a strong ongoing connection with Indwell. For instance, Brand, New Hope’s worship team leader, also works as Indwell’s apartments manager in Hamilton.
“Moving into this neighborhood and attending New Hope has given me a humility that is hard to describe,” she said. “We are a church that gives to and receives from our community.”
Now celebrating its 10th anniversary, the church meets in the common room at the Perkins Centre. People sit in a relaxed atmosphere and worship around circular tables. Weekly messages are given by one of the 12 members of the worship team. “We believe God speaks through everyone,” said Brand.
Sharing food is also an important aspect of New Hope’s ministry. For instance, New Hope members have volunteered in a weekly meals program offered through Indwell. (See story in The Banner.)
Many surprising things have happened since the members began meeting in a living room to start New Hope back in 2005: the volunteer church model, the bike ministry, relationships with neighbors, the connection to Indwell.
“As for me, working for Indwell was not a choice I made,” said Brand. “Like so many things that have happened, it was a calling of the Spirit — something that was not of my own desire.”
Mark Stephenson, director of the CRC's Office of Disabilities, recalls the one time he worshiped at New Hope. "I was stunned and thrilled by the incredible openness to each of us at worship," he said.
As for the church itself, he added, "it provides an amazing, outside-the-box model. When the usual church plant formula would no longer work for the congregation, they listened carefully to people who attended and decided to dispense with the formula and try something new.
"Rather than close their doors as funding did not match needs, they decided to change what was needed to do church. Ironically, their 'poverty' resulted in an even deeper engagement with their neighborhood ...."