Chiara House

Practicing radical hospitality

August 29, 2012 | God at work in the Church | Number 17
Story and photos by Evelyn Rempel Petkau | Manitoba Correspondent
Winnipeg, Man.
Norm Voth, director of Evangelism and Service for Mennonite Church Manitoba, and Jamie Arpin-Ricci, pastor of Little Flowers Community Church, stand outside Chiara House.

When Andrew, a new Christian in Little Flowers Community Church, tragically took his life, it shook the church to its core. Pastor Jamie Arpin-Ricci said it was the death of Andrew, who had untreated mental health issues and was bouncing between various housing options when he took his life, “that opened our eyes to the very real need for tangible community supports for people with mental health concerns. We began to realize how critically important it is for people living with mental illness to have stability and community.”

Little Flowers Community, a church planting partnership of Mennonite Church Manitoba (MCM) and Youth With A Mission (YWAM) Urban Ministries, began shaping a dream for a place where they could provide supportive and affordable Christian community in their neighbourhood, Winnipeg’s beleaguered West End. “We put it out as a dream. We didn’t even have a bank account,” said Arpin-Ricci. Norm Voth, director of Evangelism and Service Ministries for Mennonite Church Manitoba, helped to put legs to the dream by contacting some businessmen in the wider MCM community.

For almost a year they looked for suitable property in the neighbourhood. “We visited some of the most tragic buildings in the city,” said Arpin-Ricci. “It only served to bolster our desire to provide affordable and dignified housing. This vacated apartment building that was being used for drug running and prostitution came along. It was having a very negative impact on the neighbourhood.” In October 2010 they were able to purchase the building.

The three-story apartment block still has many boarded up windows. Bullet holes punctuate the walls. A fire that was started under the fire escape this past June burned its way into the basement and caused considerable damage. The intricate and slow turning of city council’s wheels has meant delays with permits and zoning regulations. All these challenges have been discouraging but have not dimmed the vision.

Groups of volunteers from various MCM congregations have come to help clean, repair and rebuild. Youth groups, retired people, trades people have been part of a steady flow of volunteers. “We’ve been blown away by the level of involvement,” said Arpin-Ricci. Penn-Lite Electric in Steinbach volunteered their staff of 40 employees. “Twenty came one day and 20 came another day. The electrical work is almost finished.”

Alvin Thiessen, one of the business partners in the project, is a member of Winkler Bergthaler Mennonite Church which has donated the materials needed for one suite. Their youth group has also volunteered. “This is an opportunity for us as MCM churches to do something together. If each of us does a little piece we as the larger church can do many things,” said Thiessen.

The apartment building at 490 Maryland St. was built in 1911. The boarded-up, scarred brick building stands tall and erect as it undergoes transformation. The basement will have a lunchroom, office and gathering space. The floors above will have one and two-bedroom apartments. Each floor will also have a shared community space. “While each floor will be self-contained the entire building will function as a singular community, sharing life and mission together,” said Voth. Even the placement of doors is carefully considered so as to support the vision for community. “A critical part of this is the relationships and providing supportive and dignified living space.”

Thirty percent of the space is to be designated for people with mental health challenges. Eden Health Care Services is a fourth partner in this mission. “More and more we recognize the importance and value of a well-informed community,” said James Friesen, CEO of EHCS. “Although we provide clinical counselling and resources, really 99 percent of recovery has to do with the family they belong to, the church they are a part of, the neighbourhood they live in, and their employer.” EHCS will not have a clinical presence in Chiara but will “come alongside, sharing what we have learned, helping to make connections, giving support,” said Friesen.

Volunteers, financial support, and prayers are needed for this ministry. “Right now we are looking for at least two people from 10 different MCM congregations to make a financial support base for this project,” said Thiessen. “I think the hardest piece is the piece that Little Flowers will provide, and that is living there. They don’t have any capital or resources to pull together but they are going to live there and are prepared to move in and walk with the people in the neighbourhood. If they are prepared to do that, we should do our part to put up the facility.”

“We want to be good neighbours who choose to share life and mission together for the purpose of God’s Kingdom in the West End,’ said Arpin-Ricci.

Norm Voth, director of Evangelism and Service for Mennonite Church Manitoba, and Jamie Arpin-Ricci, pastor of Little Flowers Community Church, stand outside Chiara House.

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