‘Everyone deserves a home’

Young Mennonites stand up for Abbotsford's homeless

March 12, 2014 | Young Voices
Rachel Bergen | Young Voices Co-Editor
Abbotsford, B.C.

On a wet, snowy Abbotsford afternoon, 300 people rallied at city hall to protest the municipal government’s treatment of homeless people.

They held signs saying, “Everyone deserves a home,” “We can do better,” “Love dignifies,” and, “Stop the insanity,” which garnered a lot of media attention.

Two of these protesters were Chris Lenshyn, 34, associate pastor of Emmanuel Mennonite Church, and Dave Dueckman, 20, a youth leader there.

Mayor Bruce Banman and three other city councillors voted against Abbotsford Community Services’ application to rezone a lot for a 20-bed low barrier housing project on Feb. 19. Shortly after, Lenshyn and other Emmanuel Mennonite members started planning a demonstration, which took place on Feb. 24, to show their solidarity with Abbotsford’s less fortunate.

This is the most recent development in the Abbotsford government’s war on its homeless citizens. In June, Abbotsford police were accused of damaging their camping gear with pepper spray, making the camps uninhabitable. The next month, city workers dumped chicken manure on a settlement of homeless people, prompting the mayor to make a formal apology. In September, the city issued a notice to evict about 20 people from an encampment in Jubilee Park. Although they fought the injunction, the campers eventually moved to a different part of town around Christmas time. 

The protesters said the city’s latest move was the last straw. People started to band together over social media, and even those who couldn’t make the event shared event information with their friends and joined the discussion.

For Lenshyn, working to put on the event and attending it were calls from God. He said he wants to stand in solidarity with those who are seen as “mere problems” and are victims of inaccurate stereotypes. “The life of Jesus gives us an example of breaking down barriers in the name of a holistic, divine reconciling relationship,” he said. “Following the footsteps of Jesus brings us into the pursuit of justice and human dignity for all.”

Likewise, Dueckman, who is a Columbia Bible College student, said he seeks to model his life after Jesus Christ. This was his first political rally. “In my year at [Columbia] I’ve been learning more about Jesus, his character and the people and causes he associated with. I asked myself if this would be something that Jesus would be a part of. My answer was, ‘Absolutely, yes.’”

His answer was confirmed when he was at church on the Sunday before the rally and sang Hymn 353: “I bind my heart this day to the neighbour far away, to the stranger near at hand in this town, and in this land.”

“I was, like, ‘Oh my gosh, I’m singing these words. Obviously I have to back this up with something,’” he said.

Other churches, including Level Ground Mennonite Church and 5 and 2 Ministries, were involved in the rallies.

“It was neat to be united with a bunch of strangers who were there for a common cause,” Dueckman said, adding that it was easy to tell that the majority came from a faith background.

Since helping to organize the rally, Lenshyn and the Emmanuel youth have gathered supplies and donations for the homeless camps in the area. They originally planned to give the donations to those living in the camps personally, but decided it would seem like voyeurism as the camps have almost become like tourist destinations. They opted to donate to organizations working directly with the city’s homeless population.

Lenshyn said the fight is far from over. He and the other event organizers have established a permanent Facebook group called Voices For Dignity. The open group had 168 members at press time.

“We are looking to mobilize the momentum we created,” he said. “People were inspired and many are wanting to get involved in a more intentional way.”

Dueckman said he will try to be involved in whatever initiatives are planned in the future.

--Posted March 12, 2014

See also: A good place to be homeless? 

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