Recent media reports of a petition by residents in Ottawa’s inner-city Dundonald Park neighbourhood demanding more community supports for indigent users of the park were music to my ears.
Gospel music to be precise.
I’m a Christian pastor who works with the poor, the marginalized, the substance abusers, and the homeless who congregate daily in Dundonald Park. I’m also a former street kid from Toronto who spent part of my life in government housing and 16 years of it in federal prison. If I know anything about anything, it’s about the crying need for – and the painful absence of – community support.
One of the things I’ve learned is that community can exist in what looks – from even just across the street – like a ragged assembly of aimless individuals. It’s not surprising if neighbourhood residents see exactly that within Dundonald Park itself. They naturally crave peace and quiet, which is often notably lacking.
But when I moved into the area to share the Gospel message of love of neighbour, I quickly saw how even those involved in drugs and violence were gathered within Dundonald Park as a community. They were just going about it the wrong way. Today, after a year of daily building trust and rapport, we have a gathering of 60 people meeting on Sunday. We have a smaller event on Saturdays, and one-on-one interactions throughout the week.
Our message is consistent. We speak about the peace, hope and love found through our relationship with Jesus Christ. We share testimonials about the changes we’ve experienced in our lives. We are there, partnering with the local churches such as Peace Tower Church and Christ Church, to support to the community.
We meet people where they’re at and serve the entire community regardless of their religious or non-religious affiliations.
Practical actions flowing from our message are equally consistent. I lead an addictions ministry out of Peace Tower Church that is well-positioned to serve the Centertown community with the drug and alcohol abuse. We have begun working together with the local restaurant and business communities to provide housing and job opportunities.
As a former federal inmate, I myself work with various stakeholders within the criminal justice and rehabilitation fields to develop a comprehensive and holistic model of change that embraces both the depth and breadth of human and community restoration.
Our approach is to deal with both the physical and spiritual needs of those we are privileged to serve. As a result, we’ve seen a significant group of people whose lives have changed. I’ve personally moved some of them into stable housing and offered collateral support to many others. There is always more work to be done, but we are beginning to witness members of the park govern one another and influence each other positively.
These people form the most vulnerable group in Canada’s national capital. We’ve saved more lives from suicide, and prevented more violence and drug overdoses, than not engaging them during COVID could ever have done. We have done so, to the best of our ability, in cooperation with the city and local stakeholders.
Paradoxically, the strongest opposition we’ve faced has come from people who've called by-law enforcement to prevent us congregating in Dundonald Park as, well, a church congregation. They have adopted the perspective of, “we commend you for what you’re doing – just don’t do it in our backyard.”
To their credit, law enforcement officers have never stopped park inhabitants from gathering in non-socially distanced ways as some media reporting suggests. Yet they were forced to ticket our church twice for bringing order to the chaos that existed. One fine was for separating those who identify as being part of our church into socially distanced groups of five to sit on the grass to talk about the love of Christ and one’s neighbor.
We were punished for merely seeking to walk beside troubled people through every facet of their lives. Yet we, too, live in the community. We are here to stay. We will continue to accompany people journeying from a lives of crime, violence, and substance abuse to wholeness and completeness as human beings.
Media focus has been on how those in Dundonald Park negatively affect the local neighbourhood and, on the positive side, how more community supports are needed. Left out is the perspective of those whose community is within the park itself. I suggest that’s the place to start: to identify experientially with the people we serve, and to walk beside them, in community, toward a better life. That is how we can create supportive solutions together.
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