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Canadian church split over care of homeless

Posted on: June 8, 2016 1:22 PM
St. James the Apostle, now known as St. James Montréal, is located in the heart of downtown Montreal.
Photo Credit: Wikimedia
Related Categories: Canada, homeless, montreal

[Anglican Journal, by André Forget]  A drop-in centre’s criticism of its former host church has sparked controversy, concern and debate among Anglicans in Montreal and across Canada over how churches should relate to the homeless and marginalized.

A statement from the St-James Drop-In Centre board of directors said that the centre was terminating its lease with St. James Montreal, a recently launched church plant in the city’s heart, due to alleged “negative and highly emotional interactions” and disrespectful treatment of drop-in members by a church leader. The centre has been active in downtown Montreal since 1985.

Since the story of the conflict between the centre and church has spread through social media and coverage in the mainstream media, it has become symbolic of wider concerns in the Anglican church over how far the church should go in working with the economically marginalized.

Some have argued that the drop-in’s departure speaks to the church’s failure to protect the most vulnerable, while others have portrayed it as a balancing act between the church’s imperative to help the poor and its need to protect the safety of its members.

“The Anglican Church is committed to being a safe place for all its users,” Montreal Bishop Mary Irwin-Gibson said in a statement. “It is unfortunate that the St. James Centre was not willing or able to manage our concerns and so chose to end their lease with St. James Church.”

Drop-in members and staff said tension between the centre and the host church had been building since shortly after the parish of St. James the Apostle was closed and replaced with St. James Montreal, a church plant modelled after Holy Trinity Brompton, led by the Revd Graham Singh. Matters came to a head last month when Mr Singh asked the drop-in to sign a new lease including new security requirements that the drop-in’s board of directors felt would compromise its ability to serve members.

Mr Singh said that he is simply concerned about the safety of church staff and other tenants, and said that the new lease was drafted in the spirit of the diocese of Montreal’s Safe Church Policy.

The diocesan statement, signed by Executive Archdeacon Bill Gray, stressed the diocese’s support for Mr Singh and its commitment to helping the homeless through other ministries, such as the St. Michael’s Mission housed at the Anglican Church of St. John the Evangelist, the weekday drop-in at St. Stephen’s, Westmount, and The Mile End Mission.

It also noted that other Anglican churches in the downtown core have been active in helping the St. James Drop-In Centre find alternate accommodation.

Despite the various disagreements over how far the church should go in welcoming the homeless, it would seem that everyone involved agreed on one thing: the breakdown of relations between the church and the drop-in raises important questions about how the church should work with the most vulnerable. 

“How can we make our places of worship available for all people to come and know more about who God is, but also be safe places for ministering to the most broken, the most poor?” Mr Singh asked. “We can’t help everyone at any time at any cost.”

Alain Spitzer, the drop-in’s executive director, sees it differently. “I understand his preference for not having to deal with [homeless people], but who will help? If the church will not be part of an answer for those who are the most difficult people, if the church is not part of that, then who is? I’d like to hear some concrete solutions that don’t involve banning people or barring people.”