|The House of Refuge Mission: Helping, looking for help, celebrating breakthroughs
Photo and story by Allan Sheppard
The House of Refuge Mission, highly visible at the corner of 95 Street and 104 Avenue in the Boyle Street area, isn't much to look at, outside or in. To be honest, it's the kind of place that gives force and meaning to words like eyesore, rundown, ramshackle, dilapidated, even derelict. But also to be honest, the people who go there—most of whom are homeless or have been homeless—can be described in the same not-very-flattering words. So the place seems actually to suit its purpose and its community well: it's not intimidating to people who face intimidation and rejection almost everywhere they go. It's the kind of place where, in the words of one of its volunteer ministers and board members, ESN editor Linda Dumont, “people who are homeless can...feel comfortable to come and worship God.”
Not everyone who goes there has worship in mind. Some want a place to stay warm or dry in winter or bad weather. Some want a place to rest. Some want to share company with friends who share the same experiences and face the same challenges. Some want new clothing. Some just want the soup, sandwiches, coffee, and occasional fruit and treats that are offered every night, 365 days of the year, before and after an evangelistic service. Some just want a place to go where they are neither judged nor rejected, simply accepted, with some necessary limits on behaviour. For most, having to sit through a service and watch Christian videos and movies is a small enough price to pay.
And for some—not many, according to the three volunteer ministers and board members I talked to, Sharol Penner, Eva Reddekopp, and Calvin Kennedy—an evening at the mission offers the possibility of a spiritual or emotional breakthrough that can ease the burden of life on the streets and, for a few, lead to the first step on a journey to recovery and stability.
Like the members of its community, the mission is never far from going under. It has moved several times in its 40-year history. And several times it has closed down for lack of money, or space, or volunteers. On any given day, as you pass the mission, you might see a roughly lettered sign in a window requesting money; they operate purely on donations with no government assistance, and no paid staff.
The mission has many urgent needs: money, of course; and food, clothing, furniture, shelving, floor tiles, roofing materials and, urgently, a new sound system.
Volunteers are always welcome to help prepare and serve food and support the community that attends every evening from 5 to 9, 365 days a year.
The mission also needs skilled volunteers: expert help with flooring, general carpentry, and roofing.
To donate, volunteer, and learn more about the House of Refuge Mission, visit the web site at refugemission.com.
Calvin Kennedy's story
I lived on the street when I was 16. My father died, and things just went downhill. I lived a life for about ten years of alcohol, drugs, and jail. In 1983, I accepted Christ into my life in a little eight-foot by eight-foot visiting cubicle at Peace River Correctional Centre. At that time, I was doing 18 months for attempted murder.
This gospel group used to come in on Wednesdays and have gospel meetings in the chapel. I enjoyed going to these meetings, because there was a guitar there. If I wanted to play a guitar in the gymnasium, where everybody had to share one guitar, I hardly ever got guitar time. There was nobody to play the guitar for the meetings, so I played...singing these Christian hymns and gospel songs. At one of these meetings, one of the older fellows realized that I was lonely. He asked me if I wouldn't mind if he came to visit me. So I said, Hey, that would be great. The first Sunday that he visited me, I accepted Christ as my saviour. I've had my ups and downs, but I've trusted in Christ through the rough times.
In '87, I was living in Saddle Lake. I'd been back down here on the street after I got out. (My good intentions) lasted for a while, and then I fell and started doing the things I did before. I ended up in jail for a couple of months for car theft. I got out and went to live in St. Paul. This fellow there had converted a two-car garage into a church, and I was going there. I got such a strong calling in my heart, such a strong desire to come back down here to Edmonton to minister and witness to the people that I lived with, that I partied with, that I drank with, that I did time with. I got such a strong calling to come here and start a ministry.
I was sitting at one of these meetings at Oliver Breton’s church, an evangelist who I'd never seen before was preaching that night. I was sitting there listening to him. He stopped. While he was praying for people, and people were going up, I was sitting in my chair, praying about this burden that God put on my heart to come and start a ministry. And as I looked up, (that evangelist) was standing right in front of me. He pointed at me: Come, like this. So I l stood up. He didn't tell me what—I guess God didn't tell him what—but he said, “God has told me that you have a burden in your heart.” He says, “You have a desire to do something. God gives his blessings. Go.” And then he gave me some admonition and warning about what to do, what not to do.
Since then, I've been involved in various street ministries; with Linda Dumont's Christ Love Ministries for a while (1990 –1998) And here I am now. I don't have my own ministry yet, but this is a good start.
Sharol Penner's story
For me, (working for the mission) was definitely something placed on me by God. On a personal level, I volunteer because I've lost so much family to the inner city. I always look back to when my grandfather died in 1974. After that our family started migrating to Edmonton. My Uncle Eddie used to be a school teacher. He moved to Edmonton, and he just lost out on his career. The drugs took over and rampaged him until he died. My Uncle Popeye just passed away a few years ago. My Aunt Rita sat, drank herself to death in her place. My kookum, my grandmother, used to have her own table at the York Hotel. I would come to Edmonton, and I would know where to find my mom and my grandmother. at the York Hotel. I've lost so many cousins to drug use in the inner city here.
My Aunt Mary was stomped to death outside the York Hotel. In the newspapers they called her “the Good Samaritan,” because she was trying to save some other people who were being stomped. She lost her life, her and Big Man, who was helping her. He ended up dying afterwards.
Since I've lived in Edmonton, I think we've had at least 20 family funerals, most of them from drug use or alcohol, and a lot of it coming directly to the inner city. I think that's why God called me here, because there's been so much personal loss in my family, and I can identify with the people.
Eva Redekkopp's story
I've always had a heart for people in need and people that (How would I say?) society is rejecting. I grew up in a very poor family, and I know what it is to struggle for a meal. I had two nephews who lived on the street here. It was a very, very rough life. It took me two years to help them come off the street.
I've always loved this area of the city. I just love these people here, and that's what motivates me to come. If I don't come for a while, I really miss the people. So for me it's like I can feel where some of them are at. I haven't lived a life of being on drugs, but I know what it is to go without things and to not feel like you're being cared for. For me that's important, to be able to share love and provide food and clothing. That's my motive for being here.
Some people, if you hug them, they just don't let you go. They haven't been hugged for a long time. Some of them have so much rejection in their life, and you just want to do whatever you can to help them get better. Even one person is worth it.
I think we all have a dream of being able to expand this mission to be able to provide other services than food and such. I think a lot of us would like to see counselling happen here, and other things. We have big dreams. Mostly it is to be able to deal with a person as a whole person: physically, spiritually, mentally, emotionally. A meal is a temporary thing. It satisfies the stomach. But then they go back out on the street again—and come back the next night. But I would say we make progress. It's so rewarding when somebody comes up to you and says, “It's because of you that I made this change.” You just feel like, Oh, it's worth it being down there.
An evening at the mission
Calvin Kennedy and Eva Redekkopp recall a prayer service in which a woman seemed to have a an emotional or spiritual “breakthrough”:
Calvin Eva was ministering, and I was doing the music. During the course of the ministry, there was a young lady. She's kind of a big girl, and her boyfriend is a little guy. She was ranking out on him left and right, and screaming, and getting all upset. I stopped playing guitar, and I came up laid a hand on her shoulder and talked to her for a while. Then she started calling me down. When Eva finished her message, she started talking to the girl. And you know, there was such a change in her. She changed from being angry and abusive towards her boyfriend. And she was so quiet. She came up for a prayer, and Eva prayed with her.
Eva She was just weeping.
Calvin Standing in the aisle there,
Eva Weeping, and she wouldn't let go.
Calvin She wouldn't let go. After that, she was so nice. She was quiet. She wanted to sing, and she was dancing and just having a good time. Stuff like that is so good to see. And you know, I think what's better is when you see somebody like that come in the next day and not be angry, or have all these issues.