How can the church be a loving neighbour? A tale of two witnesses

29 August 2018


Republished with permission from Faith Today, Jul/Aug 2018. Photo by Nina Strehl.

One fateful night in 2008 Jason Pino, an outreach worker with Ottawa Innercity Ministries, sat in Ottawa’s Byward Market with a youth he had befriended. Staci (not her real name) got up to leave saying she was tired. Jason asked her where she was headed. "I am going to go hang out in front of the strip club. Sometimes when people come out and see me sitting on the ground, they offer to take me home with them," she answered.

"It was like a bomb went off in my heart," Pino remembers. "I felt God saying to me, ‘Stop saying there is nothing you can do and start trusting in what God says is possible.’ I felt God calling me to open an emergency shelter for homeless youth. A place where hope could be restored, and where hope would inspire the change that God wanted to bring to their lives."

Five years later, the new Restoring Hope Ministries ( opened Haven Youth Shelter in the basement of First Baptist Church in Ottawa. Four years after that, what began as a six-bed shelter open one night a week had expanded to 17 beds at one church and 16 beds at another, open five nights a week. The shelter is supported primarily by donations, occasional grants and volunteers from churches across the city. That first year’s experiment back in 2013 also convinced the city to lift restrictions on other churches wanting to do the same.

"This has become a teaching catalyst for me," says Scott Kindred-Barnes, minister at First Baptist. "We’re committed to something that goes beyond Sunday, that teaches the reign and lordship of Christ."

Nicole Chan, associate director with Restoring Hope says, "I like to see that it’s not just one denomination supporting this ministry – there’s lots of engagement around the community. It makes it more about God than about doctrine – like there’s more working together." At the shelter she has found a special sense of home both for herself and for the youths she mentors.

Jason Pino had known about the need for youth shelter spaces for years, and cared about this issue deeply, but it was his encounter with Staci that brought him face to face with the urgency of the situation. God used this relationship to move his heart from concern to action, from feeling there was nothing he could do to deciding he must trust and follow the unique calling God had put in his heart.

Two kinds of witnesses

Many of us are like Jason Pino back in 2008. We know we are called to love our neighbour, and to varying degrees we are aware of the oppression of poverty. We feel we maybe ought to do something – that someone ought to – but we are paralyzed by our sense of insignificance in the face of seemingly insurmountable issues.

We are what social psychologists call inactive bystanders (a term going back to B. Latane and J. Darley in 1968). We are a mass of witnesses to a crisis that is at times too ambiguous, too complicated or too risky for us to feel responsible, capable or willing to act. The presence of so many witnesses diffuses our sense of responsibility, and our collective silence leads to a "pluralistic ignorance" in which we mistake one another’s inaction as a sign no emergency is actually taking place (J. Marsh and D. Keltner, "We Are All Bystanders," Greater Good Magazine, 2006).

The good news is that just being aware of these phenomena makes us less susceptible to inaction. There are many simple steps individuals and churches can take to be another kind of witness, living out our calling to love our neighbour not only in word, but in deed.

The writer to the Hebrews had the scoop on something psychologists later suggested could help overcome bystander effect – considering the good examples of others. Witnessing helpful behaviour, even in an unrelated situation, primes us to be more likely to help. Hebrews 12:1–2 says, "Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles … fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith."

Consider how different the Bible would be if it only recorded Jesus’ synagogue sermons and not His daily encounters with people. There is a lesson here as we seek to be transformed from inactive bystanders into neighbours helping one another.

In short, relationships matter. They attune us to the humanity and experiences of others, and develop a sense of mutual responsibility. If someone we care about is in need, we actively look for ways to help and mobilize others to do the same. There are 4.8 million Canadians living in poverty among us. The magnitude of this number both illustrates and contributes to the problem in that we can’t relate to it. Where do we begin?

Getting to know our neighbours

One of the factors psychologists have found to influence bystanders’ responses is how much we perceive the victim as being like us. The more we identify with someone, the more likely we are to help. It seems we too are prone to ask the question, "Who is my neighbour?"

When Ruth Jongejan read about the Collective Kitchen initiative in the bulletin of Good News Christian Reformed Church in London, Ont., she thought, "That’s something I could do." The Collective Kitchen brings together church volunteers and participants from the community to prepare and enjoy healthy food on a monthly basis. They share one meal together and prepare four others to be taken home. Jongejan had no previous experience, but two things appealed to her – getting involved in the community and having a very physical, personal way to meet a need.

"I grew up in a CRC [Christian Reformed] church, went to a Christian school, taught in a Christian school, so I was quite sheltered from poverty," she shares. "To sit down with someone I don’t know and share a meal – sharing in the need to eat, to have food, to live responsibly – I realized it’s not ‘us and them.’ I’m blessed by helping them and they’re blessed by being involved. The church is being blessed too."

Patti O’Hara and the members of Westview Baptist Church (also in London, Ont.) came to a similar blessing, but by quite a different route. Her church decided to sponsor whatever refugee family the government assigned them, despite initial fears and prejudices among many church members toward Muslims. "If you haven’t engaged with someone on a personal level, it’s easy to keep preconceived notions," she shares. "They’re not seen as people as much as something to be suspicious of."

"If you haven’t engaged with someone on a personal level, it’s easy to keep preconceived notions. They’re not seen as people as much as something to be suspicious of."

The church decided to offer Bridges, a series on witnessing to Muslims, as an adult Sunday school class and youth group series. As they came to better understand and relate to this "other" group, and continually committed to trusting God’s direction, the church was matched with a Muslim couple with two children. They began praying for the family, having no contact with them before their arrival, which came abruptly – the church received an email on a Tuesday morning that the family would be arriving Thursday afternoon. O’Hara secured an apartment in her building and others mobilized to furnish and fill it.

"This is all ours?" O’Hara recalls the mother asking in awe. Waafa, Obai and their children were embraced into the church’s family. They celebrated birthdays and holidays, shared countless meals and visits, and well after the yearlong sponsorship commitment celebrated a baby shower for their new baby Julie. (Her parents chose a specifically "Canadian" name because they now feel this is their home.)

"This is the first experience they’ve had with Christians," says O’Hara. "Their impression previously was that Christian essentially meant North American. It’s new for them to see that our relationship with Jesus is very significant. We don’t know the end story, but we know we were obedient and can only still believe that God is sovereign – He brought us here and He will see it to the end."

Working together in charity and justice

In both Ruth Jongejan’s and Patti O’Hara’s stories, creating space for new relationships was critical to the groups’ ability to effectively love their neighbours. Both say expectations, priorities, and programming have shifted in their respective initiatives as they journey alongside people who might once have been regarded less than charitably.

Derek Cook of the Canadian Poverty Institute ( at Ambrose University in Calgary describes how this process has taken the institute from an "in from the cold" program focused on offering a hot meal for those in need to include the development of a citywide poverty strategy. As Christians and other community members journeyed together, opportunities emerged organically for them to explore the root causes of poverty and their shared vulnerability.

Will we be those in the crowd who recognize our brothers and sisters in need?

"The Church has been a powerful force both in charity and in the healing, relational piece as well as being a prophetic voice, speaking justice to power and holding power to account," Cook says. While churches have historically played this unique role, he notes over the past 80 years many of us seem to have lost the way.

What kind of witness will we be?

The Apostle John asks how the love of God can abide in someone who sees another in need, but shows no compassion (1 John 3:17). We, as the Church, are called unequivocally to love our neighbours as ourselves and be witnesses of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Being an inactive bystander is simply not an option for us individually or corporately.

"So, you say you love the poor? Name them!" challenges Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez Merino. Our response can start by taking note of the "great cloud of witnesses" around us – local volunteers, charities, and service organizations are all great resources to ask about opportunities to meet and walk alongside people in need.

We can consider what gifts and privileges we have to share (or perhaps relinquish) to live out God’s call for justice. Will we be those in the crowd who recognize our brothers and sisters in need? Will we be among those who cry out in the face of injustice? Our choice will either hinder or hasten others’ help.

Natalie Appleyard of Ottawa is a policy analyst with Citizens for Public Justice, an ecumenical, nonprofit organization that promotes justice in Canadian public policy. Read more articles like these with a subscription to the EFC magazine Faith Today.

Author: Natalie Appleyard