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How Saying 'Yes' Transformed Gateway Church

In this compelling episode host Chris Orme sits down with Dan Veeneman and Marcel de Regt from Gateway Community Church in Abbotsford B.C. Together, they delve into the church's transformative journey of hosting an extreme weather shelter for the homeless. Dan and Marcel share stories about the realities of participating in this ministry. From confronting addiction to offering hospitality, their experiences underscore the power of saying 'yes' when someone knocks on your door.

The following is a transcript of Season 8 Episode 1 of the Do Justice podcast.  It has been lightly edited for clarity.  Listen and subscribe on your favourite listening app.  

Chris: Well hello friends, and welcome to another episode of the Do Justice podcast. My name is Chris Orm. I'm your host. And today I'm joined by Dan Veeneman and Marcel de Regt. They're connected through Gateway Community Church. Marcel serves as the Pastor of Youth Faith Formation. Marcel's worked with Youth Unlimited. He spent 5 years as a youth pastor at Cornerstone CRC. He's worked for 11 years with the Bible League. He's led trips to numerous countries including Russia, the Philippines, China, India, Nigeria, Zambia, and Israel. So, happy to have you, Marcel. 

And Dan Veeneman. Dan works in the dairy industry as a ventilation specialist. He lives in Abbotsford, British Columbia with his wife and three children. He's a member of Gateway Community Church as well. These two gentlemen are here to share with us their experiences, their stories of working with homelessness in the area. So Marcel, Dan, welcome to the podcast. Thanks for joining us.

Marcel: Hey Chris, this is awesome. Thank you for the privilege. It's a joy and an honor to be with you. So thank you for the invitation to be with you. This is going to be great.

Dan: Yeah, thanks for having us. I'm really looking forward to sharing some stories with you guys. 

Chris: I'm excited for it and I will say this: in my role with World Renew, one of the joys of my job is to connect with Christian Reformed Churches across Canada. Gateway has been one of those deep connections that I always cherish. So I'm excited to get together and talk about this. But let's talk about it. You're connected because of the church. You're connected because of your faith. Tell us about the community that you're a part of.

Dan: I've been a member of Gateway for about seven or eight years now. And it's been a great seven or eight years. One of the cool things that I enjoy about Gateway is that community and outreach in the community is a huge part of the identity of the church. At one point, I believe our other pastor, Justin, he asked off the pulpit one Sunday and he basically said, “If our church ceased to be here and they put up a McDonald's in our parking lot, would anybody care? Or would they just line up for their coffee at McDonald’s?” That's something that drives our church, is this idea that we have to be a leader in our community. We have to be in our community. We have to be involved in our community. And so that's a little bit of our church in our community.

Chris: And Marcel, what – from your perspective, you work at the church, you're plugged into the community – what does the community mean to you?

Marcel: I've been with Gateway now for ten years and it has been a phenomenal ride from where the church has been to where the church Lord willing is going. The homeless population in Abbotsford has tripled in the last year, year and a half. Where Gateway is situated, we are just right on that stretch where the homeless population lives, travels, walks on a regular basis. So seeing how that has infiltrated, has dripped into our community has been a journey for us as a church to experience that. We’re a church on paper. We're about 750 members. When you have that many people, everybody has a different view, a different perspective on homelessness, what that looks like, and the church's response to that. So it has been a journey over the last number of years to get us to where we are now. But God has been gracious. He has been faithful and slowly cultivating the hearts of not just the people of Gateway, but also our guests. So it has been really neat. And, the extreme weather shelter that we do, this is one aspect of what Gateway does to reach into our community – to touch on what Dan was saying. It’s a wonderful community.

Chris: It's awesome what you guys are doing. Marcel, I want to want to come back to you. You mentioned the warming shelter. How did that journey of becoming a warming shelter in the community begin?

Marcel: Okay, that's a great question. That happened, I think right around the time Dan came, because Dan said he joined us 7 years ago. Very interesting story actually. At the time that it happened, I was the executive pastor here at Gateway. That was my first four years of ministry here in that role. We have been blessed here at Gateway with a relatively large facility. We joined on to the old Christian school that was here, so we have a lot of classrooms. We have a gym and so forth. And one day, a guy by the name of Jesse was wandering in our lobby, of our church. I happened to be in the lobby at the same time and I said, “Hey, what are you doing here,” and stuff like that. And he says, “You are the last church that I'm visiting Abbotsford and I am looking for a place to host an extreme weather shelter,” because currently they were down the road at the MCC and they were running out of room. So he says, “I've been to every church. You're the last church. This is my final cold call. Are you guys at all interested in hosting an extreme weather shelter?” And I probably spoke a little too quick, but I said, “If that's not the job of the church, I don't know who else is going to do it. So absolutely we're in.” Following that, then we went through all the proper procedures that take place within the life of a church. But that was the beginning where it's like, how can we say no to hosting a shelter for those that are homeless in our community? So from the time he came to our church to about a week and a half later, we were having 30-40 guests living in our gym.

Chris: Wow.

Marcel: That were out. So that was a very quick process. It's one of those things – you gotta think before you speak, well, I spoke before I thank. That's the terminology. And here we are, eight years later, still doing it. And by the grace of God, it has transformed who we are as a church. So that's how it began. The first year, we were under the umbrella of another ministry, called 5 and 2 ministries. Their philosophy was very different on how to do a homeless shelter than what we could accommodate. They were a very low barrier ministry, meaning that they permitted drugs and all these type of things to happen in their shelters. Due to the fact that we also have a Montessori school that rents our building, we have kids on our property all year round. We said we can’t have a low barrier, we have to have a very high barrier shelter, meaning no drugs period on the property. So that's when we made the transition of going from under them, 5 and 2, to taking it on as our own ministry and developing it ourselves. So one year was under them, the last seven years has been under Gateway to host and to lead it. 

Chris: And Dan, this all starts happening as you land at Gateway. It's a new church. It's a new community. What's your perspective at the beginning of the journey? Something you were excited about? How are you taking this all in?

Dan: Like Marcel, I think it's one of those things like how can the church say no to helping people in need. So I was super excited about it. My sister actually worked, at that point, at the Salvation Army, which was just down the road from us, involved in some of their homeless outreach and things like that. So I had heard for a while her perspective on the whole situation in Abbotsford, and what was going on. So having the church step up into that role was super exciting for me. Like Marcel said, it definitely had its challenges. It opened everybody's eyes very early on. Whether it was finding things in the parking lot, whether it was showing up to do worship practice and somebody’s sleeping at the front door, all that stuff that came along with this, that nobody knew about. We were rookies and we had no idea what was happening. No idea what we had really signed up for. We said yes, here we are, God send us. That was where we found ourselves.

Chris: It's cool, it takes that pioneering spirit a little bit to see the need and respond. I love Marcel here like I just spoke and said, “Yeah, we'll do it.” Better in this case to ask for forgiveness than permission, I guess.

Marcel: In this case it was.

Chris: So fellas, one of the things that we were talking about at the beginning of this season of the podcast was” what are some of the questions that we wish we had asked or wished that we had known to ask at the beginning of our justice journeys. I'll start with you, Marcel, what's something that people won't say about caring for the homeless as a church, but it would be a helpful starting point in trying to address some of the urgent needs that we see in the world?

Marcel: Oh, that's a great question, Chris, because churches have asked us that. And I'd say number one is the question… it's not more of a question, it's more of a statement. It's messy. This type of ministry goes outside the box of the norm of what church ministries look like. You are dealing with people who overdose. You're administering Narcan. This past season we had one of our guests pass away in the shelter in our gym. We are dealing with drug paraphernalia on our property, continually. I think if anybody asked the question of: is this a wonderful, tight-knit, clean ministry? I would say you have to ask the right questions, because it's not. It is a messy ministry. It is long nights, late hours, tiring. Some of our staff have been physically abused, punched, we had a broken nose, all these type of things. 

It's a messy ministry when you look at the surface. But when you dig a little bit deeper, you see the grace of God. You see human depravity and you see how the grace of God can just get in there and begin to change ever so slowly. But change begins, change that happens when they see and experience the community and what that looks like. 

Chris: That's great, Marcel. And for you, Dan, like from your perspective, same question. What do you wish you would have known to ask or what are some good questions to begin to think about at the starting point?

Dan: I mean, I think for our journey, had we asked all the questions, we probably wouldn't have started. Had we known all the barriers, all the obstacles, all of the struggles we would have had… I imagine, had Marcel gone to council and said, “Hey, we're going to face all these obstacles, but I want to go anyways,” people would have said no. So I think that a little bit of naivete is great. I think Marcel hit it as well. That it's not neat and clean and tidy and wrapped up in a bow. We're dealing with people and people are inherently messy and whatever, but we're also dealing with people at their worst. So it's not clean and tidy. It is very messy. It's just not your typical ministry that runs one night a week and that's it. I think the one winter we were open for 90 some what percent of the days of the winter. It's a full-time work. 

Marcel: But I think what Dan says there is right. I think if we would have known all the answers to all the questions, we wouldn't be where we are today. I think some of it just has to be figured out while you're doing it, because you can't know all the questions when you're dealing with addictions, when you're dealing with homelessness. Every night’s a mystery. You don't know what's going to come up, what's going to happen. So I think that's very true. I think being a little naive going into is probably part of the blessing and what got us to where we are today. 

Chris: I want to drill into that a little bit, cause I'm envisioning as this journey is taking place and you've got incidents with violence, and broken noses, and you're finding drug paraphernalia, and those are real, real things. What's the pivot? How do you adjust your trajectory in confrontation with those – I don't want to call them obstacles – they're just things that happen along the way. But what does the adjustment look like? What does the learning look like in real-time as you're doing it?

Marcel: I think the learning in real-time is just having a better understanding of the people who the Lord has blessed us with to work with. We've come to the realization, here, that it is not our job to break them from addiction. It's not our job to get them into counseling. It's not our job to fix their marriages. We have been called to give them a warm bed on a cold night, a hot meal, and a breakfast. And if time allows, we will wash their clothes for them. That's all we've been called to do. And I think when we realize that that's the parameter in which we work, the assaults will happen, the broken windows are going to happen, we're gonna find paraphernalia on our property every day. That's just the reality of it. But I think we have to keep going back and saying, what is our call? What is the purpose? If we can provide 30 to 50 people a warm bed on a cold, miserable, blizzard night here in Abbotsford, which doesn't take much for us to call that. That's the win for us. And by the grace of God, the next night we can do it again. And the next night we can do it again. That's how we pivot. Our staff know there's a possibility this could happen. There's a possibility I could be yelled at, I could be sworn at, I could be punched. We know that. So we go in knowing that. Now, practically speaking, we put in security cameras just in case. Because you don't know. So those are some of the things that we've adjusted over time. But, a warm bed, that's what we're called to do. And if we can do that, success.

Chris: Dan, any thoughts on that?

Dan: Yeah the idea that, again, that people are messy. But, like Marcel said, we're called to be a light in the darkness. I think that darkness becomes all the more evident when you're in these situations. We're called to be a light in that darkness. We're not called to do anything more than that. We're not, like Marcel said, we're not called to change these people. That's not our job. That's up to God. We can take care of some of these physical things and we can share the gospel with people that are sleeping in our gym, but we can't change their hearts. That's not up to us. Once you understand that, then it allows you to take things and strive a little bit. 

Marcel: But I also think, Chris, there is only so much one can do. We provide all our staff with full training. They all know how to do the Narcan and administer that. We send them for all first aid training. So we take all the basics and we say, “We're going to equip you the best that we can to do the ministry that God has called us to do.” But it's very unpredictable. You can't practice for an assault. We just say, “When an assault happens, here's the protocols afterwards that we take.” But we can't prevent it. That's the messy side of addiction. Because one time they were having a wonderful evening, and they were having good conversations, and so forth, and the gentleman just snapped like that. You can't predict that. You can't plan for that. That's addiction. That's the messy side of it all. But by the grace of God, that gentleman came back the next night again. Things were restored and repaired. That's the nature of an extreme weather shelter working with the homeless population.

Chris: Marcel, you've been in this work for a while now. I'm wanting to hear from you, do you have a story about… You've shared some of the difficulties that have happened along the way, but is there a particular story that jumps out? That, yeah, it was difficult, but the b-side to that might be: but this is where God was working in it. Do you have a story like that?

Marcel: Oh buddy, we have lots of those stories. This past – I believe it was in December, early December – we had a guest… We call them guests, that's our terminology for them. We give them the dignity of saying, “You're a guest, come.” But his name was Martin. Martin was an older gentleman. He didn't really know his age, just because of all the things that were going on in his life. We believe he was probably about 65 – somewhere in that age bracket – and he came to the shelter. He only came maybe once or twice in the season so far. He was relatively new to us as our guest, so we didn't know a whole lot of his story. But the night he came, he came sober, he came alert, he was decent for what we were to expect and we were having good conversations. He went to bed fine, all this kind of stuff, no problems. At about 4 o'clock in the morning, he wakes up and he sits down with our staff member and they have a piece of cake together, which is kind of cool. That's not abnormal for our guests to wake up at odd hours of the morning and want to have cake. Our staff is up the whole time, 24/7, with our guests. They were talking, and they started to talk about faith. What does faith mean, who Jesus Christ is, and so forth. Our staff member asked Martin, “Martin, do you know who Jesus Christ is?” And Martin says, “I absolutely do. He's my savior and I believe in him.” Two hours later, he overdosed in our bathroom and died. 

Sad story in the end, but a God story in the beginning. That the Lord opened up us, and gave us the opportunity to just talk faith and what does that mean? You can't plan that stuff, Chris. That's God appointed timing. It made the whole situation of dealing with Martin's passing, knowing that we've had the conversation and knowing where he stood in regards to his faith and so forth, and the impact that the shelter had on his life, even though he's only been there just a couple nights. So that's one of the stories that gave us a little bit of hope and say we can do this again. We’ve got another night coming. We’ve got another season coming. We can do this.

Chris: Yeah. I want to give Dan a chance to respond to the same question, but Dan you wrote an article for the Banner that was shared earlier this year back in January. There's a line there that I want to use to set up the question for you. You say, “Seven years in, continuing to serve as a place of refuge isn't easy, but despite the challenges, Gateway remains committed to its choice to say ‘yes.’” Where’s God working in that yes?

Dan: I mean, like Marcel shared at the beginning, we're all here because we said yes. It was a resounding yes when we were asked to serve and that's what's brought us here. There's not just the extreme weather shelter, there's other things where we've said yes and figured it out as we go along. Whether that's some of the work we did with the flood relief stuff. There's a bunch of different things that we've said yes to and not fully understanding what we're committing ourselves to. I think that is what we're called to do is say yes. When God calls us, our answer is meant to be yes. I think back to when I sat down with Marcel and some of the staff to write my article for the Banner, I was really trying to find some of these stories that point at that depravity and the darkness. But every time they’d share a story, there’d be a: “Yeah, but it was such a great thing and it was an awesome experience.” Every story they shared ended on that note. Whether its that story that Marcel just shared about Martin or these other stories that always came back to that. All the stories ended on a high note. None of them were left in the darkness. None of the stories ended there. They always ended on a high note. That, to me, was very encouraging and exciting. 

Just a few weeks ago, actually, I had an interesting experience. I'm part of the worship team at Gateway, so I show up every week to set the stage for worship practice. And there's a gentleman half asleep in front of the side door. So I chatted with him for a minute and asked his name, whatever. He said, “Yeah, I'm just waiting for the shelter to open.” So that was fine. And then, not two weeks after that, I'm doing my groceries and I see him sitting in front of the superstore with a sign that says, “I'm hungry,” and then whatever “can you help me?” All of a sudden, as I walk past he’s like, “Hey, you're the dude from the church.” And I was like, “Yup.” And he's like, “Oh, you know, I was there. It was great,” whatever else. But, to see that it has that impact, and makes a memorable impact on him, and on his journey, again it just reaffirms that we're making an impact, no matter how small. It makes all those other things worth it.

Chris: We do these conversations, we do this podcast to hopefully encourage conversation and curiosity in churches across Canada and the US that might want to embark on similar journeys. So, Marcel, what advice would you share with other churches who might be in a similar spot, who might want to begin this journey? What do you say to them?

Marcel: My first response would be: do it. Just try it. But I know that's me speaking before I'm thinking again. That's my fault, man, every time.

Chris: It's so on brand, I think it's great.

Marcel: I know, but it gets me in trouble. But honestly, seriously, do it. We are called, as a church, as the body of believers, the bride of Christ, to be a light on the hill, to be an example, to make the name of Jesus known. That's what we're called to do. We know that hosting a shelter or working with the homeless is just one way to do that. This isn’t the only way, there are so many ways and I know churches across Canada, North America, whoever’s listening, are doing great things. A lot of churches are doing great things. This is just one way that we can do it, just because of where we are. But I would encourage churches, if they have a large homeless population in their community, to reach out to the other agencies in town that are already working and seeing where you can respond and get involved. It's such a blessing. The messiness is overshadowed by the blessing very quickly, which is so, so wonderful. So that would be my first response. Just engage, get your hands a little bit dirty, understand a bit of the homeless population. 

They’re people. They're not just the down and outers. They're not just dirty. They don't just stink. They're people created in the image of God, who have a tough time. We have – here's an interesting story – we have a lady that comes to our shelter with her child. Our shelter is not designated for children, it's 18 plus, but she comes and we allow her to come. She works a full-time job here in Abbotsford. She works in the mall at the food court. Full-time employed and she says that she has to make a decision every day: do I feed my kid or do I find housing for my kid? And she says, “I gotta feed my kid.” That means she comes to our shelter. It's not the typical stereotype. It's not all the drug addicts that come, it's just people who are having a hard time. 

The flip side is, we had a lady, a couple weeks ago, who is a registered nurse. Her husband left her. She found herself on hard times, and she dabbled in drugs, and she got addicted, and she overdosed. We were able to give her the Narcan and stuff. But these are the people that are there. They're not just your typical down-and-outers who have been always addicted to drugs. There's a story that goes with every person that comes to our shelter and I would challenge churches to get to know the story. Understand the story. There is a reason why they are the way they are. There's a reason why they need to be in a shelter that night. Take the time, pause, slow down. And hear their story, because when you hear their story you see the person for who they are. That is where the ministry begins. So that's what I would say to churches. That's where you start.  I think that's where you start. Then from there, you trust it to the Lord and say, “Lord, if there's an opportunity here, give us the heart to follow and be led that way.”

Chris: Dan, for you, what's the advice that you’d offer?

Dan: Understanding the gifts and the abilities that you have as a congregation and figuring out where that fits. I mean we were blessed with a large building, and we’ve got a willing congregation, and the homeless people are our community. We’re right in the thick of it. So you think all those things together and it led us to where we are. But not all churches are located in the same vicinity of the homeless population as we are, not all churches have a large gym that was relatively unused. So it's a little bit of understanding the things, the assets, the blessings, that your church has and then figuring out how you can use those effectively. 

Marcel: Yeah, and I think too Chris, if I could just add this, I think often what churches think is: we either got to go big or go home. It doesn't have to be big. It could be one, two people that you're working with and ministering with. That can have an enormous impact in somebody's life. Big isn't always better. Sometimes the one-on-one can have such powerful impact in people's lives.

Chris: Marcel last question. I'll just put it to you. Where can people go to learn more about the work that you and the folks at Gateway are doing in this area?

Marcel: They can go to our website. They can call me. It's all there. But this comes, go to the website. We would love to talk. This has been a phenomenal journey for us as a church. We are by no means experts. We have so much, Chris, we have so much to learn yet. We’re infants in this, trying to figure it all out as we go. But I do think we have gained experience over the seven years that can be a blessing to other churches who are curious as to what it's all about. 

The way that it works for us is twofold. We have a phenomenal church who has been gracious enough to say, “Let's keep exploring this, let's see where this goes, we're willing to walk the journey and learn as we go.” But we also have a phenomenal staff and volunteer team that work unregulated hours. Because it's not open every night, there's certain parameters. All of a sudden they get the call and they’ve got to be here. They rise to the challenge every night. So I just have to give a shout out to the volunteers and the staff that work at our shelter. God has given them huge hearts for this ministry and for the people that they serve. 

The other thing I just want to say is: talk with your government. This whole thing that we do here is 100% completely funded by BC housing. We have a phenomenal partnership with the government, with BC Housing here, who fund our staff, who pay for the staff, who pay for improvements to our building as needed. No strings attached with the government, which is kind of unique with the government. They just say, “If you're willing, we're happy to help out. What do you need?” So props to them as well. And I think, look at opportunities, of how you can partner there even with the government. Because they are even seeing the light of Jesus through our partnership with them. We're impacting BC housing and the work that they're doing. They've even now come to us to say, “How do you guys do this? What you're doing, teach us.” So that's a very unique situation that we find ourselves in as well. It's just amazing how the Lord opens up opportunities and opens up doors. So I'd say call us.

Chris: Awesome.

Marcel: I don't know how else they can do it, but call us. But also, as I say, we're no experts. So check out the other agencies in your community, the Salvation Army and others who are doing the work and who are by far greater experts at all of this than we are. We're just a small church doing our thing. But we would love to share with anybody who has questions on how to do this.

Chris: Thanks so much both of you. Our guests today have been Dan Veeneman and Marcel de Regt. They are serving at Gateway Community Church in Abbotsford, serving homeless and vulnerable populations. Thank you both for your time. Thank you both for sharing your stories with us. God bless.

Marcel: Yeah, same to you, Chris. Thank you for the invite and thank you for asking the great questions. Much appreciated.

Dan: Thanks for having us. It was great to chat and hopefully we've put a bug in people's ears and people catch the desire and catch a little bit of something out of what we’ve shared.


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