A Motley Crew

Posted Dec 05, 2011 by 9 Comments

Tears welled up in my eyes as the song continued to play. My throat tightened up, and I had to stop singing.

The Spirit is clearly here. It’s palpable, and I’ve been long overdue for nourishment of this kind. All around me, people belted out the old hymn, How Great Thou Art…the familiar melody echoing off the walls and raised ceiling of this simple, rectangular sanctuary.

People mingle about before the start of a Sunday night church service. All the chairs face inward, toward the simple communion table found in the middle. The band is nestled in the back of the room.

I know they aren’t always popular in “contemporary” churches these days, but I’m a huge fan of the old hymns so rarely heard nowadays. They contain spiritual meat often lacking in many of the modern tunes I hear. And the emotions they evoke cut through the layers, straight to my soul.

The configuration of seats at Sanctuary is such that all the chairs face inward, toward the small, understated communion table set up in the center of the room for each Sunday night service.

Wayne is new to Sanctuary also, but this didn’t stop him from inviting me to hand out food with him the following night, or to play a little 8-ball later that week.

As the song kept playing, I looked around at the faces of this motley congregation, and my heart nearly burst. This…this is the body of Christ. There were clean faces and dirty, combed hair and disheveled. There were designer clothes and tattered. And nearly every color of the ethnic rainbow comprised the congregation of 90 or so. But we all worshiped as one body, including the two canines in attendance…a medium-sized hound dog mix and a tiny, yap-happy terrier.

Next to me sat Wayne, an older guy with blonde hair, broad shoulders and a thick build, though he “used to be a lot bigger.” In another time and place, he’d no doubt be manning the helm of a Viking ship.

As soon as I sat down next to him, he started chatting me up, asking me about my story, telling me about his. And by night’s end, he invited me to meet him the following evening to hand out food with Bread of Life ministry in “probably the worst intersection in Toronto…filled with drug addicts and gangs.” I wholeheartedly agreed.

Rediscovering True Community

I’m here in Canada for a month, hanging out at Sanctuary, a church established by Greg Paul about 18 years ago. His heart is for the disenfranchised, whether they’re the homeless, the addicts, the prostitutes, the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community or any other combination. Sanctuary is a come-as-you-are type of place, and everyone, and I do mean everyone, is welcome.

That said, you never know who’s going to walk through the old wooden doors of the place.

I didn’t catch his name, but French was clearly his native language. His clothes were dirty, as was his face, and he was bundled up in multiple layers to combat the dropping temperatures outside.

We had started into the singing long before he came walking into the sanctuary. Initially, he stood just inside the door for awhile, but he could hold his tongue no longer, despite the service that was well underway.

Sanctuary is nestled between tall apartment buildings on nearly every side. The church building may be diminutive, but the ministry is powerful. If you look closely, you can see their official sign scrawled in red letters.

“This guy!” he muttered loudly in his thick accent, further compounded by the slur produced by whatever substance was coursing through his bloodstream. “This guy, Greg Paul! I love this guy!”

The man knew he was interrupting, but he didn’t care. He wanted to express himself, and his love for this man who has become Jesus’ hands and feet in the midst of an impoverished subculture here in Toronto.

He wrapped his arms around Greg, who was still sitting at the keyboard as part of the church band. Then he leaned over and gently kissed Greg on the top of the head in a sign of genuine affection.

He went around, kissed a couple more familiar faces and finally knew his time was up.

“Sorry about my accent!” he hollered on his way out the door, which was met with a few chuckles from the congregation.

Open Doors and Open Arms

I liked the guy already. And I liked Sanctuary too…a Christian community unfazed by such impulsive encounters. If this is the way they roll, then surprises lie around every corner, which is just how I like it.

But more importantly, this initial encounter seems to capture the essence of the place, where all are received as members of the Sanctuary community. Arms are opened wide in welcome, and heads are readily available to accept moist lip-prints, even if an odor of alcohol accompanies those lips.

Love is here, and it’s clearly two-sided.

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Next Steps
    • Think about your own place of worship. Truly think about how you would react if someone, who appeared homeless, came into your church. What action might the church take? Open arms, or closed doors?
    • As the temperatures begin to fall, buy a bag of socks or a few blankets and go downtown to hand them out to "friends from the street." You'll be helping them battle the cold, but more importantly, you'll get an excuse to break the ice and converse. You may be uncomfortable at first, but you'll be glad you did. Now think about making it a routine.
    • Pray for the staff at Sanctuary, and for all the organizations helping folks from the streets. Pray for strength, patience and guidance as they perform this very important work.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Stephen Crane is a year-long fellow with World Next Door. He has a bachelor's degree in theology from Calvin College and a master's degree in journalism from Indiana University. He has a passion for overlooked places and people and would snowboard at all times if it were possible!

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  1. chuck easton said... 


    December 5th, 2011 at 10:23 am  

    Thanks Stephen, keep writing and telling your stories. Your stories and experiences cause us all to draw closer to HIM.

  2. Amy K. Sorrells said... 


    December 5th, 2011 at 11:06 am  

    “This…this is the body of Christ.”


    Can’t wait to

  3. Patrick Sullivan said... 


    December 5th, 2011 at 5:25 pm  


    you have beautifully captured the essence of the Spirit of GOD that flows through this place.

    • Steve-O said... 


      December 6th, 2011 at 4:37 pm  

      Thank you Patrick..
      My ongoing struggle up here is to do justice to this place, so I appreciate your words.

  4. Steve said... 


    December 6th, 2011 at 4:40 pm  


    Can’t wait to read more.

    For those reading who attend Grace, I echo Stephen’s next steps about buying socks. In fact, there is a box at Grace (across from student ministries east) right now collecting socks (among other items) to hand out in NYC on a short term trip. To those on the street, a new pair of socks or hygiene kit is often times more valuable than food.

  5. Jim.M said... 


    December 7th, 2011 at 9:35 pm  

    Having been there several times I am no longer caught off guard by the palpable presence of the Spirit in that place. You are on Holy Ground take off your sandals my friend. Greg, Patrick, Ken, and several of the friends who worship there have sharpened me. You are in fro an increadible month as are the readers.


  6. Joanna Moon said... 


    December 15th, 2011 at 11:32 pm  

    Mmmmm…Lovely. Thank you for describing our community with such insight and care. Reading this reminds me of what a blessing it is to be here :)
    Ans th

  7. Joanna Moon said... 


    December 15th, 2011 at 11:34 pm  

    Shoot, I clicked submit to early! Ha!
    I mean to say… And thank you for being part of the community for this month! You’ve been a blessing to us.
    I look forward to reading the rest of your articles about Sanctuary, India… and beyond!

    • Steve-O said... 


      December 19th, 2011 at 10:48 am  

      Thanks for your encouraging words, Joanna…in BOTH comments. :)

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