On Saturday nights in Edmonton, Alberta, a group of 10 to 12 Christians heads out carrying backpacks filled with sandwiches, toiletries, blankets, and thermoses of hot chocolate to one of the city’s seediest strips of highway. But the most important thing they offer is their presence.
These believers seek out a population avoided by most — prostitutes, the homeless, the addicted. Their small gifts and genuine interest have opened many doors for ministry to those on society’s bottom rung. In fact, “providing care for the uncared for” is the ministry’s tagline.
“We give them our free time, and show them that we care for them and that God cares for them, that they’re never alone. Because Jesus came to Earth and cared for people on the outskirts like this, we do too.”
For the Least, its name inspired by Matthew 25:40, was started in 2011 by a handful of 20-something believers in Edmonton who were passionate about serving the homeless. It has grown to a multichurch, multidenominational effort. And Jeff Kerr, pastor of Crestwood Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Edmonton, is fully on board.
Humanizing the Downtrodden
“For the Least wanted to make this more than handing out food — they wanted to make it personal,” explains Kerr. “They sit down with the homeless on the street, listen to their stories, offer to pray, and develop relationships. They’ve become well-known downtown.”
In recent years, For the Least has used Crestwood’s facilities as a staging area to prep meals. And Crestwood’s Prime Timers, its seniors group, make sandwiches regularly to prepare for the Saturday-night ministry. Teens and others receive feedback from the Saturday-night ministers on how to pray for specific people with specific prayer requests going forward.
“I’m so encouraged to see a wide range of ages in the congregation want to be involved in this, from teens to retired people,” said Kerr. “They see loving a neighbor as worthwhile and are willing to give up a Saturday night joyfully.”
It is compelling, he says, to see a shift of perception occurring, for the downtrodden to be seen not as a nameless, faceless problem to be dealt with but rather as individuals who reflect the very image of God.
“This [ministry] is a tangible expression of the love of Christ to places in society Jesus Himself was willing to go,” said Kerr.
The Gift of Presence
Edmonton is a growing city of some 1 million residents, many of whom have recently arrived to find work and make a better life for themselves. But the downside of this surge is a growing street population.
Alex Bosker, youth pastor of Beverly Alliance Church in Edmonton, helped found For the Least along with Luke Thom and Rachel Lees. He first became interested in street ministry on a mission trip to Vancouver in which participants lived as the homeless, sleeping outside and interacting with addicts, prostitutes, and homeless people.
Bosker was struck by the humanity of his peers on the street, realizing that they were simply human beings and just as important as anyone else.
“Usually people look away from these people,” said Bosker. “But I realized on that trip how much they are everywhere and that you can’t avoid it.”
He and several friends returned to Edmonton desiring to start a ministry to the underprivileged in their city, using simple kindness as their calling card.
“In our city, social agencies give a bed and a sandwich and that’s it,” said Bosker. “But we give them our free time, and show them that we care for them and that God cares for them, that they’re never alone. Because Jesus came to Earth and cared for people on the outskirts like this, we do too.”
Bosker and his teammates met a man named Paul on one of their Saturday-night visits recently. Paul, addicted to alcohol and drugs, had never had anyone stop and talk to him out of kindness. He saw himself as a messed-up person, too far gone, and was so moved by the men’s presence and genuine interest in him that he hurled the full can of beer that he was holding to the ground and cried. “No one had ever asked to pray for him before,” explains Bosker.
This isn’t an isolated occurrence. Each week Bosker’s team sees hardened, cold hearts that soften with joy at someone wanting to hear their story.
The ministry sees conversions monthly and refers people to local churches for follow-up care. But many of those they talk to remain caught in the cycle of addiction and dysfunction. Bosker’s team continues to preach the Good News regardless: “God loves you and wants to work with you in your circumstances.”
A Way to Serve
This ministry to those on society’s outskirts is not without risks. The volatility of the population and its environment prevents some from participating.
“We don’t allow people younger than 18 to come out with us,” said Bosker. “And there have been times we’ve had to leave the scene quickly to keep people out of trouble. You see the same car circle the block 30 times and realize it’s a pimp watching you.”
Yet, For the Least is making an impact. And it provides a way in to a complex, seemingly unsolvable problem.
“The homeless issue is so grand that you don’t know where to start,” says Bosker. “So when you give people a specific opportunity to serve they get excited about it.”
Now, along this stretch of highway known for homelessness and sex work, For the Least’s team is greeted with, “Hey, you’re the Christian guys with the backpacks and lunches!”
The ministry behind the scenes is wonderfully diverse, reflecting the makeup of the Body. “We have old ladies who knit hats and socks for us,” says Bosker. “The young adults couldn’t go out on Saturday night if the seniors didn’t donate, prepare, and pray. It speaks to missions and to sending in general. It’s always intergenerational.”
To learn more about For the Least, visit bit.ly/1plZJI2.