Moving In
By Zoe S. Erler

On first glance, the varying shades in the Rana family raise questions. They get even more puzzled looks when people find out where they live. But the Ranas like questions, especially when the questions give them an opportunity to talk about Jesus to those in their nontraditional community.

Varun Rana, a ruling elder at New City Church (PCA) in Hamilton, Ontario, met his wife Amelia on a missions trip to North Africa, shortly after he converted from Hinduism to Christianity. An immigrant from India who was studying engineering at the University of British Columbia, Varun remembers receiving a spiritual interest survey in one of his freshman classes. At the very end of the survey, there was an option to indicate interest in a Bible study. He checked the box and soon found himself in a Campus for Christ small group where he learned about the claims of Jesus.

“What really spoke to me was the idea of grace, that salvation is a gift,” Varun explains.

Raised in an upper-caste Hindu family, Varun says he had grown up driven by academic achievement, performing in part to “get God’s favor.” Understanding that Christ had performed on his behalf compelled Varun to commit himself to Christianity, at least in part. He admits that initially his pluralistic Hindu background led him to believe that one could adhere to the best parts of multiple religions.

“Reading through Romans helped me understand that [Christianity] is different; Christ is exclusive. It’s not Jesus and other gods. It’s only Jesus.”

By the time Varun met Amelia, a Philadelphia native studying psychology at McGill University (Montreal), he was passionate about sharing the gospel. He discovered this same fervor in Amelia, and the two connected quickly, married in 2009, and settled in Vancouver to begin their life together.

For the Ranas, living in an apartment complex has provided easy touchpoints with neighbors, in the laundry room, the elevator, or over invitations to afternoon tea.

Popping the Christian Bubble

It wasn’t until after some friends’ wedding that the Ranas decided to join MoveIn, a network of believers living intentionally in Christian clusters among “the unreached, urban poor.” The engaged couple had invited mostly friends they had met at their apartment complex.

“It was an incredible witness,” Varun explains. “The gospel was preached over and over at that wedding. You had university friends from Campus for Christ rubbing shoulders with Muslim refugees from the Middle East. That pushed us over the edge. We had to do it.”

Early in their marriage, the Ranas had decided they wanted to live in a way that enabled them to rub shoulders with neighbors from all backgrounds. But as young professionals and upwardly mobile, they soon discovered the natural pull toward homogeneity—their social circle was mostly upper-middle class friends from church.

“We found that we were getting sucked into a Christian bubble,” Varun explains.

MoveIn, a Toronto-based initiative, identifies “patches” around the world with high densities of people who are poor and have never heard the gospel. One of those areas is a neighborhood in Hamilton, Ontario, a little less than an hour from where the Ranas were living at the time.  

A border city, about halfway between Toronto and Buffalo, Hamilton gathers immigrants from across the globe—Somalia, India, Middle Eastern nations—as well as young professionals.

Economically, “it could be compared to Detroit,” Amelia says.

The Ranas liked the diversity of Hamilton, the grittiness. They also liked that there were a few other believers already planted there in affiliation with MoveIn. In the fall of 2011, they boxed up their belongings and moved into an apartment complex in the heart of Hamilton.

Laundry Room Evangelism

One of the commitments of being a member of MoveIn is meeting weekly to pray for one’s neighbors. Over the past seven years, the Ranas have met with the other members of their MoveIn team (currently made up of eight adults, and five children) every week, with the exception of a few holidays. From this support base of regular people—nurses, engineers, teachers, stay-at-home moms—service and the love of Christ flow outward to those around them.

Until recently, the Ranas and most of their team lived in the same apartment complex, which provided easy touchpoints with neighbors in the laundry room, the elevator, or over invitations to afternoon tea, usually initiated by those from Middle Eastern countries.

“Initially, we thought that we would have people in our place. But actually, it turned out to be the opposite,” says Varun. “They would usually be more comfortable if we were in their space.”

The cultural and language barriers many of their immigrant neighbors face have provided unique opportunities for the MoveIn team to serve, whether it’s helping someone read their phone bill or teaching them how to use an ATM machine.

Over the years, they’ve hosted Christmas and Easter parties, picnics in the park, and prayer walks around the neighborhood during Ramadan.

Buttressed by the Local Church

Two years ago, the apartment building was flooded and all of the residents were forced to evacuate. The Ranas reached out to their church—New City Church—and members responded by opening up their homes for those who needed a place to sleep.

New City, a 10-year-old church plant in Hamilton, has entered into the work that the Ranas are doing in their neighborhood.

“Other people in other MoveIn communities feel a pull, like they have to choose between MoveIn or church. And we feel the opposite,” Amelia says. “We feel that our efforts have been tripled, because our church has always been right at the front. We’ve had some neighbors that we’ve walked with that have pretty high needs and that’s when we’ll send a message out to the church and people will show up with couches or food or making a meal schedule or a driving schedule.”

Inversely, the congregation has benefitted from the Ranas’ example, says New City’s associate pastor Moses Lee.

“They faithfully and humbly remind us of what a life that is sold out for Christ looks like,” Lee says. “I know very few people who live out the ideals of self-sacrificial service and intentional missional living as well as Varun and Amelia.”

Several years ago, a fire in one of the adjacent apartment buildings gave the MoveIn team a fresh opportunity to love its neighbors, rummaging through their closets to share water, blankets, granola bars.

A few days later, one of the men who lived in the building approached one of the other MoveIn team members and asked him if he was a pastor. He told him, “You must be a pastor because I always see you and your friends doing good things in the neighborhood so I know you must be Christians.”

That man has since become a Christian.

Choosing to Stay

Since moving to Hamilton, the Ranas have adopted one daughter from India, given birth to another, and moved out of the apartment building and into a house.

“There’s a lot to lose when you move out of the apartment building,” Amelia admits. Not having to put on a jacket to visit a friend, for instance. But they had been wrestling with bed bugs for two years, and were also longing for a larger space to show hospitality. By choosing to purchase in Hamilton rather than moving out to the suburbs, the move has proven to be a statement to their neighbors that they are sticking around for the long haul.

Seven years in, there have been ups and downs, and plenty of opportunities to be served by their neighbors as well as serve. 2016 was the year that both of their daughters entered their home, and Amelia admits it was tough.

“When we moved in, we were educated and healthy and upper-middle class, and no kids and we had all the time and energy in the world. Any problem that any neighbor had, we were on it. And then our apartment flooded, we had some illnesses, we had two children in one year … we had the hardest year of our lives! Then we were actually meeting our neighbors as people. They were showing up at our door with meals, and they were seeing our kids having meltdowns and how we were responding to it. I feel like that’s when it actually started to become community.”

These days, they are navigating life as parents of two, working jobs, participating at New City, and still gathering for prayer every week with their MoveIn team.

Amelia says, “People know that all eight of us are connected. They don’t know that we’re a team and we’re part of MoveIn, but they know that we’re a community they can be a part of, that they can rely on.”

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