The people of Deer Lake, Newfoundland, have been long-time supporters of the Vera Perlin Society, a group serving people with intellectual disabilities in the province since 1954. The local chapter has been meeting regularly at St. Paul’s United Church since 2014, when the congregation’s official board agreed to adopt the group as an outreach ministry.
The clients of the group have a range of intellectual challenges, with some working in places such as the town’s recycling depot. “While they are able to hold down a job, if you asked them how much money they have made, they would not have a clue,” says the Rev. Myles Vardy. “They do not know the value of a $20 bill, how to cook a meal, or make decisions without help.”
Vardy has met with many of the chapter’s clients, as well as their families and caregivers. In these discussions, one concern kept coming up. “That was, ‘Who’s going to look after my son or daughter after I die?’ Or from the clients themselves, ‘What’s going to happen to me when mom and dad die?’”
The need for supportive community housing for Vera Perlin clients was clear. At the annual congregational meeting in February 2017, Vardy was directed to apply for funding from Embracing the Spirit (a United Church program that nurtures new forms of ministry), to help with the cost of a feasibility study on creating such a facility. The Deer Lake Area Supportive Housing (DASH) Inc. group formed to plan for the facility. It includes Vardy, congregation members, plus two teachers with the Western Memorial Regional Health School of nursing, who are compiling demographic information about the needs on the ground in the area.
In August of 2017, Embracing the Spirit awarded a $4,000 grant to St. Paul’s for that feasibility study. DASH is now working on a business plan for the facility, currently envisioned as an octagonal building, with 25 to 50 individual rooms on the outside, centred around a multi-purpose common area.
“This would not be an institution where everything is done for the people, but one where everyone would have a contribution to make, to their own ability,” Vardy says. “Those who could, would be able to do the kinds of things they are doing now to help out,” such as laundry or taking care of the recycling.
The next big step is for the congregation to make some difficult decisions about its own future. Vardy explained the current church property is too small to accommodate the envisioned housing complex. To allow it to be built, he says congregation members will be asked to sell the current church property, in exchange for having worship space included in the new facility, which could be built on Crown land in the town.
“Providing care and ministry to the intellectually challenged would then be the mission of the congregation,” explained Vardy. “There is no real new blood coming into the church, so this project could keep this congregation alive.”
He is also looking at how to tend to the spiritual needs of Vera Perlin clients. When he was a minister at Cochrane Street United in downtown St. John’s, clients of the Stella Burry Foundation(an organization for adults dealing with poverty, homelessness, and health issues) would hold services at the church. “They were very powerful services,” he recalled. “Oftentimes, instead of a sermon, people would stand up and share their good news stories from the last month. That was as powerful a gospel message as any seasoned preacher could deliver.”
Vardy has more than 28 years of ministry experience, including five years in institutional ministry, which involves a combination of hospital and prison ministries. He is confident that governments and other groups will financially support the construction of this housing complex, once DASH gets its business plan in place.“Governments and other agencies are not going to give money to churches, unless they are doing something in the community,” he says.
He notes this project is important not just for Vera Perlin clients, but for the future of St. Paul’s. “I’ve been doing lots of thinking and praying about this,” he says. “This may be a hurdle that either means we win the gold, or we are kicked out of the race.”
—Paul Russell, Communications Coordinator with the Office of the Moderator and General Secretary.
New and diverse approaches to ministry are constantly cropping up across The United Church of Canada, and Embracing the Spirit wants to hear about them. If you are involved with a group that has found an innovative way to approach church, let us know, by filling in the Tell Us Your Story form, found at the bottom of the Spur Innovation page.