It’s one of the coldest days in March, and a bitter west wind whistles between the old community housing blocks of Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood, but Andrew Au and Dorothy Wong are focused on the streetscape, on the incongruity of the new developments, the rush of the streetcars, the way pedestrians carefully navigate the slush and road salt on the narrow sidewalk.
They’re braving the elements not because they’re trying to get anywhere, but as an exercise in opening their senses to the city around them.
Au and Wong live in Scarborough. They don’t visit this part of the city often, but were drawn in by a two-day conference on ministry in the city co-sponsored by Wycliffe College and hosted at the headquarters of Toronto’s storied Yonge Street Mission, a couple of blocks away on Gerrard Street East.
Au and Wong are members of Scarborough Chinese Baptist Church. Au says their church is struggling to find ways to be engaged in its own neighbourhood, now that most of its members drive in from exurban communities like Richmond Hill, Ont.
How should the church reach out to the people who live around it, now that many of their members are not part of that community?
Au and Wong, followed by a small group from the conference, turn west off Sackville onto Dundas Street East. A weary-looking Orthodox church shares the corner with three new condo developments, and Au says the change visibly overtaking Regent Park reminds him of patterns of gentrification and inequality in Scarborough.
It isn’t the most typical exercise to be doing at a conference on urban ministry, but then most urban ministry conferences don’t feature discussions on the unconscious impact of background sensory information on human perceptions of place.
Led by Mark Gornik, director of the Harlem-based City Seminary of New York and author of To Live in Peace: Biblical Faith and the Changing Inner City, the conference, held March 13-14, was designed to offer tools to those like Au and Wong, who are looking for new approaches to doing ministry in cities.
The March 14 afternoon session focused particularly on how paying greater attention to physical senses through which humans perceive the world yields insights that can be invaluable to those hoping to minister to the people around them.
“Ministry in the city begins with what we experience as whole persons,” Gornik explains to the group of over 40 Christians representing a wide range of denominations from across Toronto.
“Before it is anything else-a job, a role, a strategy, or a project…ministry in the city is a prayerful way of being present to our neighbours, our families, our co-workers, our community and to God. It is being present to where we are.”
Gornik notes that in order to be able to reach out effectively to the people around them, ministers need to have a deep knowledge of the context in which they are serving-one that is often made up of years of accumulated knowledge received through the senses.
Being mindful of the world around them, of the smells and textures of the city and the ways those smells and textures reflect and shape the lives of the people, is one way those involved in urban ministry can approach this work more intentionally.
Gornik stresses the importance of conscious practices, like walking through a neighbourhood while praying for it, as a way of using the sense to approach urban ministry.
In a 2014 essay for Faith and Leadership, an online resource for Christian leaders, Gornik notes that doing so can help Christians see “church life intertwined with the creative and economic life of the city,” which in turn allows them to see areas where parishes can act for the betterment of the city and its people.
“Being able to do ministry is really to wonder, and have a sense of wonder and imagination,” he says.
Which is why he ended the session by sending the group out into the snow and slush, to wander the streets to practice noticing and praying for the city.
In an interview with the Anglican Journal following the session, Angie Hocking, outreach program co-ordinator at the Church of the Redeemer (Anglican) in downtown Toronto, says she found the session useful.
Hocking, who has been following Gornik’s work for some time, says it underlined the importance of paying attention to the physical context in which ministry is done.
Despite being at Redeemer for five years, she says she is still having little “revelations” about the place and the people who live there, brought on by the knowledge she has accumulated over the years.
“You never really have a full grasp on things-you have to always continue to tap into your senses…and remember that things are changing around us, and that we are to…try to evolve and move with that,” she says.